Definitely one of my favorite interviews ever! This man is an intellect & his struggle inspires me.
The Definition of Underprivleged Intelligence
Imagine walking down unpaved, arid roads filled with people with sad, desperate eyes, swollen, hollow stomachs and hearts heavy with the daily terror of their lives being cut short. Welcome to Somalia. If you know nothing of Somalia, know this: it is the Nation of Poets, the violence is palpable and K’naan stems from those very roads. It’s through these hard knocks, that K’naan’s self proclaimed fresh, thought-provoking, melodic and relevant music has been able to make waves in the hip hop community. And K’naan fully intends on riding those waves as far as they will take him, with his anticipated sophomore album, Troubadour, set to release in January 2009. The album title is certainly a testament for K’naan, as a wandering, poetic soul, telling stories of true violence, struggle and pain that are ever-present in Somalia. From his eyes to our ears, Somalia is revealed.
YRB: You spoke previously about having “survivor’s guilt” in regards to Somalia. With over half the population in need of medical aid and food as well as insurgency driven by Islamist and nationalist groups; how do you deal with that survivor’s guilt?
K’naan: I watched a documentary while I was in Capetown, South Africa called 24 Hours in Somalia, and it got me so down. I wasn’t able to do my work over the next three to four days. I called my mother and told her what I saw and how I felt about it. She said, the unfortunate thing is that, those of us who left—who are outside of the country—who are not able to be helpful to them, will be made to feel like skeletons; like people who left their souls behind. It’s a very sad tragedy, the circumstances of this country and those of us who live outside of it that are not sharing in those misfortunes with our families and friends who live there. We can’t feel too good about it. I think that is across the board and anyone who is a thinking and feeling human being, has the same issues as I do.
YRB: Being that you’re associate with so many different regions—being born in Somalia, moved to New York and settled in Canada, Why is it that you don’t think of your music in terms of regions?
K’naan: That’s interesting. I think it is because of that—because I was in so many regions—influenced me. It becomes regionless. If you add so many things to the puzzle that they make up their own puzzle rather than you having sections. It’s well clicked and only makes sense in the whole, rather than in the pieces I come from.
YRB: You’re able to mix potent lyrics with upbeat music. Do you feel your message gets lost or confused in the marriage of the music and lyrics?
K’naan: I’m fortunate in that it never gets lost, but it does give people the sense of should I be dancing or thinking? I think that is the mix of my life. I bring the listener to my world and it is the contradiction of a beautiful melody and a tragic message—the upbeat feeling in the music and the conflict of what I am dancing to. These are the things that I feel, so I transfer it to the listener.
YRB: I know your debut album was called The Dusty Foot Philosopher, so what is the Dusty Foot Philosophy?
K’naan: It’s underprivileged intelligence, like concrete genius, that sort of thing where the mix of uneducated brilliance and street culture come from the dust. Having the ability and the voice to inform those of feel they’re educated.
YRB: You say that your music is a mix of tradition and articulation of your life and past experiences, so that makes it always personal. Is it difficult to repeatedly pour your heart out like this?
K’naan: That’s a very good question. I do get tired. When I do, it’s usually when I feel as if it’s been underappreciated. I’ve been very fortunate to travel the world and play and we’ve always had incredible audiences, but I’ve left shows in the middle where I had a crowd that came for me and like 1000 to 2000 people in the room, loud, drinking, and being obnoxious. I left several of those because it’s hard for me to justify sharing personal, powerful scenarios with people who feel as if I am there to entertain them. I don’t feel like an entertainer.
YRB: If you’re not an entertainer, you are…?
K’naan: I guess what I do entertains people because it makes them feel good listening to it, but I am in the art form of enchantment, more than entertainment.
YRB: How does understanding true violence influence your music?
K’naan: Understanding complete violence gives you a position in music in which you are really just sharing things from a place of someone who knows a little bit. When you meet someone who has had a past, usually there is an air of calm around them because they are settled into themselves; they know the fortunes offered to them. They know that the future is a fortunate thing, so they kind of just are at ease with things. I’m at ease with my music. I don’t really try.
YRB: You say you’re rooted in hip hop. But with lyrics like, “I gotta water down my thoughts because if it came hardcore to the brain like I use it, then radio would refuse it,” does that hip hop foundation stifle the music you create?
K’naan: I think it helps because I’m a lyricist that sings and has melodies. It makes for an interesting show. When I play, people that come to the shows, come with the question, what kind of artist of this dude because I just heard about him? And when they leave they still don’t have the answer. I like that feeling. I like to not be predicted. I think hip hop is a cool thing for me because I like the exercise of words.
YRB: Speaking of the exercise of words, I know that you received music from your father while you were still in Somalia and he was in New York. You also learned the English language through that music. So, how did evolve into you being so poetic with the English language?
K’naan: I used to listen to hip hop and try to extract the references being used. It not only taught me how to communicate, but it also showed me the cultural contrast of what is going on with America and everyone else. That’s been an incredible part, but I chose to continue to think in the Somali language. I write in the English language, but I still think in my own language. What then happens is my writing is informed by the value weight of another language. That’s why my phrases sometimes that I may use, like Mos was talking about one of my lines: ‘How come they only fix the bridge after somebody’s fallen.’ This is an imagery that only comes from where I come from but it speak to this generation too because he thought it was about New Orleans. I wrote it before that.
YRB: Do you feel that through your body of work, you’ve been able to reveal Somalia to listeners?
K’naan: I think I’ve been helpful in that before me there wasn’t any music in the English language being made about Somalia. I was a door to that. I hope I’ve done a good job in showing people both sides of Somalia—both difficult and beautiful.
YRB: What can we expect to hear on your new album, Troubadour?
K’naan: I never make the same albums twice or the same songs. I am not interested in repeating myself, so it’s very different from The Dusty Foot Philosopher in the way that it sounds. Also, I’ve grown as an artist. You can expect some good music.
YRB: Are you trying to prove any points with this album?
K’naan: No, that’s not my job. My job as an artist, is to remain on a level of honesty and just to share. I choose to continue to go further than just to be honest about my surroundings and circumstances and I’m honest about myself. That’s always a more difficult thing for an artist to do—put themselves out there.