Some people rap about money. Some people rap about guns. Some people rap about growing up in bad neighborhoods. K'naan raps about all of these things. K'naan is not like some people.
In the late 1980s, Mogadishu, Somalia, was – and still is – the kind of place where gunpowder is mixed into baby formula and kids grow up with AK-47s in their hands. It is, by all accounts, a world removed from the glamour-gun world of gangsta rap. Kanaan Warsame grew up in Mogadishu, birthed directly into the climes of impending civil war. His father escaped Somalia for the opportunities of New York City, sending back money and records to his family. Among the records were Nas' Illmatic, widely counted among hip-hop's highest achievements. It was in the grooves of Illmatic that Kanaan learned his first scraps of English, pulling together a rudimentary vocabulary of hip-hop phonics. In 1991, as the United States embassy in Mogadishu began to cease its operations in preparation for civil war, Kanaan and his mother were granted permission to leave Somalia for the U.S. They were aboard the last commercial flight to leave the city before turf wars forced the closure of Mogadishu's airport.
Settling at first with family in Harlem and then bouncing to the predominantly-Somali Toronto neighborhood of Rexdale, Kanaan began to assimilate into his new cultural home. It was here that he learned English and began crafting his own rhymes, rapping at open mics under the name K'naan. It was also in the streets of Rexdale that K'naan began to observe his new home's fascination with and celebration of gang-banging and gun violence. Armed with a new understanding of the English language, he began to realize that the rappers whose rhyming and rhythmic flows he so admired had a nearly-inexplicable love of violence, a love that seemed to misunderstand the roots behind violence's dirty flower. This was a stark contrast to Somalia's bullet-riddled streets, where true violence tore apart homes every day over conflicts more bloody and deeper-entrenched than drug deals and gang warfare. Violence is no kind of pleasure.
This dissonance between hip-hop's desire for violence and K'naan's Somalian experience has often been at the center of his music. On “What's Hardcore,” from his Dusty Foot Philosopher record, K'naan describes a typical Somalian day, forcing his peers to consider just how tough they actually are:
We begin our day by the way of the gun, Rocket-propelled grenades blow you away if you front, We got no police, ambulance, or fire fighters, We start riots by burning car tires [...] So what's hardcore? Really, are you hardcore?
Of course, without artistic vision, K'naan would be nothing but a propagandist, a pedant, and, quite honestly, he would run the risk of being a hypocrite. “If what we talk about is so bad,” other rappers may accuse, “why don't you do it any better than us?” K'naan's music is a polyrhythmic mix of African percussion, contemporary hip-hop beatmaking, and layers of guitars; his poetic lyrics are often compared to Bob Dylan and his conscience to Bob Marley. In 1999, at the age of twenty-one, K'naan was invited to have an audience before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he openly criticized the UN's failed aid missions to Somalia. The Dusty Foot Philosopher won the Juno – Canada's equivalent of the Grammys – for best hip-hop album in 2005, and he has played stages as varied as Lollapalooza 2008, the Montreux Jazz Festival, and 2006's Live 8 concert and has also performed with critically-adored rapper Mos Def.
K'naan is a critically respected rapper and live performer, to be sure. But when the stages are torn down and the floors are swept clean, it's that spirit – that peaceful poetry, that slow-flowing foot-patting, that ability to rock a show and blow a mind without raising a hand – that makes K'naan flow.