K’Naan: Somali MC Rocks Politics & Fun


K’naan’s full name is Keinan Warsame, and the first part of that moniker means “traveler.” Well chosen, because the Mogadishu-born MC has bounced around a bit. He grew up in Somalia, moved to Harlem, spread his artistic wings in Toronto, and is now on the road supporting his very impressive second disc, Troubador.

He honed his flow as a kid, echoing the rap cassettes his dad would send across the Atlantic from NYC. It has paid off. On the new CD’s “ABCs” he manages boast about his skills, stump for the education of kids, and give Chubb Rock plenty of elbow room. Troubador has silly rhymes, thoughtful rhymes, political rhymes, and funky rhymes. It gets lots of jobs done.

We asked K’naan, VH1 Soul’s latest You Oughta Know artist, a few off-the-cuff questions right after he and his group wailed through a performance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in late February.

Name a great memory from childhood.
“There are a lot of them, but there was this one rainy day where about 50 kids from our neighborhood in Somalia went to a lake that used to fill up during rainstorms. It was beautiful to swim in. Kids from other neighborhoods were scared of kids from our neighborhood. When we reached the lake, the other kids cleared. We had the whole thing to ourselves. You could jump from little cliffs. We stayed there ‘til the evening.”

What are you, a morning or night person?
“Night. I like the silence, and I like knowing that everyone else is asleep – like I’ve got one up on everyone. I stay up late, and usually go to bed when I’m exhausted from a show or some studio work – I collapse. I do my reading elsewhere; in bed, it’s like ‘let’s just sleep.’”

You’ve traveled quite a bit. Where do you feel is home?
“Somalia, even though I don’t live there. That’s still home. That’s still in the heart, though I haven’t been there in a long time. Toronto, where I lived, too. That feels like a home. And strangely, Portugal. Everything about it. The physicality of the country, the people, the women…beautiful.”

Name a food you can’t live without.
“There’s a restaurant in Toronto called Hamdi. It’s Somalian specialty food. My band is largely American guys from Philly, and they’re addicted to it. They’re like ‘Yo, when are we going to Hamdi?’”

What song on the new album is a breakthrough?
“Wavin’ Flag.” It’s one of those songs you come upon every once in awhile. You don’t search for it. You know from conception that it’s going to touch people. Can’t really explain it. I sat down and heard the melody in my head and recorded it. Within the span of a half hour the song was there. Everyone who hears it says it’s going to be the greatest thing.”

What was your first concert?
“It was a show that was inside a play – political theatre. That’s the way it was in my country. They’d have a play and inside the play is where the concerts were. There was a premise: a guy performing was wrongfully convicted, a tyrant wanted the woman he was in love with, and he was locked away because of that. We were taught to be sharp about art, even though I was seven years old, I knew it was about something else, too. He was kept away because of the love of his country.”

Favorite Bob Marley song?
“Hard to have just one, but one that stands out in my head is ‘Concrete Jungle.’”

Do you remember your dreams?
“Not really, but if I take cold medicine or sleeping pills, I remember everything, and it’s fucked up and weird. Lots of stuff happening them.”

If you wanted to please yourself on a day off, what would you do?
“Catch three movies in a row by myself. I recently went to a little theatre in New York and did that. Saw “Religulous,” and I like him (Bill Maher) more than I liked that movie. And I saw “Doubt” and one more film that day. I timed it. I knew I’d need a half hour between them and I made it work.”

What’s the K’naan song that is rocking the crowd these days?
“It’s gotta be “Wavin’ Flag.” Funny, right? It’s rare when the song that pleases the artist pleases the crowd. It’s like the venue has been carpet-bombed with ecstasy.

How did you know you were going to be a performer?
“I was the official storyteller of my house when I was about seven. Every Friday night I would have to come and tell the whole family and elders a story. My family has famous singers and poets. I had to entertain them. The stories you tell as a child in Somalia, they’re in acts, like a film. Episodes… So it would take you about an hour to tell a nuanced story. Details. Imagery – you have to explain all that. That aspect of performance came early. I used to be so obsessed with telling a great story that I would befriend kids from my school so I could meet their grandmothers and learn some new stories.”

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