The Somali Canadian Artist Tears Down The Walls On His Emotional New Album
If you ever get the chance to talk to K’naan about anything prioritize that. The Somali Canadian rapper, musician and poet went from being a successful hip-hop artist to a crazy successful hip-hop artist following the selection of his song “Wavin’ Flag” as Coca-Cola’s promotional anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He later remade the worldwide hit as a charity single with a Canadian supergroup called Young Artists for Haiti.
His new album God, Country Or The Girl features appearances from Nas, Keith Richards and Bono, with whom he has been collaborating on both music and humanitarian work in Africa. This album deals with more personal issues than his previous four full-lengths. In the past, his music confronted geopolitics through the lens of hip-hop, and sometimes hip-hop through the lens of geopolitics. This time, there are more quirky and intimate songs dealing with that most difficult of subjects: What K’naan calls the politics of the heart.
Tough, sharp, and disarmingly honest, the rapper got into some intense discussion moments after meeting for our interview. The conversation ranged across Bollywood, Danish director Lars Von Trier’s lesser known works and the scintillating diversity of Africa’s almost numberless cultures. Sometimes wistfully, sometimes urgently, he talked about why Somalia, known lately in the west for piracy, is actually the nation of poets and how he discovered that Africa is every bit as amazing as he always said it was. And, yeah, we talked about the new album too.
You come from a musical and a literary family and your music synthesizes a lot of African musical traditions and contemporary African musical styles with hip-hop. As a musician, what similarities have you found between those two traditions?
I think they’re both based on folk tradition. I think that’s what it is. It’s just about storytelling. And that’s where the connections are. Sometimes it’s societal information, sometimes it’s just love and good storytelling. In the root of it they’re both based on that kind of tradition.
Do you travel to a lot of different countries in Africa and perform there?
I have been. I did a tour recently. I visited twenty two countries in Africa.
What was that experience like? Had you ever had the opportunity to travel like that throughout the continent?
No. And you realize your own prejudices, even as an African, only after you’ve seen the continent in that way. You can’t imagine how much, to a non-African, but even to an African, how much our system in which we work or the history in which we live, how much that influences your perspective on the continent until you see it. As many times as I’ve said the continent is vast and different, I don’t know if I believed it as much until I saw it.
Was there any one particularly eye opening moment that you can think of?
Many. It was just the vastness of the traditions, the specificity of each region and what they offer. I remember being in Mozambique and then shortly after we were in Eritrea and the worlds couldn’t be more different. I was in a totally different world with its own traditions and unique was of seeing the world and it was on the same continent.
Hip-hop has taken root in every single country in Africa. What is it like when you travel there and engage with the music and other hip-hop artists?
It’s strange. It’s interesting for me. I came up engaging with hip-hop artists on this side of the world, but talking about that side of the world.
When you were a kid there weren’t many rappers in Africa, and now …
Yeah, there are many. It was interesting to find how dominating American vision is all over the world. I think there’s something to be said about the world’s mindset and its economics and all of that and I think it affects the way we see ourselves and it affects music. Hip-hop in Africa has been very often a duplication of an American experience, but in a context that’s totally alien to it.
And for me, living in America, my connection was trying to make sense of both the worlds, but over there they were rapping as if they were Americans, just a mimicking, really, of what is happening on this other side and then just trying to be like the next 50 Cent or whatever is hot at the moment. It’s funny because it’s nice, it’s kind of like how you’ll see Bollywood, before it was totally in consideration of its own culture and environment, wanted to be a lot like western films.
And yet Bollywood ended up creating something totally unique that the west loves now.
That’s right. I think that there’s the possibility that that could happen over time with music.
Do you mean with music in general or with hip-hop in Africa specifically?
I don’t think Africa has any leadership to take from anywhere else where music is concerned in general, but I think where hip-hop is concerned, it wasn’t its first voice. So, in that way I think it’s come into its own. Maybe we’ll see what we said about Bollywood in Africa.
African hip-hop seems sometimes to be taking on a more political role. Like with El General in Tunisia. His song on YouTube helped to spark the movement there.
That’s amazing. I’m talking about my experience years ago, going there and these kids finding it totally curious and interesting and insane that I was rapping about Africa. It was almost like permission. Like, “We’re allowed to do that?” I’m talking about around East Africa and West Africa, what kids thought hip-hop had to be. They thought you had to have the accent of an American in New York.
How many times have you made it back to Somalia since you first left?
Twice. Last year being one of the times.
What can you tell me about the musical and the cultural life that exists there right now?
Somalia is hard to talk about in that way of, like, what is the cultural expression. The cultural expression is not different from the culture there. It’s a totally expression-based society, so there isn’t any time in which you can sense, “This is what’s happening musically or poetically.” It’s just what’s happening because they’re alive.
I always have a hard time figuring out how to answer that, because in Somalia people talk that way all the time. They’re in cafés talking and it’s literally the greatest literature. It’s just poetry. It’s just a part of society.
Does that have to do with the language itself?
It’s called the nation of poets. It’s been called that for a very long time. Their way of being and talking has everything to do with poetry, first and foremost.
For me, the album that you just made has all the hallmarks of a huge pop album. It has these gigantic hooks. Was that a goal and did you enlist a team and work toward that or is that just the album that you ended up making?
No, it’s not the album I ended up making. It’s the album that ended up being the one that’s coming out. Albums go through such a process, especially when you are working in a system that is based on the music business and what happens is, I wrote about 70 some odd songs during the process of creating this record. So, what you’re experiencing on this album is choices, not really only mine. I wouldn’t be able to tell you this is totally just my vision. It has a lot to do with what the record company wants to promote and kind of a balancing act of trying to be mindful of what I feel like needs to be out there. So, I would say it’s kind of a half, half record.
That’s really interesting. It sounds like the goal was to make the biggest pop album you could that would still be you.
That’s what it sounds like? It’s not. That wasn’t my goal. I can write those songs. I’m made that way. Melody is my thing. I can write hooks like that. But it’s funny, it’s just production. It’s how it works. You can write a simple love story into a film and shoot it. And then you can edit it in such a way that it becomes something that it is not or something that appeals to that masses. That’s the gloss you can sense on the record trying to have big songs.
But really I don’t that that’s the vision. I set out to write songs that can be experienced in two ways. From the stage, I can reach a large audience and you learn from being on stage how much a song reaches, what extent of the crowd a song can reach. I write in a way that can reach most of the audience, but I also wanted to have truly intimate moments as well, many intimate moments, more so than the big moments.
There are certainly both kinds of moments on the album. It’s extremely varied.
I hope so. I really hope so. I just don’t know that I accomplished what I set out to accomplish.
You called the song “The Seed” punk rock reggae.
That’s how I hear it.
Do you feel like you are making music with fewer limits than before?
Do you know this film The Five Obstructions by the Danish director?
By Lars Von Trier? I heard about it. I haven’t watched it.
He reaches out to his favorite director of all time and says I want you to remake my favorite film five different ways, but he says remake it with this obstruction. The obstruction has to be to do it in black and white. Then he says your second obstruction is remake it but it has to be a silent film. And he does it. And Lars is watching this entire thing and it’s always good, but the fifth obstruction is no obstruction and that he can’t make.
That can be overwhelming. Did you set yourself the fifth obstruction?
This has been an experience in which the things that were available to me weren’t available to me on other records, like big studios and talent and all of that. So, I didn’t have those kinds of limitations. On the other side, I had the limitation of working in a system and that is the limitation of observation. As soon as something creative is being observed it changes.
What did you discover in that process?
I should never record in L.A. It’s an industry town. And recording in L.A., it’s like everything is complicit in some way. Because everyone touches a song it comes through the same studios, the same players, the same set of people.
Can you speak to what the song “Simple” is about for you? It’s called simple but it’s really about the complexities of life isn’t it, and how they get in the way of things that should be simple?
It’s the opposite of what the song is called. It’s about how much we make things that way. We constantly put our own obstacles in front of ourselves. Actually, it’s about record making also. It’s about the experience I had and what I was doing. And that’s one of the most solitary songs. Nobody else was in the room writing those kinds of songs. It’s about just talking about the undertones of the record.
On “The Wall” there’s all this imagery that comes from armed conflicts but applied to relationships. What did you set out to say with that particular set of metaphors?
I’m not aware of those things. When I was writing that song, for example, I really was writing a love song and all around it I found these metaphors that were very similar, like the politics of the heart and the politics of the world. And they found a way to really be prevalent in that record, but it wasn’t really an intention at first.
Okay, what are the politics of the heart?
The walls. How we negotiate. Between lovers, how they negotiate. Am I coming to the rescue of the heart or am I coming to the rescue of the ego? The constant daily negotiations that we have are very similar to territorial, border-like walls between two people who are in a room together. We have a set of obligations. Rules, laws, politicians, all of it is happening in the metaphor of love. And I just wanted to say something about it. Because I had, probably, the Great Wall of China in my own relationships. So, it was a way to kind of admit to myself what was wrong.
The last couple of years have been pretty watershed. What obstacles do you feel you have still to overcome?
In life or in music?
You don’t have to separate them. You couldn’t in that question about Somalia.
You’re right. I probably couldn’t anyway. Just trying to chip away on the walls, as much as I can. Learning to trust myself with someone’s ears as well as someone’s heart.