K’Naan : Beyond Waving Flag
By Eric Soul - Fri Dec 16, 8:19 pm
Mid 90’s New York city, a time when the spoken word and battling was a scene flourishing significantly, every Wednesday @ the State of Union, highly regarded underground MC’s and poets gathered to show off skills, exchanging prose’s, network and socialise. Local legend Wendy Day introduced a new MC to the intimate congregation, unknown to them then; the skilful MC stepped on stage to do his thing…” Yo Wendy!”
K’naan remembers one of those cats exclaiming, “I thought you said this kid was African.” A hilarious thought. A sense of excitement is palpable when mentioning this artist name amongst industry insiders such as journalist, A&R, promoters, broadcaster, Radio/Club DJ’s, Hop Hop headz and poets alike. There is something utterly different about the Dusty Foot Philosopher. “This is tenfold American Gangsta Rap minus the glorification” CBS A widely documented story of exile, he was born as Keinaan Warsame in the war-ravaged east African country of Somalia. “Home for me means the moments between tragedy and beauty.” His family were in the last commercial flight to ever take-off from Mogadishu to the US. Following an attempt to reside in the US, his family finally established in Toronto – Canada. “Canadian authority are more friendly” he simply states. Theses elements have set strong background foundations which lead him to embark on an incredible creative journey.
K’naan is currently gaining a worldwide reputation as a sharp and eloquent activist, a visionary “Africanist” & a highly intelligent interviewee disguised as a gifted lyricist, an engaging and charismatic Hip Hop performer… or is it the contrary? All on the strength of a series of mesmerizing live appearances all over the globe since the beginning of the millenium and an instant classic album. The DustyFoot Philosopher. Through the years, a mix of pure innovative talent, fierce determination and being at the right place at the right time, the K’naan master plan looks like a slick engineered series of impeccable moves. The creative journey took him from underground hip-hop joint in NY and Toronto, to an invitation to join a group of international musicians living in exile from their homelands to participate in a UNHCR Commissions event held in Geneva. K’naan explains, “I basically called out the UN for its failed relief mission in Somalia.”
His performance triggered a standing ovation, followed immediately by a collaborative CD project financed by UNHCR – “Building Bridges” – recorded and directed by Senegalese super star Youssou N’dour in Dakar. In Youssou’s studio, K’naan shared creative intimacy with a dozen of other African artists who like him, were living in exile in various part of the world, artists such as the then unknown pan-African super group Saintrick & Blanche Songo and Rwandan nu-soul artist Herve Twahirwa a.k.a. “V” from Soul ID amongst others. For the album Building Bridges, K’naan recorded two highly socially charged tracks that signalled the arrival of a different kind of artistry. The country had a spiritual impact on the Toronto MC: “The physical beauty of it is incredible, and it’s got such a warm community of people,” he says. “I think it’s the centre of music in the universe.” A few years later, another track recorded for a War Child benefit project caught the attention of Award-winning production team Track & Field (Nelly Furtado).
K’naan, the hip-hop artist, is a meticulous and determined individual, he wanted to create his own original sound so the newly formed gang worked hard in the basement to finally come up with a collections of 18 tracks that became The Dusty Foot Philosopher album. A yummy recipe of well-crafted organic productions, complete with African chant, samples and drumming, the whole album is infuse with hard beats, funky guitar riffs, coated by instantly memorable melodies intertwining with thought-provoking social poetry, tales of war and survival leading on incendiary political commentaries emphasising empowerment messages, he celebrate familial love and values painting in words a beautiful struggle.
The African MC’s album is an inspirational and impressively entertaining body of work that should be on everybody s iPod and CD shelves, whatever music taste you may have or whichever side of the world you may come from. Those days, the Somali ex-child soldier turned rapper/poet, shares the stage all around the globe with the likes of revolutionary Dead Prez, conscious lyricist Talib Kweli & Mos Def, Senegalese pin-up Akon and UK nu-soul act Floetry, not forgetting his highly successful world tour supporting Damian Marley amongst others…
It is on stage that it all makes sense, this is where K’naan stands out as one of the most vital artist of his generation, the experience of seeing him live is a whole other story, as there is no DJ, no drum kit, no bass player. With just djembe’s, guitar, laptop, hype man and a microphone, here is an artist able to captivate a global mainstream audience for the best of 80 minutes.
I was fortunate to witness the artist impact at several shows, at every single one, he control the whole room firmly in the palm of his hand, the crowd sings acapella the infectious choruses of his songs in a call n response fashion. His stage show injects a distinct and edgy African vibe into the masses. Udogg, the physically commanding master drummer, confided me one day how he worked for years trying to translate traditional African rhythm into pure hip-hop beat. The hard work paid-off very efficiently, rumbling bass lines, hard crashing thumbs burst out of the speakers in the first second of K’naan live show, at first, the audience is bewildered, wondering where is the sound coming from? “It cannot possibly only be these 2 guys making the beats?” I heard once in the crowd “Where is the bass coming from?” Then, shoulder-strapped with his own djembe, K’naan voice comes out, clear, passionate, melodic, simple words creating complex and sophisticated rhymes and metaphors, his message of peace is an effortless delivery falling perfectly on the beat. K’naan performance is a delightful Hip Hop Master class inclusive of crowd interaction and accapella laced around tight and precise musical arrangements.
The Guardian didn’t spare any compliments when reviewing his performance with a rare 5-star tag: ”K’naan is the future of hip-hop, a performer with quiet dignity and immense authority. K’naan deserves to become the next African superstar.” In an era where the world has found the most obvious and convenient scapegoat to justify modern urban violence in Hip Hop itself, western media rapidly took notice of K’naan story. Somehow, it feeds an increased fascination, a compulsive hunger for tales of violence and urban drama occurring within worldwide black communities. His lyrics immediately drew media attention, on his track “what’s hardcore” he raps; “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive / I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit.”
A few years back, Canada biggest Hip Hop name, K-OS, took a dislike to K’naan when the MC flew to Kenya to shoot the “Soobax” video. In his hit track B-Boy Stance, K-OS rapped: “They took cameras to Africa for pictures to rhyme / Over; Oh, yes, the great pretenders / Religious entertainers who want to be life savers.” K’naan snapped back via mixtape on a track called Revolutionary Avocado: “I don’t want to have to do this / I’m trying to be a peaceful poet / But the warrior in me just can’t, can’t sit back / …You the all-knowing with a beer bottle / Wishing you was Plato and me Aristotle? / …Suburban Negro turned hip-hop hero / Is there a reason he really hates me, though?”
Nevertheless, unlike his Hip-Hop peers, K’naan neither does view his survival against real, rough and murderous violence as an “achievement”, nor use it as a marketing tool to gain “street cred”. “My knowing violence is not an accomplishment to me. I never use it to say this is tougher or anything; nor is my survival an accomplishment. What does that say if my survival is an accomplishment? Does that mean that my friends that died and didn’t survive are less accomplished?” The schizophrenic attitude of media towards hip-hop artist and violence is a topic he is looking at with irony & lucidity; “Although they tend to dislike hip-hop artists who glorify violence — they themselves do the same thing… I think it is funny; I think it is hypocritical and the hypocrisy needs to be addressed” he says. “God protected me so much, in so many different circumstances and instances. The biggest protection I received was not that I didn’t get shot — but that I didn’t shoot anybody, I didn’t kill anyone,” K’naan says. “That’s huge. If you kill somebody, you carry his or her burden. I am very fortunate. I have friends who’ve had to [kill] — family too.”
He has recently completed a global promotional tour and he is now juggling his new fatherhood status (K’naan just had a baby daughter); with increased media attention and the duties of an imminent full US style release of The Dusty Foot Philosopher album. Three [seemingly] un-connected facts need to be taking into account when listening to K’naan. • His grandfather, Haji Mohamed, is himself a gifted poet. • “Keinaan means the traveler; Warsame means one who carries the words of peace,” he says. “Where I come from, you have to live up to your names.” • Aged 11, K’naan ran a deadly footrace through Mogadishu. Sadly, his friends were shot and killed but K’naan found an escape and survived. It may be that, K’naan is simply following a high real life purpose with tremendous effect, he is living for the second time in order to do what he was born to do…this time around it is on a massive global scale. Some people may even call him a prophet.
Born out of the black people struggle, Hip Hop is an expressive art form that captivated the minds of millions of people all around the world for more than 3 decades, it created new hopes for generations followed by other generations who connected with its empowering message. As it stand now, in economical and cultural terms, it is fair to recognize that Hip Hop exceeded anyone expectations, it is a dominating and influential force in the commercialized era we are living in.
Even if today it translates into a multi-billion dollars industry, in the US alone, Hip Hop has failed to implement what it was once teaching us. As K’naan puts it in his own words: “Hip-hop, in the rest of the world is so much more based on struggle, something that so much hip-hop in North America has lost.”
K’naan,we salutes you!
Read K’naan in his own word:
*What is the African Way?
Everything sprang out of the African Way, and in the origin of everything, you find traces of the African Way. From civilization, religion, philosophy to music and dance. This was a tribute to that essence of nature. Plus, I got a dope tune called The African Way. *On Darwin’s theory of Evolution. I disagree with Darwin. He believed that humans evolved from a more primitive creature with human like characteristics found in Africa. I believe that no human is less human than another human is, not now, and not then. This concept of human evolvement, and the crediting of Africa as the source of the more primitive creature, has also helped justify the raiding and raping of Africa. I’ll explain how. Many writers, before Europe’s first invasion of Africa, wrote about a “dark continent” with creatures that have “two heads” and “one leg”. This is how most of early Europe first thought of Africa and African People. Now, in the psychology of linguistics, a dark continent says that it is a primitive place, without the light of enlightenment, the image of the creatures with two heads represents an untrustworthy people, and that they only have one leg produces the thought that these creatures must only be half human. This language is what was largely used to prepare European people for the greedy invasion of Africa. Darwin’s theory of evolution, is still used today, to justify a dog eat dog world. Where it is a man’s quest to survive against nature, and man. And to be honest, I think that’s what’s most primitive.
*On Colonial responsibility.
In the west is where the burden lies. If you consider change, don’t think of Africa as [a contient to] pity, or Africa as carrying the weight of the world. Africa does and has suffered because of these powers. If you caused these problems, then you are in fact carrying the burden. That’s why I think it’s the political responsibility in the west and a human responsibility to the people here, for them to want to change things. Your forefathers here have caused tremendous amounts of problems that continue to exist. All that Africa is asking for is get your hand-off of her neck. *On artistic social responsability. If you look around the world, and I don’t know what the purpose of individual artists getting involved were, but if you look around the world, artists have always been the ones that rally behind a cause of justice. That’s the case where I’m from. That’s the case in Latin America. That’s the case anywhere. Anytime there is some kind of injustice going on, the artist communities are some of the first people to give up their time for that cause, for change. I don’t know what the individual artists are doing this for, but I do know the nature of an artist is to be sensitive to these things.
*On his message.
It’s simple, it’s really rooted in justice. My music is quite specific and personal, and it is rooted in a struggle that’s very personal to me, so therefore I feel a certain responsibility in connection to the world and justice. This comes from having to justify my moments in existence, wanting to continue to justify my life. Because, in the sense of statistics, it shouldn’t have gone this long [K'Naan is referring to his escape from Somalia]. I kind of need to continuously do something with purpose so I can feel good about living.
*On Africa & Hip Hop.
“Hip Hop in Africa is made out of nothing, and for nothing. Hip Hop in the United State is made out of dreams and for everything. Hip Hop in Canada is made out of dreams and for nothing.” “I remember I was seven – when rap came mysteriously and made me feel 11 – I understood it as the new poor people’s weapon.” “In North America, I am introducing a culture, in Africa, I am reviving one.” (*) All quotes in this sections are taken from a K’naan google search – all right reserved to the copyright owners.
Troubadour – AM/OCTONE
The Dusty Foot Philosopher – Atlantic Records
The Dusty Foot on Tour – Wrasse Records Drain My Grey Away -
This Is My World taken from Building Bridges CD – available @ Sterns Music Website www.myspace.com/knaanmusic // www.thedustyfoot.com