“I’m taking into consideration the western viewpoint of poverty and the Somali view of it. We know struggle; the west sees ‘suffering’. I talk about the creation of beautiful things out of the dirt. That’s what a philosopher is. I can’t stand it when people like [US chat-show host] Barbara Walters want you to expose yourself to the point of tears.” A sudden flash of acid mockery enters his voice. “‘How does it feel to be Somalian?’ You’re not saviours and we don’t think of you in that way. Africa isn’t waiting for you. We are not owed guilt. We are owed respect.”
‘We are not owed guilt’
By David Honigmann (July 13, 2007)
“Home, for me, is where you forget that you’re anything but human.” -- Somalian Artist K'Naan Warsame
K’Naan Warsame grew up in Mogadishu. When he was seven, his father, who was working as a taxi driver in New York, sent him a copy of the rap record “Paid in Full”, and his life changed. “Eric B and Rakim,” he recalls, touching down in London for a brief run of festival appearances over the following week, “was my first encounter with hip-hop. Not with western music – there was terrible Italian pop music lying around the house, and of course Bob Marley. But Eric B and Rakim were just talking. They were saying what you couldn’t sing. I thought, wow, these guys are like poets over music.”
In 1991, when the government of Siad Barre collapsed, the 12-year-old K’Naan and his mother were on the last civil flight out of Somalia. They settled first in New York and then in Toronto. K’Naan invented himself as the Dusty Foot Philosopher, halfway between performance poet and hip-hop star. In comparison with his models, his own music is sparse: he raps over drums, water percussion, occasionally a thin, scratchy guitar line, rather than the looped samples of US hip-hop.
“Sampling is so limited. I like to create a thing, not have it half created by me,” he says. “A guitar line has a melodic sentiment, you can pull it towards you. Also, I’m not from that culture, I don’t have the memory bank system. I can’t find the appropriate sample like they do.”
But K’Naan also reacted against some of the lyrical tropes of hip-hop. He and his friends in Dixon, the Somali neighbourhood of Toronto, were bemused by the braggadocio of US stars, who served up competitive tales of hardship and violence like rap versions of Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen. “We all reacted against that posturing. I mean, I like Mobb Deep but damn, they’ve no idea! In Dixon, we were the first group of kids to take a stand. We came for peace, but we weren’t to be messed with. It was a different kind of hardcore: no posture, just circumstance.”
These sentiments found voice in the song “What’s Hardcore?”. Over a riff cheekily close to the one that fuels Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, K’Naan sketches a dystopian Mogadishu of burning car tires, roadblocks, rocket-propelled grenades and the ever-present AK-47. When he asks, “So what’s ‘hardcore’? Really? Are they ‘hardcore’? Hmm...”, the contempt in his voice undermines the whole concept.
In fact, his memories of Somalia are sunnier than this song suggests. “No one knew that they were poor. We saw the colours of our surroundings as beautiful paintings. Before Black Hawk Down “ – Ridley Scott’s film about a disastrous American raid on Mogadishu in 1993, which constitutes most westerners’ sole image of the country – “there was a culture, civilisation, music: that’s what we knew. It really was nice: white sand, beautiful beaches, compassionate people, fierce poets.
“Somalia is a nation of poets. Every man, every woman, every child has some claim to poetry. In the traditional political structure, you couldn’t be a lawyer unless you were a poet. To defend life and justice, you must be articulate. If it has to be said, it’s said through poetry.” And poetry, he says, is still the language of lovers. “On any given day in North America, there’s a woman who’s waiting for someone to return from Somalia with a tape for her. Cassette tapes are how we communicate now.”
K’Naan’s debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, won a Juno (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy) for best Canadian rap album, and this year saw him win a BBC Radio 3 award for world music as best newcomer. Being a big star in African hip-hop is still a specialised form of success. “I haven’t become popular the way other people have. I’m not on billboards or on the TV. I’m not hearing myself on the radio 100 times a day. So I’m surprised when people can sing along with my words in Denmark. I’m more in demand live: it spreads through people in a human way.”
This demand has meant that over the past two years, K’Naan has played more than 450 dates, and when he speaks to me on a rare day off, he is feeling the pressure. “I try to get used to it, and fail. I get sick and cancel 10 dates. You have to learn to get composed on the road. You learn the importance of tiny conveniences. Things like sleeping on time and trying to find nutritious food.” He picks at a fig flapjack. “That’s hard to come by unless you have a personal chef.” He adds with good humour: “You have to remember to buy socks. Laundry days are fascinating things when you’re on tour.”
These indignities notwithstanding, he remains by instinct peripatetic. “I don’t plan to live any one place for ever. The world is too wide to imagine you can live any one place for ever. When I’m in the west, I feel like a foreigner. The way you might be treated in a hotel or a shop – you’re constantly reminded you’re black.” He tells a story of having been treated as a potential shoplifter by an Indian convenience-store owner near the BBC, and concludes: “Home, for me, is where you forget that you’re anything but human.”
As well as his punishing solo schedule, K’Naan is also part of Africa Express, a project that brings together African and western musicians for sets that combine the spirit of tag team wrestling and the old-fashioned jam. At the project’s recent low-profile outing in the margins of the Glastonbury Festival, he shared a tiny stage with, among others, Amadou and Mariam, Damon Albarn and The Magic Numbers.
“Me and Damon were talking about it last night” – when K’Naan played support for The Good, The Bad and The Queen at the Tower of London – “and he was saying that I had my back to the audience. There were more people on stage than in the audience, more people backstage than front.”
In common with everyone else involved, K’Naan struggles to categorise the project. “I’m not surprised you don’t understand it. No one does. It’s people making good music coming together – like it was before music became this commodity. It’s a way for musicians to come together and find common ground. To bring an end to this ridiculous notion that western musicians are there to help starving Africans.”
The west’s image of Africa is a constant sore point. K’Naan first came to prominence criticising the UN’s failed aid missions to Somalia, and he continues to insist that Africa should not cringe to the west.
“Dusty Foot Philosophy is an extension of the Wanderer,” he says. (“K’Naan” is Somali for “wanderer”.) “I’m taking into consideration the western viewpoint of poverty and the Somali view of it. We know struggle; the west sees ‘suffering’. I talk about the creation of beautiful things out of the dirt. That’s what a philosopher is. I can’t stand it when people like [US chat-show host] Barbara Walters want you to expose yourself to the point of tears.” A sudden flash of acid mockery enters his voice. “‘How does it feel to be Somalian?’ You’re not saviours and we don’t think of you in that way. Africa isn’t waiting for you. We are not owed guilt. We are owed respect.”
“The Dusty Foot On The Road’ is out now on Wrasse. K’Naan plays the Respect Festival, London, on July 13, the Lovebox Festival, London, on July 21 and the Ealing Global Festival on July 22.
Honigmann is FT’s world music critic.
Originally appeared in Financial Times.