K’naan: A music legend in the making //
Artists like K’naan don’t come around often. If you’ve listened to his music, you know he doesn’t waste a line; he’s a master of pith. If you’ve seen him live, you know he’s one of those performers who becomes his music on stage, leaving you no choice but to feel it (see: Om Kalthoum, Bob Marley, Beres Hammond, etc.). I recently saw him perform for the fifth time, and hearing “Wavin Flag’” still gets me. Whether it’s a striking story of love lost (“Fatima”) or an energetic World Cup anthem, K’naan delivers emotion with consistent depth, while making it seem as though every word out of his mouth is catchy and pleasing to the ear. Impressive, to say the least, considering English is his second language; and quite a refreshing set of characteristics, considering the current state of hip-hop. In person, K’naan is soft-spoken yet exudes greatness — genuine and laid back in the kind of way that immediately makes you feel at home. I haven’t had the chance to sit or chat with many music legends, but after just a few conversations with K’naan and considering his live show and the catalogue he’s built so far, something tells me he’s on his way, if not already there.
Were you musically inclined as a kid — did you have any idea you wanted to get into music?
No, I was more poetically inclined, but not necessarily musically. Poetry is not something you do in my country, it’s just what is. So I never really thought of myself as a poet, or wanted to be a poet. It’s just the tool we had to communicate. I think I always had kind of an ear for melody, but I didn’t think of it as something I would do in the future.
You immigrated to NYC in 1991. Were there any major challenges you weren’t expecting in coming to and growing up in America?
Obviously there are the usual ones — weather, language, culture, architecture, these things. But for me, I think the challenges were a personal frustration with how the system worked and how we were suddenly the new villains. Teenagers coming out of Somalia all pouring into one city, just because we didn’t really know the behavioral conventions and how to properly work with the system, we were vilified quickly and I began to feel a sense of injustice taking place and began to fight it. And that was a particular challenge for me which led me to a lot of trouble throughout my teenage years. Eventually taking it from the world of streets to music was challenging as well, but definitely less physically dangerous for me.
How were you first introduced to hip-hop? Is it true you learned English by listening to Nas and Tupac tapes?
I heard Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full while still in Somalia. Yes, Rap was my first English teacher. But my second and best teacher, was Literature.
It wasn’t til Nas’s Illmatic that I wanted to make records. I just saw what he was doing as the poetry of the underprivileged and it inspired me. Between that, and my sincere dislike for misunderstandings, I wanted to write songs to explain a few things.
If you could collab with any artist in the world who would it be and why? One dead, one alive.
I don’t really fantasize about collaborations, I’m fortunate I’ve worked with many artists who I admire who are alive, more to come but they will come when the time is right. As far as dead, well that’s just too much to think about.
How has your success helped or how do you hope it helps Somalia and her people?
It’s helped me in that I can see there is a desire and demand for what we do, and that people understand it along with hope and possibility for Somalia.
“Wavin’ Flag” has gotten so big. The first time I heard it was in 2008 — it was big to me then and it continues to get bigger. Tell me about the progression of that song.
“Wavin’ Flag” is just one of those songs, that,
I don’t know there’s no particular recipe for things like that, it just happens to you. And I think there’s something in the melody, in the feeling of the words, and that child-like quest for freedom and the hope that it contains that lends itself to a large audience.
You always kind of felt that about it but I just didn’t know what would happen. I just thought it’d be nice if a few people hear this song. So the first version was just what I used to perform live, then we put it on the album as a refined version, and then the World Cup thing came, which is a humongous opportunity to spread this music across the world. And recently, it’s been taken up as the new “We Are The World” for Haiti, and got all these amazing young artists singing this song, and it’s amazing.
What it was like to work with Nabil on the video?
Nabil is one of my close friends. We did “T.I.A.” together, and “Wavin’ Flag” will have three versions. I think we have two versions out now, and there’s one more that we’re doing together, which is myself featuring two other artists, which are kind of surprises…so Nabil and I are collaborators and conspirators, where it concerns visuals and music.
You’re becoming a prominent fixture on the world stage. Do you like the limelight or would you prefer to stay more “underground”?
For me, the only distinction between the limelight and being somewhat underground is the success of the songs and the success of the message in the songs. Personally, I am more suited to not be a very public person. You know from meeting me in person that I’m not really that loud or wanting to consume all the attention in the room. So I’m more suited to be kind of a little bit in the background.
I think that I write music that kind of needs to be heard by people, so it’s a little bit of a contradiction between my personal need to be in solitary moments and the need to spread this music that needs to be heard. It’s give and take and I try to deal with it as best as I can.
Music is a universal language. Is there anything that can’t be translated or communicated through music?
Boy, I don’t know. I know that what can be communicated through music is all the important things. The things that touch us, and change us and all of that.
We communicate all our goodness and all our problems through music.
Now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite tracks off K’naan’s Troubadour album – “T.I.A.” It’s full of energy, a perfect way to kick off the album and one of a few songs in history that successfully and appropriately samples Bob Marley. Many tracks off Troubadour were recorded at The Wailers’ legendary Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, so it’s only fitting that they incorporated one of Marley’s classics, “Simmer Down” in “T.I.A.”. Enjoy: