Forget 2 Chainz. Move over, Lil’ Wayne. In a sea of rappers promoting drugs, violence, and promiscuity for commercial viability, K’naan stands out as the lone fish with higher aspirations. Undoubtedly, many hip-hop artists and groups have inspired millions as living proof that a rags-to-riches brand of the American dream is realizable.
Some, including the genre’s two indisputable behemoths—Jay-Z and Kanye West—have voiced their support (or lack thereof) for certain heads of state. Others—from Nelly to 50 Cent—run questionable charities that straddle the fine line between philanthropy and public relations fronts. After all, between designing their own clothing lines and having video game characters created in their likeness, who is to say that spearheading altruistic ventures is not simply another expansion of their personal brand?
More strikingly, few of these artists go so far as to delve into sociopolitical themes within their music or to dedicate their lives to advancing progress. Sure—every now and then, they may whip clever verse or even a full-fledged song that almost gets raw and real—but never really reaches the tip of the iceberg. Rather, they are merely passive messengers who lack the backgrounds or experience to have truly internalized their sermon.
K’naan, on the other hand, has lived and breathed his music, so to speak. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in Mogadishu, K’naan was forced to grow up at an early age. As a resident of the city’s Wardhiigleey district—colloquially referred to as the River of Blood—K’naan witnessed social upheaval and violence in the years preceding the Somali Civil War. Among the dark memories that remain, he recalls kicking around a potato with his friends in the streets—before discovering it was a grenade and disposing of it just moments before detonation.
With her family in danger, K’naan’s mother was desperate to escape with her family intact. Clinging onto nothing short of a miracle, the Warsame clan was able to leave Somalia aboard its last departing flight. Shortly after their getaway, civil war broke out and the ruling regime disintegrated. K’naan’s family eventually moved to Toronto, Canada—where K’naan picked up English by listening to and emulating his favorite rappers.
Life in the Somali community of Rexdale, however, was far from golden. As a refugee, K’naan was instead exposed to different forms of injustice. Numerous friends were deported from the country, turned to a life of crime, or were victims of urban gang violence.
Luckily, K’naan found a way to cope through writing. His poetry, which gained a loyal readership on various Somali websites, led to an invitation to attend the 50th Anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees in 1999. At the tender age of 21, K’naan left prestigious officials slack-jawed when he delivered a hard-hitting poetic speech that lambasted the organization for its failed peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. His words—although brutal—received a standing ovation from the audience. From that critical junction in his life, K’naan went on to six studio albums and to bring forth a multitude of global issues to public attention.
In 2008, K’naan defended Somali pirates as enraged fishermen who are merely resorting to piracy as a means to defend the Somalian coastline from toxic waste dumped by foreign corporations—even addressing common misconceptions of the issue in his song, “Somalia”—in which he rhymes, “”So what you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean? –To never know a single day without a big commotion?”
After returning to his homeland in 2011, K’naan worked to raise awareness of drought-induced famine that incurred the loss of nearly 300,000 lives in the Horn of Africa. He also urged members of the Canadian Parliament to pass Bill C-393, which would have allowed manufacturers to produce generic and affordable versions of brand name pharmaceuticals with the potential to save millions of HIV/AIDS victims in the African continent. Although the fledgling bill has since been killed in the Senate, K’naan has not quelled his activist voice.
His latest musical release, 2012’s “Country, God or the Girl,” certainly indicates that K’naan has more fire in him than ever. On the chorus of the album’s 11th track, “Bulletproof Pride,” he pleads, “I’ve been waiting for you to come to your senses—holding up your heavy heart, down there in the trenches. You don’t have to carry that weight all by yourself. Even you—the mercenary—could use a little help.”
More recently, he has been working as a 2013 Sundance Directors’ Lab Fellow to shed light upon the effects of the ongoing Somali Civil War through film. As a gifted artist and political advocate, K’naan will undoubtedly find success in storytelling with different forms of media—which may allow Somalia’s narrative to reach even greater segments of the public.
One can only hope that more artists will strive for substance comparable to that of K’naan—and to proudly step beyond the role of celebrity into that of a true global citizen.
– Melrose Huang