The name alone conjures up images of unbridled destruction, merciless warlords and ruthless terror. A place where nobody—children, the elderly, religious figures—is safe from the atrocities of war, and where the idea of “childhood,” where 8-year olds handle AK-47s like toys, exists in chronological terms alone. When Forbes magazine recently unveiled their “Most Dangerous Destinations,” Somalia, above Iraq and Afghanistan, topped the list.
But it’s also “The Nation of Poets,” where a poem can both inspire peace and end wars. Where every weekend, regardless of the climate, one can find a play or concert at a local theatre.
Growing up, it was both of these Somalias that informed musician/emcee K’NAAN Warsame, whose sophomore album Troubadour will be released on February 17, 2009. The grandson of Haji Mohamed, one of Somalia’s most famous poets, and nephew of famed Somali singer Magool, the emcee is creating his own musical path through reggae, funk, pop, soul and, above all, hip-hop.
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 is a hip-hop album like no other. K’NAAN successfully blends samples and live instrumentation for a sound that’s both rooted in traditional African melodies and the classic hip-hop tradition.
“I’m not interested in being mediocre,” declares the rapper. “If there’s not a necessity to what I’m doing, I just wouldn’t do it. If I don’t have something to add to the conversation, I’m just not gonna talk.” Luckily for us, he has plenty to say. Utilizing everything from folk guitar to the actual Hammond B3 used on Bob Marley’s Exodus, the emcee deftfully finds a balance between earnest tales of growing up and clever, braggadocio rhymes straight out of Big Daddy Kane’s rhymebook. It’s this mix, both musical and lyrical, that earned his 2006 debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher a Juno award for Rap Recording of the Year, a BBC Radio 3 Award, and nomination for the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, Canada’s equivalent to the Shortlist Music Prize.
In a country whose name is synonymous with strife, it’s easy to brand K’NAAN with the “political rapper” tag. But that’d be both easy and disingenuous. K’NAAN lyrics lie in stark contrast to emcees that use their medium as a pulpit to promote their beliefs. Consider his words more front-page reportage than editorial page. “My job is to write just what I see/So a visual stenographer is who I be,” he rhymes in “I Come Prepared.” Doubtless, K’NAAN is not without his opinions, but in Troubadour, songwriting always comes before sermons.
Growing up, the extent of Western music that reached the musician was limited to “Bob Marley and Tracy Chapman.” While driving with a cousin’s boyfriend one day, though, a 10-year old K’NAAN became fascinated by the brief rap emitting from the tinny car speaker. “I had heard a rap verse, but I had no idea what it was back then,” recalls the emcee. “I told my dad, who had moved to New York to raise money for my family, and he said, ‘That’s hip-hop.’”
When Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full arrived from New York later that month, the tracks transported the musician to a different world. A world where the rhythm and feeling of language superseded any understanding of the words. “I memorized ‘Eric B. is President’ and could spit the verse as if it was Rakim,” says the emcee. “I would be outside of the house and all the neighborhood kids would listen. One boy would take some sticks to rock the beat. No one, including myself, knew one word of what we were saying. I was relying on the rhythm and the feeling and energy that you got from the track. That helped me a lot with both the phonetics and texture of the words when I would eventually learn English.”
It was albums like Paid in Full that would provide temporary salvation from the bullets and carnage that constantly surrounded K’NAAN. At 14, the rapper and his three best friends were attacked by warlords, just one of countless indelible images for the impressionable teenager. Having chased them through the streets of Mogadishu, eventually cornering the four boys in an alley, the men began shooting. K’NAAN avoided injury, but his three friends were brutally gunned down.
On Troubadour, events like these don’t need to be glorified or exaggerated for the sake of art. “I think there are some people that are struggling in hoods [in Canada and America], but it is so much harder and so much more violent [in Somalia],” says K’NAAN. “If you want to be like, ‘I’m from the hood. We got it rough. We got gats,’ I think you should know the alternative exists. I’m speaking in the same language of hip-hop which decidedly speaks about rough neighborhoods. So if there is a place for rough neighborhoods, then here comes the Mother of Rough Neighborhoods.”
Certain that it was only a matter of time before her family met the same fate, K’NAAN’s mother would travel daily through the firefight to the U.S. embassy in the hopes of securing visas for her and her loved ones. Despite daily denials, she persisted, and on the last day the U.S. embassy was in Somalia, received visas to leave for America. “You can’t even describe it,” says K’NAAN. “It is the most sensational, liberating feeling. There was the weight of a world of hope on your shoulder that has suddenly landed. It was only then that I started to get this certain value of life that I never had before.” With little possessions and no knowledge of English, K’NAAN and his family boarded the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu for New York before settling in Toronto.
Troubadour represents the sum of these experiences and more. Having spent the better part of the last two years traveling the world, taking his message directly to the people, soaking in everything from Bob Dylan to Fela Kuti to and Mos Def, Troubadour is the sonic document of an artist who has a lot to share, but clearly has a lot more in the coming years. For anyone who’s said that hip-hop has nothing left to say, Troubadour proves that it all depends on where you look.