Straight from the pages of the new issue of RAGGED, we’re thrilled to give you an exclusive excerpt from our back cover story with K’NAAN! Be sure to grab the full issue download (for free!) for the rest of the article and more photos with K’NAAN. (Full issue download here!)
K’naan doesn’t look like he’s survived a battlefield. The 34-year-old musician is a little mousy, with wild hair, a mustache, a goatee and a penchant for jaunty caps. The spark in his eye makes it easy to forget that instead of dodging spitballs, K’naan spent his childhood dodging bullets in war-torn Mogadishu and, later, fighting for his family in Toronto ghettos. It’s the kind of history that grants instant street cred but also creates one heck of a specter to live up to. As both a rapper and an ambassador of sorts, he is expected to speak truth to power…even when he’d rather be chilling out.
However, it’s hard to imagine there’s even time for that. K’naan is currently gearing up for a North American tour, including a stop at the Voodoo Music Experience festival in New Orleans, and preparing to release his fourth album, Country, God, or the Girl. The new album is less about political inequality (re: Country) or faith (re: God) as it is about heartbreak (re: the Girl). But all these things represent central elements of the artist and his powerful, albeit unconventional, path to success.
In 2010, K’naan appeared on the mainstream radar in a big way after a remix of “Wavin’ Flag,” off his acclaimed last album Troubadour, was chosen as an anthem for the World Cup, garnering millions plays and some serious global chart climbing (the single made appearances on no less than 25 international sales charts).
“I was forced to answer for [“Wavin’ Flag”] because, now, the song kind of drags you around to all of these places that you don’t necessarily want to be at,” K’naan remembers. “I was doing this really pop TV music station in Germany and this girl— you know, sweet, blonde, German girl—was asking me a question and she goes, ‘So, I hear that you used to be a rapper,’ and, god, I was cracking up so hard. I just said, ‘Well, that’s the craziest rumor, isn’t it?’ I don’t know how to handle things like that, man. I just have my jokes about it.”
It’s the not the first time K’naan has confronted stereotypes or been met with confusion. His music has jumped styles and themes throughout his career, hopping from early Eminem anger (“Dusty Foot Philosopher”) to East Coast hip-hop (“Nothing to Lose”) to piano ballads (“More Beautiful Than Silence”) to African tribal chants to Bob Dylan covers and everything in between. What’s stayed constant is the message, K’naan’s distinct storytelling: of his family, of struggle, of war crimes and inequality, and of growing up as an outsider. It’s created music that is purposeful, exotic and culturally kaleidoscopic.
With so many missions, it can be tricky to find the real K’naan. On one hand, he is a fire-breathing messenger speaking truth to power, but he’s also an average guy who kids around and has an air of genuine humility. “It’s a compliment that I get interviewed by people, even papers that don’t interview musicians, but sometimes I just feel like not being anything like that at all,” he says. “Some days, I’m far more interested in watching Anchorman on the tour bus than [talking] politics.”
K’naan’s myriad musicality has much to do with his upbringing. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in Mogadishu, Somalia, during its civil war, his earliest memories are riddled with bullets and a genuine uncertainty of life. Friends were killed or conscripted, or they fled. At age 13, K’naan and his family got out and joined relatives in New York before moving to a Somali immigrant community in a Toronto suburb.
“I made music to help myself,” K’naan says. “I was going through a very difficult time. I had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and I was a teenager just dealing with the anxiety of a new country, a new language, a new world living in the ghettos in Toronto and being an immigrant. There was no way out, it seemed, except to write songs. And so I wrote poetry and melody, and it helped me survive, helped me live.”
(Continued in the new issue of RAGGED…)
posted by Staff