The Present Meets The Future: An Interview With K'Naan

It’s difficult for Americans to understand the political and personal strife many in the world are facing today. We witness filtered views of places like Iraq and Afghanistan through highly desensitized news reports, and still can’t imagine what life must be like in these war-torn areas. Now try to imagine a place that is more dangerous than either of these places. A country where pirates still patrol the waters, where children handle AK-47s like toys and unbridled destruction, merciless warlords and ruthless terror are a regular part of everyday life.

That place is Somalia, and aspiring musician and MC K’Naan was raised in the country’s most dangerous region: Wardhiigleey.

Incidentally, Somalia is also “The Nation of Poets,” and K’Naan is the grandson of Haji Mohamed -- one of Somalia’s most famous poets. He also the nephew of famed Somali singer Magool, so it’s only natural that the combination of music and poetry would become an outlet for him to tell the stories of his troubled youth and his unique view on life. If hip-hop is the language of the street, there are few MC’s in the world who can compete with the credibility of K’Naan.

But while hip-hop is the section where his latest album, Troubadour (February 24, Octone/A&M), sits on record shelves, it’s far from a traditional hip-hop record. Recorded primarily in Kingston, Jamaica where K’Naan was granted unprecedented access by his friends Stephen and Damian Marley to their father Bob Marley’s original home studio at 56 Hope Road and the legendary Tuff Gong studios, Troubadour blends samples and live instrumentation for a sound that’s both rooted in traditional African melodies. Featuring guest musicians like Damian Marley, Mos Def, Chubb Rock, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and even Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, it’s as much a testament to his life as it is the multitude of Western influences he was opened up to in Somalia -- everything from Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti to Eric B. & Rakim.

K’Naan now lives in Toronto via New York, after his family received a visa on the last day the U.S. Embassy was in Somalia (the region is so bad, the Embassy is no longer there), and on the heels of Troubador being released, we spoke during his brief stop in New York.

Being from Somalia what’s the culture status like there? You said in your bio that regardless of political climate there you can always find concerts or local theatre, but is there culture coming from outside places like America?
K: No, it’s completely closed up to outside influence. Somalia has always been like that, very careful with culture, very much a little too proud of just their own thing. You’ve got sounds coming from different regions, but the truest thing about Somalia is that the general social discourse is had through poetry. It is the most, if not the most poetic nation in the world. It’s hard to explain to someone who is not from there, but everything from law, to violence, to social scenarios is discussed only through poetry. So it’s like pizza to Italy, poetry to Somalia. Our national dish is poetry.

So does it cross over a lot into music similar to what you do?
For music, yeah. You can’t be a musician in Somalia unless you are a poet.

Listening to it on your record, your cadence seems to be from more of a poetic standpoint than straight hip-hop. Did you take from that and try to implement it in your music vs. trying to be a hip-hop artist like the way we know it here in America?
Well, I didn’t really do either. I just did exactly what is a reflection of me, the most honest thing. There was no conscious effort to ever do anything a certain way. It just came that way, and I was raised as this person who is around poets and around a mixture of some tough streets and some incredibly eloquent poetry. The mix of it is kind of what’s become me.

K'Naan (Featuring Chubb Rock - "ABC's" (Remix)

Was your grandfather a big influence? Was he alive when you were creating music?
Yes, I wasn’t creating music, but I was young when I was around him and he was revered. I’d walk with him down from his place to our home for lunch and the street would part. He was that kind of character. So, he was an influence but my auntie too was famous. She was an influence as well.

You can’t really pigeon-hole your sound, so I’m wondering if you think that you’re being labeled hip-hop artist for more marketing purposes?
Yeah, it’s convenient, but I don’t know. People will try to do what they do. I’m not really even involved in the naming process, or the categorizing, or the marketing of anything. I keep my music more distant from all of that. But I agree that it isn’t just one thing at all.

The reason I bring it up is because American hip hop became so big because it was the voice of the street and the underprivileged. Or even Jazz or Punk Rock or Blues, it all came from social circumstances. And now with the world getting smaller, from a world perspective our hardships – no matter what they are – are really no comparison to so many other countries and what’s going on. I was wondering if you think that’s going to change the face of hip-hop or whatever it will become? The fact that we’re on a world scale now and we’re going to hear voices coming from Somalia or Arab countries expressing a whole new set or social strife.
Yeah, it’s going to be very interesting for hip-hop. I think there is at least a part of me that is a hip-hop representative voice. I remember like a year ago I was walking around backstage of Rock the Bells, they had like Rage Against The Machine, Nas and the Wu Tang Clan and it was crazy. But I remember just walking by them and this crowd of performers that I used to listen to back in the day and then one of the guys from Wu Tang was like “Yo, that’s the future of hip hop.” And it was interesting because when you try to compare hood just as far as hard scenario, there’s nothing really harder where you can go than where I come from. So hip-hop has a pretty interesting scenario facing it now. Especially with the wide release of my music, it’s like, either you’re going to have to ignore me or you’re really going to have to reassess.

Yeah, and looking back at hip-hop and all those other genres I mentioned is, when their message really started to taper off is when they started to reach a mainstream success level. Presuming your success, do you feel a sense of urgency to bringing it back to the people of Somalia? Have you been back there since you put out records?
No, I’ve been to the area, I’ve been to the region, but you can’t go to Somalia. You can’t go to where I come from.

You can’t go there even as a citizen of the country?
Nobody can go. The U.N. is scared to go. It’s hard to explain. People just have to read about Somalia to understand what I talk about, or understand what I say in my music, because it sounds fantastical. Forbes Magazine a couple of months ago did the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world, and you have Afghanistan third, Iraq was second, and Somalia was one. So, you’ve seen a little bit of Iraq on TV, just imagine what would be more dangerous than that. It is not a place you can up and go and leisurely visit. But my music is heard there.

Do you think about going back there as an artist, to bring your voice back to the people?
Yeah, just because I need it myself. I just need to be among the people. And in fact, I have planned. I was going to go very recently, but whenever I decide to go it becomes more of a life and death situation than anyone else, because I’m pretty well known there too. So it becomes a risk for anyone who chooses to go with me, and that’s a tough decision to make. My mother’s completely against it, but I’m trying to find a way to go.

Do you have family there still?
I’ve got brothers and sister… cousins, aunt, Grandma.

How many languages do you speak on the album?
Just Somali and English. There’s a song I say a word in Swahili and a word in Arab, but those are just a word, I don’t speak them, I just speak Somali and English.

Are you going to try and bring any of the guest musicians into the live performance?
You know what’s crazy? I have a song with Kirk Hammett from Metallica. Ridiculous. He did 17 guitar solos and we had to sift through and choose. Apparently Metallica heard my music and they approved. Because you know Metallica can’t do anything outside of Metallica… so I think this is Kirk Hammett’s first known thing outside of Metallica ever. I feel like that’s an honor. And anyway, he and I are talking back and forth and he wants to come play with me on some shows.

That would be amazing. Maybe you can get him and Damien on the same stage.
Damien is coming because that’s just natural, he’s a friend of mine. We hang out without playing shows.

How did that relationship with the Marley’s come about?
Well, Stephen Marley was being interviewed by somebody and I just happened to be in the room. And they asked him, “you’re friends with K’naan, how did you guys meet?” And he was like, “Through God.” It was one of those things when people just feel a connection musically they really see me as a family to them, akin to the sound their family is known for. Not sound wise in that sense, but what it represents. The spirit of it.

Well, it seems that there is a spiritual connection to what Bob Marley was to Jamaica, at the time it was a place that no one really wanted to go to.
Or knew about. And so in the unveiling of the world that I unveil those guys have connected to it and taken up my thing for themselves and were close in that way. Eventually I became the only artist that Steven Marley ever handed the keys to Bob Marley’s house.

That had to have been pretty incredible. I know it’s not something you can put into words, but you got to touch the organ he used?
We recorded music with the organ; the sound from Exodus and Legend, and the same beats we used for our album. We used his guitar that he had played it a lot. His home, his couch, we just laid around making music, walkomg around in the garden. It was very much like a crazy movie. It was like a weird existence for that time, it was like three months.

That had to be awesome though.
It was. Awesome is a good word for that.

The Present Meets The Future: An Interview With K'Naan