Interview: K’NAAN

Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Photography: Uzo Oleh @ Phamous
“Don’t pre-judge, I don’t want anyone dismissing me as another thug. I’m poor, a refugee, been in prison and survived the war. I come from the most dangerous city in the universe – you’re likely to get shot at birth.” These are the lyrics of a serene and hospitable 28-year-old artist from Somalia, called K’Naan. He’s friends with Mos Def, features on the latest album by M1 from Dead Prez, and supported Damian Marley on his recent tour. Should you ever delve into a dictionary for a definition of ‘profound’, phrases similar to those which flitted across my mind whilst interviewing this engaging individual should arise; ‘having or showing great knowledge or insight’, ‘demanding deep study or thought’, ‘intense’, ‘extending to a great depth’. On his most recent visit to London, SoulCulture joined K’Naan for a long, stimulating chat.
K’Naan left Somalia at the age of 14, during a fierce war which was three years in. He, his mother, his sister and his brother, took the very last commercial flight out of the country amid “full-blown civil war, the bloodiest it had been for years, at the height of the dictatorship which had fallen to rebel soldiers and so the whole county was in flames,” he explains. “Everything else from then was a vacation” – he lived in New York for a year, then Washington (in Southeast, an area commonly referred to ‘Capital Murder’ for its daily fatalities – some vacation!), and then settled in Canada, where he has since spent the majority of his time. Reflecting on his life in Somalia before the warring began, K’Naan depicts a beautiful life entrenched with natural art: “Life was serene and poetic. I was very fortunate to live in that part. I’m not upset at the war that I had seen. I feel as though it would be hypocritical to think that you can only want the great things out of life; the other things have a certain way that they shape you, so I’m fine with that. But I remember, when I’d come home late and my mother would look at me, she’d recite a poem about my not coming – and you have to love that feeling, it’s not like any other language or feeling.”
As well as attributing his lyricism to the natural poetry of Somali culture, K’Naan believes an inherent quality in his culture to adapt is the reason he quickly and competently tackled the challenge of settling into an entirely foreign western culture. He explains, “That is a traditional thing to adapt, it comes with your DNA as a Somali. It’s a nomadic tradition, they live to adapt, they travel, conditions change and suddenly they change. It’s not very unique for me to have adapted, however it was difficult for me to adapt. The most difficult thing was the language, because I didn’t really speak English when I left my country. Not ‘really’, but actually ‘any at all’. I knew hip hop, but I didn’t know what I was saying. Coming from a country where your articulation is your prized possession, life’s jewel, and to leave and be a mute and a deaf in a new place – that was a difficult process.”
He elegantly wields the English language with such poetic flair that it is astonishing to think he could not understand a lick of English when he boarded that plane fourteen years ago. With mere phonetic recognition, throughout his childhood K’Naan non-comprehendingly recited all the words to his favourite hip hop joints, since being introduced to hip hop with passion by way of Eric B and Rakim and early Nas. Yet he clarifies, “Hip hop is by no means my major influence in music, in any way”, and cites Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone as favourites. An abundance of wannabe-thugs has left K’Naan feeling rather weary of the uniform-like conformity of rappers these days. “I don’t like to have to be anything. It’s become a closed environment – you have to be a certain way, you have to dress or think, talk a certain way. That is in fact initially what hip hop was against. It was trying to promote unique individuality – and now it is a uniform,” he explains of the feelings behind album track ‘If Rap Gets Jealous’, a rock-tinged critique on the fraudulent imagery rife in modern hip hop. On the track, he rants: “How could rap quench my thirst? I don’t even hear verses no more, I hear jerking off punks with lip glosses and purses…”
Gangster for gangster’s sake is something K’Naan doesn’t care for, and he should know – he was born in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital of continuous conflict, which he describes as “the most dangerous city in the universe.” It might well be. Mogadishu is so dangerous that Somalia’s 2004 presidential elections were held in Kenya rather than in the capital. Rappers who shun gangsta-rap are generally swept rapidly into the ‘conscious’ box. As thoughtful and intellectually provocative as K’Naan’s musical reflections are on the incredible fourteen years spent in his motherland, he is quick to eschew the ‘conscious’ label. He reasons, “What an elitist, ridiculous category that would be. I’ve never ever uttered the words ‘I am a conscious artist’, I would never do that. That is like saying ‘I am a morally superior human being who walks the planet to serve’ – what is that? I try to make honest music. My music is not at all different from me – it is an extension of who I am, so I just try to be honest. If they use ‘conscious’ to mean ‘aware’ or something, then sure; I know what I’m doing. But ‘conscious’ in the sense that ‘I’m better than the other guys who do gangster music or something and now you can let your children listen to it’… Well, I say some hard things about my stories, so I don’t know what they mean.”
Speaking of inadequate labels, the subject of Black History Month cropped up in our conversation; as it had recently passed. He rejects the idea in principle, explaining, “We are not a compartment; we are not a culture that is so definable that you can completely stack into one area of the year. You can’t celebrate our history in a month. You can’t acknowledge our struggles in a month. You can’t celebrate our future in a month. The infinite importance that African peoples’ history, black peoples’ history, have had and the impact on the world is not something you can scope in a discussion. It’s a bizarre idea to me. Why do we need it? It’s like, when we are made to feel that we need these things, that is when a major issue is at hand. We are a complex people, who have infinite offerings to all kinds of developmental processes around the world – our continent enriches more than half of the world’s resources. These are things that should be common conversations – Malcolm X’s accomplishments are not to be discussed in a classroom in this month, these are something that everyone should know.”
One specific race-related issue he wants everyone to know about occurred on the Swedish leg of the Damian Marley tour this year, for which K’Naan and his band were the opening act. “I was just trying to collect my things from backstage and this really huge Aryan dude was like ‘You can’t go back’. I said ‘I have my pass – you just saw me get off stage, I just wanna get my things’, and he said ‘I don’t give a f*ck who you are’. He looked around and shoved me. I’m a skinny dude, so I hit the back wall. My manager ran in and said ‘What HAPPENED?’ Sol, my manager, wasn’t trying to be confrontational either and he was like ‘Dude, alright, we’re just gonna get our things then…’ and tried to go around him – and the guy grabs him by the neck and throws him into a room and 3 guys run in from another room. I start to realise something is up so I run in to try and help. 1 punch into my belly, my neck, a guy is holding me against a wall. These guys are super-size people and they’re standing on my face. Sol gets jumped and he gets taken to jail for the night. I hate to feel like I have no power over my circumstance. They tried to put us through a dehumanisation process and it’s hard for me to continue to tour. Disempowerment is a thing I have memory of and I don’t like, so that was a return of that feeling.” Unbelievably, K’Naan had a cameraman following them around to record an MTV diary, so they caught the footage on tape. The result: a music video called ‘Kicked, Pushed’ (which uses Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Kick, Push’ instrumental) featuring actual footage, which you can view from his MySpace page at .
It was surprising to many that this extent of blatant racist abuse occurred so openly in Europe. Was this a one-off incident for K’Naan? “Europe is kinda difficult. It’s become very militarised recently, there’s been a little bit of a shift. The whole Aryan-power, skinhead racism thing – those cults are now rising again to a certain power level. Even France, among the most moderate countries in Europe, they’ve been having incredibly tense situations with immigration and West Africans coming into France. They have popular debates on radio like ‘Why can’t we just deport the blacks?’ – that’s what’s going on when you’re in a taxi! Germany’s difficult too. A lot of craziness is going on.” What about in multicultural London? “I used to see that here. I’m sure it’s around. The extent I feel it here is when you try to hail a cab here”, he says, laughing, and gives the example of a cab driver in London that ignored him and his manager whilst they waved for him to stop. The cab driver then noticed a white woman who had just appeared on the other side of the road, and made a U-turn to pick her up instead of them. “It’s everywhere. You try and not be so vocal about these things because it’s like it has this ridiculing effect, over the whole atmosphere of voicing these things – because it’s like, ‘we’ve already done that’. It’s already said, it’s already done, so you try not to say it. But it happens a lot. Sometimes it happens a lot more from minorities than it would be from people of European descent.”
Given his experiences of growing up in two very different types of society, what did he find most difficult about adapting as a 14-year old from Somalia when he moved to America? K’Naan explains the gulf of a difference between growing up in Somalia and The States; “14 years in Somalia is very different to 14 years in the western world. By that time I should have had responsibilities and been thinking of my own home at that age, this is just the nature of it. So I’ve already been an established thinking, functioning human being and I was a part of a community, I had a name and there were people looking to me to do things. So the only issue was that I had to come to North America, to New York, and start to be 14 again. And to grow up in the way that They grow up at 14 – which I had done maybe 8 years before that.” When asked which way of growing up he considers to be healthier for children, he responds without hesitation: “I’ve seen both and it’s not at all close. I think it’s much healthier to grow in that way in Somalia.”
The explanation K’Naan gives is a thought provoking combination of identity via linguistics, and historical language bias. “First of all, the language is different. [The English language] is a young language just as it is as a Latin derivative. It’s very young, it’s not existed thousands and thousands of years as ours has, therefore it…can’t tap into the memory bank of ancient history like we can tap into it. So then, our value system directly comes down from thousands of years, and that is a different way to learn who you are than it would be if you’re learning yourself in English; especially if you’re black and you’re learning yourself in English. To have something that you can tap into that is thousands of years old, it’s a different kind of a walk, a different feeling, different air around you. African children who come to this part of the world who are now learning who they are in the English language. You have to realise the English language has been in an aggressive conflict with most African nations. They have recorded in their history, in their language, the very biases the very conflict that they have had with the African people. So when a child of African descent is learning who he is in an English language, in an aggressive language, he is learning all the biases of himself, he is learning all the inferiorities of himself. That is a different thing. The pride of who you are, is not gonna exist as much.”
And here stands an inspiring blend of proud humility. To get a truer sense of the moving spirit I can merely scrape the surface in explaining, visit K’Naan’s website: K’Naan’s music and demeanour are absolute evidence of a notion he expressed at the end of our interview: “Struggle is a thing that causes an enormous amount of dignity in your life and beauty.”
Visit for more on K’Naan.