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  • Interview: K'naan

    Mon, 23 Mar 2009 15:29:35

    Interview: K'naan  -  	From the streets of Mogadishu to a "N.Y. State of Mind"

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    Hip hop has effectively risen to be the dominant global youth culture and now the sounds of the world at large have begun to assert their influence on the music in return. Artists from K-os to Kardinal Offishall are infusing their styles with the international flavors of their heritage and expanding the palette of rap expression in the process. Add to this list Somlia-born, Canadian MC K'naan who has just released his sophomore collection of globe-trotting beats, Troubadour.

    Having already earned a Juno award for best rap album for his 2006 debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, he's back with a set of songs that firmly establishes him as an artist unafraid to meld sounds from disparate countries and cultures on his sonic canvas. His profile is on the rise based on the infectious quality of the music and his confident lyricism, so we tracked him down to discuss the recent success. He talked to us about everything from his early days on the war-torn streets of Mogadishu to cultivating a "New York State of Mind."

    As a hip hop fan I knew you from Dusty Foot Philosopher, but I feel like you're getting a much bigger push from the label on this album. What's it's like to be taking that next step up in the public consciousness?

    It's really great man. I felt like the music deserved to be heard by a lot of people. People who are hearing Troubadour are investigating and finding Dusty Foot Philosopher. Which is great because I felt like that should have been heard as well.

    One thing that I think definitely helped raise your profile amongst rap heads was the BET Cypher performance that you put down. Even if people didn’t know you could rap before they saw that, they knew afterwards. How did you get called on to do that and how was the experience.

    It was great man. BET just reached out. Word was getting around to different artists who were like, "yo, we're checking for him." So eventually the program directors called me up. It was amazing to be in that room because we did like four rounds. Each time we did something new, and each time Bun B would stop and be like, "Yo! You're crazy." I remember one round they didn't use. I did this rhyme. Then Bun B went after me and did his rhyme about how I did my rhyme. It was a massive compliment.

    They also invited Hime, the Japanese female MC to the Cypher. That goes to show the global nature of hip hop now. It's touches every corner of the globe. Growing up in Somalia, did you have access to hip hop music back in the day?

    Not at all actually. I did have the rare privilege of getting Paid In Full when it came out though. I was the only kid anywhere near the vicinity of the neighborhood I lived in that had that. Hip hop wasn’t a known form in Somalia like it is now. To be truthful, the thing that hip hop suffers from when you talk about the "global nature" is that it can be a little corny. Meaning, it doesn’t really consider all of the cultural elements. Sometimes it's not culturally sensitive and not lyrically representative of the way the streets are set up. But my fortune was that I lived in Somalia and when I came to America as a teenager, I could only live in the hood. So I got the perfect middle ground of the two worlds.

    It's interesting that you say that, because when hip hop started in New York in the late '70s it was a revolutionary sound made by a distressed population who were essentially at war. So those revolutionary roots are perfectly suited to provide an outlet for regions who are unfortunately touched by warfare today.

    There is no place more defined by warfare than Somalia or in more dire need of that representation that hip hop can give. The country and Mogadishu, where I'm from, is more dangerous than Iraq. That level of violence, and that kind of poverty and struggle needs some kind of voice.

    I like to think of myself as somewhat informed, but everything I know about conflict in Africa comes secondhand through the prism of news media. As someone with firsthand knowledge, do you think news agencies under-represent or over-represent who bad things are?

    It's pretty difficult to over-represent how bad it is. But what is missing in the Western representation when it comes to Somalia is that they present us as struggle minus dignity. Which is untrue. Our struggle continues to maintain and uphold its dignity. We are not a people without dignity. That's the difference. When they aim cameras into our lives they just don’t know how to represent us. I feel like the music I make is a good mediator between the Black experience in North America and the Black experience in Africa.

    The same way I have my secondhand conception of what's going on in Africa, people there must be forming their own ideas of what life is like here. Do you have any concept of how people there view North America?

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