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The hip-hop troubadour; Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan is being heard loud and clear.

You want proof that success hasn't changed K'naan, just look at him. "Man, they lied to me!" he laughs over the phone from a tour stop in Lincoln, Neb. "They say, 'When you become popular, you start to gain a little bit of weight.' I've been waiting to be un-skinny forever."

Few, if any, MCs in hip-hop cut as recognizable a figure on stage as K'naan does: He's sapling-thin, sporting a dangling goatee and an Afro that's nearly always shaded by a broad-brimmed hat. Often he slings a hand drum over his shoulder: It allows him to accompany himself when he raps, and it also asserts a connection with his Somalian heritage. His experience growing up in — and barely escaping from — war-torn Mogadishu instilled in him a sense of purpose that helps him see through the allure of superstar excess.

K'naan's lyrics have a way of putting other artists' songs in perspective. On the track Somalia, from his new album Troubadour, he sets a scene in the country where he was born: "Freeze-frame on the street name / Oops, this is where the streets have no name — and the drain of sewage." While some seek escape from the world's afflictions, K'naan confronts them directly.

Along with his mother and his brother, 13-year-old Keinan Warsame left Somalia on the last commercial flight from Mogadishu to join his father in New York; the family settled in Toronto's "Little Somalia" shortly thereafter. He hasn't been back to Mogadishu since, but he notes, "I'm very much connected to a lot of the month-to-month issues from back home.

My father gets calls from people who are very appreciative of what we're doing. They say, 'You could have just ignored the cause.' "

K'naan has been speaking out publicly about his country's plight since 2001, when he was invited to perform in Geneva for the United Nations. He went off-script in order to critique the organization's "Restore Hope" operation in 1992-93 (as chronicled in the film Black Hawk Down), earning a standing ovation and the appreciation of Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour, who invited him to appear on his album of "refugee voices," Building Bridges, and a subsequent tour.

The MC's work with N'Dour proved to be the first of many collaborations brought about by his wandering the globe (in Somali, Keinan means "traveller") and meeting like-minded artists. Record labels, he says in his silken, matter-of-fact tone, have no influence on his choice of collaborators: "It's all just people where I'm a fan of their music; they're a fan of my music." He recalls having a "good connection and a good conversation" last year with Kirk Hammett at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.

The guitarist, who hardly ever ventures outside of the Metallica fold, contributes acrobatic solos to Troubadour's reworking of the genre-busting song If Rap Gets Jealous, a meeker version of which appeared on K'naan's 2005 debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher.

Troubadour also features Damian Marley's high-energy verses on the slithery I Come Prepared; the two artists' association goes back to a shared tour with Damian's brother, Stephen, in 2007. So great was the rapport between the three MCs that the Marleys invited K'naan to Kingston, Jamaica, to record his album at their father Bob's Tuff Gong studios.

"I went entirely as a blank canvas, with no expectations," K'naan recalls. "I didn't try to force anything; I just sat around Bob Marley's house, drank tea, went to the movies, read books, went to the beach. My label was calling my manager: 'Hey, is he crazy? What's he doing over there — just hanging out? Where's the music?' And then eventually, the music just came."

Troubadour feels like a natural sequel to The Dusty Foot Philosopher, as K'naan retains his producers, Track & Field (a. k. a. Jarvis Church and Brian West of The Philosopher Kings) and his melodic, densely imagistic flow. The arrangements are fuller, with the occasional glossy moment offset by the irrepressible character of his songs: When mainstream hookmeister Adam Levine (of Maroon 5) appears on Bang Bang, he's made to sing half-seriously about love for a girl "walking around with a loaded shotgun."

Clearly K'naan's new record company, A&M/Octone (a division of mega-corporation Universal), hopes that he'll break the U. S. market with this release — he's been touring much less often in Canada than he has in the U. S. But he won't lower himself to the level of the lowest common denominator: In performance, his strategy is both idiosyncratic and honest.

"Other artists hide behind the screen of instant gratification, or (focus on) the guy who's drinking beer, yelling the loudest," he says. "That doesn't do anything for me. If I don't feel like the energy is there, sometimes I cut the set short, or I might not even play the show, which means I have to give the money back to the promoters."

His determination may seem rather sententious, but underpinning his verses about war and violence is an exuberant celebration of the value of life. On his buoyantly funky single, Dreamer, he proclaims, "I'm a dreamer / But I ain't the only one got problems ... We alive, man / It's OK to feel good."

"I am reflective," says K'naan, "but it doesn't take away from laughing at a Will Ferrell song. This time here in the world is short, and it's magic and beautiful. We have struggles, and we have to address them, but we don't have to be serious all the time. I'm not a hostage of circumstance, and I don't think anyone should be."

The Vancouver Sun

2009/02/29

k'naan soobax

k'naan his first music video (soobax)meaning in english (come out) this song is his most famous song and music video "Soobax" on the dusty foot philosopher album.edit: all credits goes to k'naan che...