By Alan Cho
Any rapper worth his Escalade will tell you respect in the game comes from survival on the streets. Pulling up the pant leg on their designer jeans, they’ll point to scars and bruises earned in vague fights from “back in the day.” The lucky few who have them show off faded bullet wounds like rusted Purple Hearts. K’Naan, the Canadian hip-hop artist originally from Somalia, has got them all beat.
Hailing from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, K’Naan grew up in a place where everyone was openly armed, ruled by warlords and not bound by any laws. In the linear notes of his CD he remembers finding a live grenade in a classroom at the age of 8. K’Naan makes 50 Cent look like Gary Coleman with a scraped knee. But it is the artist’s more thoughtful hip-hop, filled with righteous anger and dignity, which lends the emcee the level of respect he’s earned.
With his debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher in stores, a standing ovation at the UN for his performance for the 50th anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees and performing at Live 8, K’Naan is ready to bring his message to damn near everyone, including thse lucky attendees at this year’s Calgary Folk Festival. The emcee took the time to chat with the Gauntlet about his message, his music and why he’s hardcore.
Gauntlet: How’s the tour going so far?
K’Naan: Really, really well. It’s been rewarding for us, people are connecting to the music. It’s nice.
G: It’s must be something you’re getting used to though. You just played Live 8 and, a while back, the UN. How’s the touring been compared to those experiences? How was Live 8?
K: It’s actually quite similar for me, to be honest. I’m not doing anything different than I would if performing at the UN or at Live 8. It’s the same public. It’s really the same thing. I’m very appreciative when people are listening.
G: Speaking of Live 8, do you think on the whole that it worked?
K: I don’t know what we expected it to do. Live 8 was basically some concerts around the world, but it was trying to create a rally behind the political change in the west; so there could start to be economic balance in the world. I think the idea of making people aware [is important], because there is a problem; there is a possibility of change. I felt in that sense, it was very successful.
G: Do you think this sort of political activism among artists is a trend or do you think there’s something more there?
K: If you look around the world, and I don’t know what the purpose of individual artists getting involved were, but if you look around the world, artists have always been the ones that rally behind a cause of justice. That’s the case where I’m from. That’s the case in Latin America. That’s the case anywhere. Anytime there is some kind of injustice going on, the artist communities are some of the first people to give up their time for that cause, for change. I don’t know what the individual artists are doing this for, but I do know the nature of an artist is to be sensitive to these things. I think that answers that.
G: With the mainstream music acts having ties to corporate interest, do you think the connection to the international corporate community dilutes that message?
K: Small hypocrisies exist in everything, right? We all have a certain aspect of hypocrisy, certain things that are ideal for us, that we want to be, but there are certain things that we are. This exists in every human soul, and artists are no exception, but I think they may be doing it on a grander scale. If you are sincere and want change and are concerned with justice, I don’t think your small hypocrisy should stop you from wanting to attain an ideal.
G: Have you, yourself, run into this, these small hypocrisies?
K: I don’t actually have that. I don’t endorse anything, I don’t have corporate interest. When I speak about bullshit and rhyme, it’s my personal ideas; I want to be so much more of a better human than I am.
G: A lot of musicians say they play for the music, but for you it’s more than the music. You don’t play music just for the music, but you play music because you have this important message. What is your explicit message?
K: It’s simple, it’s really rooted in justice. My music is quite specific and personal, and it is rooted in a struggle that’s very personal to me, so therefore I feel a certain responsibility in connection to the world and justice. This comes from having to justify my moments in existence, wanting to continue to justify my life. Because, in the sense of statistics, it shouldn’t have gone this long [K’Naan is referring to his escape from Somalia]. I kind of need to continuously do something with purpose so I can feel good about living.
G: Why do you feel hip-hop then, is able to convey your message more so than any other musical genre?
K: Because I think hip-hop is a gift to our struggle. It was born out of a certain need to express for a kind of oppressed people. It’s the talking blues, you know? You find it has a rhythm, a poetic element to it, but also it’s coming from a place of pain; a place of occupation, a place of struggle in general. Also the drum crashes in hip-hop in a certain way that you cannot attain in other genres of music. It’s the most intrinsic place for me.
G: Speaking of hip-hop, who are you influences? I was reading you listened to a lot of Nas and Rakim as a kid. Who else were you listening to back in the day?
K: Not many more, actually. I only had one vinyl record back in Somalia, which was the Rakim record. When I came to North America, I got into Gangstarr, Premiere and Guru. But anybody who was telling a specific story I got attracted to that. I felt like nobody was telling my story, but this is the closest because here is somebody who is telling theirs.
G: Do you think with hip-hop today, it still has that power? If you had a 50 Cent vinyl would you be in the same position you are now?
K: Wow, that’s a good question. How do I know this, though? I don’t know, probably the early 50 would do something for me, but no it isn’t the same thing. 50 is not painting, it’s not like he’s painting the hood in a way that if I had never been to it, I would see it. But that’s just a rare and explicit talent granted to someone. Not everybody has it; these [people] are great. ‘Pac and Biggie come around once in awhile, you’re not always going to have these greats existing. Maybe they’ll come around again, but in between, you just have a bunch of people doing something.
G: Are we stuck, then with these people, rapping about the guns and the drugs? It seems to me this glamorization of the gangsta life has been embraced by the mainstream. Why do you think this is?
K: I don’t think my music is any less gangsta than any of those artists, to be honest. In the true nature of what is hardcore, if you listen to it, you’d probably hear more hardcore rawness from my music than many of mainstream records going on right now. But it is the kind of violence, the way you articulate it, that is the difference. There are two reasons for why the mainstream is attracted to what’s going on [in terms of violence]. One, it is quite closely connected to corporate interest. On a small scale, glorifying violence is basically what the major governments of the world are doing on a big scale. But also these people [rappers] are advertising things for the corporations; that’s hard to resist when the big money is involved. The second reason is there’s always this little thing in all of us, in humanity, something intricately deep and satisfying about evil. The guy that has stole something feels a certain rush, but when you buy something you don’t feel that. There’s something connected to humanity wanting a little bit of darkness, and most people are living vicariously through that, because they can’t do it.
G: How do you change people from vicariously living this evil through the music, what is the antidote?
K: I think there’s a certain change in the wind, as far as culture goes. For example, this is not the same everywhere. What is quite attractive [elsewhere] is the will to do good; that’s just a cultural thing. In my neighbourhood, young kids had guns and you grew up learning to shoot, but often, what we called cool were the kids that never had to touch one. We envied them, those were the cool kids. They strutted around the neighbourhood like they were cooler than anybody else. It’s a very different culture.
G: Speaking of that, for the “Soobax” video you returned to your old neighbourhood to shoot that, right?
K: I actually shot it in Kenya, among the refugee population, which made a lot of sense. The problems I discuss in the song, these are the people hardest hit. When I go back to my neighbourhood it’s going to be very interesting. It’s always been tough, but since the war has taken over the whole country, it’s quite possibly one of the most dangerous in the world.
G: Do you see yourself going back in the near future, or is it a place you’ll fight for in your music?
K: I would love to go back in some way, something to do with trying to change things. It’s really tough. I can’t see that near in the future because of what is going on, just how bad it is. I don’t think anyone can imagine the condition and mentality-this is a place where they kidnap an 80 year old woman for ransom. There is no more connection to kindness. They will kill you over nothing.
G: Do you see that changing any time? If there was a failure in Live 8, it was the lack of exploration of the issues affecting Africa; it’s more than just poverty and AIDS. What should people look out for in Somalia? Is it more than just the guns, the warlordism and the lack of central government?
K: It’s kind of strange, there is no central government; this country is really just working it out. But nobody wants to give up the guns. People in Somalia, they are a breed of warriors who are quite eagerly belligerent. I think while the problem in Somalia is deeply rooted in a culture of conflict, which really, in all truth and fairness, came from colonial regimes. Somalia ruled itself for thousands and thousands of years. While there were warring factions, things were resolved in a harmonious way and they ruled through a political system called Plannism. What colonialism did is it took over this country, these people and started creating borderlines along side clans who otherwise traded, got along, lived amongst one another and married one another. It is now those very clans that are warring because of those lines.
G: Do you feel these older colonial powers still have responsibility for the territories they marked and created?
K: There’s absolutely no interview that’s ever explored my ideas as much as I have to you. In the west is where the burden lies. If you consider change, don’t think of Africa as [a contient to] pity, or Africa as carrying the weight of the world. Africa does and has suffered because of these powers. If you caused these problems, then you are in fact carrying the burden. That’s why I think it’s the political responsibility in the west and a human responsibility to the people here, for them to want to change things. Your forefathers here have caused tremendous amounts of problems that continue to exist. All that Africa is asking for is get your hand off of her neck.
G: You’re very spiritual. Where do you think this deep sense of spirituality came about?
K: It’s closely connected to linguistics, I know that sounds strange. The idea of investigation and what the universe is-stuff like that-I think lead me to humility about who I am and my role in the universe. Also, it’s the very poetic and intellectual community that brought me up, who walked around in the robes.