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Interview: K’Naan – Hip Hop Artist

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In the age of Obama, mainstream rap could really use a facelift. To be certain, rap music is not wholly negative or debasing, but the genre — as a whole — has developed a bad reputation. Luckily, the scent of “change” is in the air.

Far across the Atlantic in the nation of Somalia, Kaynaan Warsame was introduced to hip hop through the lyrical stylings of Eric B. and Rakim. Even though K'Naan could not understand English at the time, his heart thumped along with the pulse of Paid in Full. As fate would have it, music proved itself to be the universal language that transcends all cultures. Soon enough, K'Naan would hone his rapping skills, master the English language, and gain respect across the globe as the “dusty foot philosopher.”

Minute by minute, as the world grows smaller, K'naan's narrative puts an international face on the burgeoning hip hop movement. Upon review of Troubadour, his sophomore release, K'Naan managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry, reflecting on Bob Marley, Illmatic, and his infamous U.N. performance.

Anyone who is familiar with your life story has seen that God has shown tremendous favor over your life. Do you ever sit back and wonder, "Why me?"

I used to. That used to take up a lot of my time. Right now, I just let things be as they are. I learned to just appreciate it and go along for the ride rather than beat myself up over the why's and so on. I'm fortunate. Sometimes, people are just fortunate.

When translated, your first name means "traveler." Do you feel a sense of destiny that your craft has given you the chance to travel over the world and share your talents?

Yeah. I think names are great identity pointers and how we name children is important. I feel that that's relevant to me.

In regards to your professional life, what do you consider to be the ultimate experience on your life journey so far?

The ultimate probably being my return to Africa, after having been appreciated in Europe and North America for the music that I have made, and being shown an even stronger appreciation for the things that I've written about in my life experience. The amount of love that I was shown was humbling. It was the most defining moment of my life.

Many news outlets point to your performance before the U.N. Commission for Refugees as another key, defining moment out of your career. Few details are available about the content of your performance, so what details can you share?

Well, the performance took place in 2001. I was addressing names that I heard were in attendance and so on. I just thought it was a necessary thing to do at the time. I didn't really calculate all that it meant or if I was being brave at all. It was just what had to be done. There was a line that says "George Bush says that this is God's mission. So how could that end all wars and mob lynchings? This is what America goes to war for without the consent of its people. Worst of all, they bombing a place far away, probably never heard of, where young Americans can show off and take their shirts off." Then I started talking about U.N. fancy suits and things that I might say that might cause me to be sued and blah-blah. 

Was there a specific title to the piece or were you just speaking from your heart?

I attached the piece to a song called "Must We Die," so that was kind of a cry for the injustices for things, like people who call for your assistance and help and then you kind of end up being the aggressor to them. That's what the song is about. At the end of that is what I attached the piece to. That piece itself wasn't called anything. It was just a, you know, what-had-to-be-done kind of piece.

Having traveled the world, you have an international view of hip-hop that a lot of people don't have, for better or worse. Is there a common thread of themes that transcends all continents that you have seen as you travel?

Yeah, there is. There are differences, too. I look at hip hop or any other kind of thing whatever it is — music or otherwise — and I just think you can exhaust that theme no matter what it is. As good as hip hop is, if there is no perspective shift, if there is no feeling of freshness or something new about it, it can kind of just become exhausting. When you go abroad and you see something fresh, it's eye-opening and it's beautiful. The one American perspective that we are all exposed to and the only one that exists is kind of exhausting. However, to the credit of the American form of hip hop, it's great that it is the one-track-minded element that it is, as well, because sometimes in the foreign world you find a corny element, too, that I can't listen to either. You find it rarely — the thread — but you find it. Sometimes it's great and fresh and not corny. 

Do you think there will ever be a day when the lines between the labels of mainstream and conscious hip hop would be blurred?

Well, I don't know. I think that's dependent on what success the albums have. For example, my latest album is exactly what that is, but its success will be viewed on how it reaches people. Troubadour has incredible hook-based, melodic music. And lyrically, it's relevant. It has potential to be on the radio, so I don't understand why you can't do both. I think that is the answer to that question – not the only answer, but I certainly think that's one of the answers. It just depends on success.

With the current political climate, especially here in America, what impact do you think Barack Obama's election will have on hip hop's global message?

I do wonder about the effect his election will have on the entire scenario that is music and politics and the way everything is. The same things which elected Obama are the same feelings that create music like mine or new music from Lupe Fiasco and other artist like that. People are saying, "Enough of the same thing." Artists are being more vocal in saying we need change, we need things to be less stagnant, we need solutions, we need new ideas. Beyond hip-hop, it will be interesting to see the impact his election has on the public consciousness, as well as the collective public feeling and discourse. 

That being said, do you consider yourself a rapper or something larger?

Well, I don't know. Hip hop is pretty large. What I do is different than what a lot of hip hop is. The truth is I touch on so many different elements and feelings of music. In my shows, you'll see more diversity and you'll see more people inclined to the music, because it isn't just one thing and it stirs a lot of different feelings.

Since your music is genre-bending and pushes the envelope, what kind of impact do you hope your music will have?

I hope it's appreciated for what I put into it. I think it's a good moment for people to hear this music. It is one thing to say, "Yeah, I'm tired of the same old things." But it's another thing to do something about it. I feel like I did something about it. This is the nature of my sound. It is kind of new, but it is relevant. I hope it has a great impact. I hope it reaches as many people as possible – not for the reason of me being well-known or anything of that nature, I just really think there's something in the music to be appreciated. 

You tour extensively and your tour schedule often criss-crosses several continents. You've also lived in Harlem, DC, England, Switzerland — a lot of places. What made you decide on making Canada your home?

At the time, immigration was easier on people in Canada than it was in America and we just kind of settled there. Toronto has become my hometown, home away from home. But really, I don't really belong to any one place. I'm a musician. I like not being of just one thing. 

A few years ago, you noted in The Independent that you felt like you were still in exile. How do you feel today?

Well, part of me still feel that way. It's what makes my constant touring and traveling just fine because I feel as though I am never really at home in the true sense. So if you're not at home, it's okay to constantly have your bags packed. Psychologically, it kind of does help me.

At what point did you realize that your music had really made an impression upon people?

In 2008, I was playing a string of festivals in the US and I did a show in Honolulu. The turnout was so amazing! The organizers said they had to open up the back of the tent, which is something they never had to do before. At some point in one of my songs, I was singing to this crowd of thousands and I remember about 70% of the crowd singing along. It was amazing, because I haven't had any albums released in the US, at least not widely. I had no radio support, nothing like that. So I didn't understand how they knew the lyrics. It was a real pleasant and incredibly exciting and surprising moment. So much so, I stopped singing in the middle of the show and just started laughing. My band mates were laughing. The crowd didn't know what was going on. I said, "Excuse me, but I just want to ask how you guys know the song." People started cheering and whatever. It was a genuine moment for me, to actually take that moment and realize it and respond to it. 

Speaking about your debut, what major obstacles have you had to overcome to break into the American market and let your music see the light of day?

My older album was stuck in an old independent label contractual fiasco. There were all kinds of back and forth, push and pull, just to free myself from that so I can make music that gets out to people widely. That was an incredibly difficult time, having to extract yourself from. What you must endure through that process is not an easy thing and I've been going through that for a couple of years. Just the last year I've been free of that.

When you look back at your debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, what does it mean to you today?

You know, they say you spend all your life making your first album and it's really true to a degree. It contains so much of myself, my journey, my anger, my discontent in my melodies. It is a real moment in my life. There are certain songs on the album that I play quite a bit to this day, but I also have a constant growth thing that is instilled in me. Although I have a great deal of love for that album, I don't really live with it. I don't really listen to it, you know what I mean? I'll play a few songs from it, but I let it now live with other people and let other people take ownership of it now. It's no longer really mine.

Over the years, you have mentioned three artists as major influences in your career: Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, and Nina Simone. Of these, tell me how one has impacted your life and shaped your career.

I'll take Bob Marley. I think the amount of impact Bob Marley has had on humanity – just what he's sown and how many generations it has changed and how many people it has raised and how many kinds of causes it has fulfilled – I think that is, like, way more than any musician has ever been in the history of music I think. For me, that is one of the great things about life – we have the privilege to live under the banner in which he's created this music and this ideology and his relentless kind of spirit of justice and so on. I see myself as someone who is a humble student of that world. To have a connection to his world, in a way, for me is incredibly humbling. To have recorded my album in his house and work with his family, his friends and so on is a big thing for me.

When did you first fall in love with hip hop?

I had a crush on it from the early stages when I was much younger and listening to Eric B. and Rakim. That world – it was just a crush, infatuation. But when I really fell in love with it and became inextricable from my life was 1993 when the album Illmatic by Nas came out.

What did you admire the most about Illmatic?

I am a poet by nature, and I saw poetry in what Nas was doing. And I saw that a young black man can express and share the incredible intricacies of his own life and out of all the things that surround him. He painted the American black experience and the ghetto experience in such a vivid manner that I thought if that was possible in the English language, then it is possible for me to do that with the English language and paint the African experience.

For more information on K'Naan, visit his official website: thedustyfoot.com

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About Clayton Perry

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