K'naan: Somali Hip Hop Star Raps About War Stories, Crisis At Home

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As a native son of Somalia, K'NAAN Warsame didn't need to look far for creativity, as he was surrounded by numerous gems of artistic treasures in a country known as "The Nation of Poets." But he also didn't need to look far for child soldiers lumbering M16s across their tiny spines like backpacks, as the smells of carnage and desperation still linger in the air of his birthland.

Being one of many who boarded the last commercial flight from Somalia, K'NAAN decided to dedicate his life to creating great music that's able to harmoniously cross various cultures and genres.

After being inspired by the golden era of hip-hop, K'NAAN began to craft his poems against the backdrops of instrumentation, thus resulting in landing a deal with A&M/Octone Records to record his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher. Most recently, many are beginning to recognize this remarkable wordsmith as one of the rising stars in music, specifically because of his participation in "The Cipher" at the 2008 BET Hip-Hop Awards.

Holding his own in a circle of bona fide hip-hop stalwarts that included A Tribe Called Quest lyricist Q-Tip and UGK alum Bun-B, K'NAAN waxed poetically about everything from the war stories from his days in Somalia to a variety of rappers who should change their names to Suzy. It's this adaptability that has the masses awaiting the MC's second offering, Troubadour, due to hit stores February 24th.

Featuring an array of artists that include Maroon 5, Damien Marley and Mos Def, K'NANN's new eclectic palette of folk, blues, soul and hip-hop should be a stimulus for the current struggles of our musiconomy. Currently touring the U.S. in preparation of his album's release, K'NAAN plans to take his skills as a versifier to a higher plane, so the whole world can hear him loud and clear.

What was it that drew you to hip-hop?

I guess having some poetic skill from childhood kind of set the pace for the dream. But eventually, I think when I wanted to really do it was after listening to Illmatic by Nas. It's really not just hip-hop. Bob Marley inspired me; Fela Kuti inspired me, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone. Great music is inspiring.

As someone who talks about social issues in your music, is there anyone who inspires you politically?

I don't know man; politics doesn't really inspire me so much. People who change politics inspire me. People who change the face of the world as we know it, that's what inspires me. So, it could be anybody from musicians to Obama; I don't really even care. Obama, I know he's a politician, but I look at him as someone who's changed things. Inspiration to me is not doing the same thing.

In this new era of an Obama administration, do you think a lot of MC's are going to be more political with their music?

Well, maybe not political, but definitely a little more considerate with their lyrics; because now the bar has been raised. Hip-hop voted Obama into office, so what that does is put a mirror in front of the rapper's face now and it says, 'alright, well now you've got to reexamine yourself,' because you talking the talk, but what about the walk?

As a young man who came from the conflicts in Somalia, do you think a lot of today's rappers could have survived the conditions that you came from?

[Laughs] That's tough to say. Well, one thing I do know for sure is people adapt to their circumstance, humans have the capacity for survival. But, if your character has been built here in North America and all that you've been equipped to survive is the North American condition-whether it be the ghetto or struggle out here-then you can't survive over there. But, because my character has been built from [my experience], I can survive here.

With music sales taking a hit here in the U.S., why do you think the genre of hip-hop is surging strong in places like Africa, Asia and Europe?

I think different priorities, you know? But you know, Saul Williams explained it the best. He said the last 10 years or so, hip-hop has been republican. He said that whenever somebody tried to do something different outside of what the popular cliques were doing, they called you a hater; just like republicans called anybody who was doing something else a terrorist. But I think that it's coming back now, though. I think the democracy in hip-hop is coming back. People are becoming individuals again in hip-hop, because the last few years, it was just straight uniform; you were either this or you were either that, and there was no room to be an individual. But I think it's coming back to that individuality now, which is great.

How did boarding the last commercial flight from Somalia affect your life?

It made my life more urgent. It made me think in terms of the now. It made me think you can't take nothing for granted, because I could've been left behind. So, everyday that I have now, I think of it as a day borrowed, and I have to do something special with that day.

What do you think about the situation in Somalia?

Well, I'm involved in what's going on over there because my family is still there. I'm on the phone with them all the time. So, whenever something crazy happens, I have to deal with it; whether it be emotional or financial or whatever. So, I very much don't feel like I'm too outside of it.

Can you talk a little about your new album?

The album is called Troubadour. Troubadour was this 12th century French poet who used to go around to different towns revealing new sounds to different people. I feel like this album does that for America. I think it's going to be a real musical contribution to the musical planet. I think people who get the chance to hear it will truly appreciate it. It's real music, real art, real lyrics; I never preach in my music, I just speak what I see.

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