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Rhyming For A Cause

| April 27, 2007

Somali musician K’naan plays a rhythmic stew of hip-hop-influenced poetry that borrows from ancient Somali culture as much as it does from contemporary American influences. A refugee who fled his home at 14, he retains the quiet dignity of his heritage and yet fires lyrics with a swagger that has been compared to Eminem. At 28, the slight, curly-haired performer lives with a foot in both worlds and works to pour the dissonance of such an existence into his music.

“I often have a hard time defining my music,” says K’naan, seated on his tour bus after an explosive show opening for Stephen Marley. “I can’t really call it one thing. It’s something that comes out of real experiences.” And experiences don’t get any realer than surviving the bloody civil war outbreak in Mogadishu. Growing up in an area dubbed “river of blood,” a young K’naan witnessed the brutalities that accompany war and oppression. He was accustomed to clouds of AK-47 bullets ripping through the air and grenades and fires swarming the streets. He and his friends were often chased by militia, most were killed. When he and his family escaped on the last commercial flight out of Somalia in 1991, he was torn about leaving relatives and friends who probably wouldn’t survive.

It was that pain and the blood-stained memories that drove him to create music that would bear witness to all the people left behind. “Writing songs is therapeutic,” he says. “It’s pain first, then you write about it and it becomes a song. And that’s it. You transform the pain into art.”

Leaning back in an easygoing manner and frequently sliding into a gentle smile, K’naan’s demeanor belies the jolting potency of his lyrics. His just released CD, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (Sony/BMG), quivers with the rhythms of resistance. From the oft-quoted “What’s Hardcore?”: “We start riots by burning car tires/they looting and everybody starts shooting/bullshit politicians/bullshit politicians talking about solutions/but it’s all talk/you can’t go half a mile without a roadblock/and if you don’t pay at the roadblock you get your throat shot/So what’s hardcore, really?/Are you hardcore? Hmm . . . ”

Of course, the tune’s resemblance to gangsta rap is exactly the point K’naan wants to make, and despite the djembe drum beat, it’s worth noting Nas’ Illmatic served as a blueprint for the tune. He listened to Rakim and Nas tapes as a child, mirroring the seminal MCs’ lyrical precision, despite not understanding a word of English. Two decades later, K’naan recreates his childhood experience with a nod to his roots as well as his North American influences. With only guitar and percussion backing the album’s 18 tracks, the purity and purpose of his words shine through. “I wanted to do something that encompasses my two worlds,” he says. “I use the drum of Africa and the guitar of North America because I’m half and half. I’ve lived 14 years in North America (in New York and Toronto) and 14 years in Somalia.”

After the CD garnered Canada’s 2006 Juno Award for best rap recording as well as a BBC World Music Award nomination for Album Of The Year, the U.S. finally gets to hear The Dusty Foot Philosopher, and it’s like discovering relief from an illness that has menaced your body for so long – you’ve stopped searching for a remedy. That illness is called American Top 40 music, and K’naan’s finely crafted songs provide an exhilarating reprieve. Opening with the soft strum of an acoustic guitar and building into a rousing drum beat, K’naan shoots out half sung/half-chanted lyrics on “In The Beginning,” tackling freedom and the value of children while easing into a danceable groove. It’s a studied outline for the CD’s song structure: hard-hitting words against a catchy, melodious background. “I Was Stabbed By Satan” follows the same pattern, with a soothing, bouncy, rhythm embracing painful lyrics. “‘I Was Stabbed By Satan’ is the perfect conflict. The words are really hurtful but the music and melody is joyful,” he says. “I can’t make dark music with the lyrics I have because it creates immobility.”

Immobility is something K’naan, which means traveler in Somali, tries to avoid. Despite refusing to classify his music as political, it has served to promote change. Whether it’s capturing listeners who don’t like hip-hop or calling out the United Nations for its incompetence, as he did with a poem at its 50th anniversary concert, K’naan has inspired awareness. “I don’t consider myself a political artist. I hope there’s a time when I’m not protesting,” he insists. “I think there’s a certain sanctity that’s not in politics. I just say things that are honest. I don’t think about inspiring change when I write a song, I just think about that moment. I think it’s arrogant to expect a change.”

Listing “the two Bobs” (Marley and Dylan), as well as Fela and Somalia’s most famous singer/poet, Magool, as heavy influences, it seems protest music will remain a part of K’naan’s repertoire. Poetry and protest is in his blood, as Somalia was called the “land of poets” by the ancient Greeks, and K’naan’s grandfather and mother are famous Somali poets. It’s brilliantly illustrated in the standout “Soobax,” an uptempo anthem that asks if you should cry or dance.

“I’d like listeners to examine where they stand in terms of justice,” he says. “Are you part of those that hinder or are you a part of those that help?”

On that note, this is the last “Foreign Exchange” story, and I’d like to thank all the readers who have followed this column’s musical journey for the last five years. I’ve enjoyed the chance to introduce new sounds and new cultures.

– Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Category: Columns, Monthly

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