Return to Transcripts main page


Profile of Somali-Canadian Hip-hop Star K'Naan

Aired January 24, 2009 - 12:30:00   ET


ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE AFRICA. I'm Isha Sesay. This week, we have a very special program for you, a full half-hour dedicated to a rising star, Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist K'Naan. I recently got to spend some time with him in New York, before a studio recording session.

Now, to be quite honest, before we met, I figured to shoot a five or 10- minute profile piece, but K'Naan and I had such a fantastic conversation, and I had so much fun that my producer and I decided to give him the whole show. So, without further ado, I give you K'Naan.


SESAY: Sometimes philosophical, sometimes political. Hip-hop artist K'Naan is always confident and often confrontational. The U.K. "Telegraph" newspaper calls his life shows incendiary and wryly humorous. And "The Los Angeles Times" named him "A 2009 Artist to Watch." His 2006 debut album "The Dusty Foot Philosopher" won him a Canadian Juno Award for rap recording of the year. His much anticipated sophomore effort "Troubadour" comes out next month.

His name means "traveler." And K'Naan has literally come a long way. When he was about 14, he and his family left Somalia as it descended into chaos. They spent some time in New York's famous Harlem neighborhood before settling in Toronto. A poet since childhood, K'Naan spoken-word stylings eventually caught the attention of Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour. Recently, he's worked with the likes of Nelly Furtado, Mos Def and Damian Marley. And by the looks of things, this dusty foot philosopher is ready to take the next big step.

(on camera): So, K'Naan, how old were you when you came to America?

K'NAAN: I was about 14.

SESAY: What were your first impressions of this very strange, eclectic land?

K'NAAN: Well, especially -- I mean New York to me, the big buildings, the -- the whole thing was different from everything I was used to. I mean, you know, the aesthetics, the architecture, the weather.

SESAY: And when you got here, where did you live?

K'NAAN: In Harlem.

SESAY: What's -- because Harlem is quite a unique experience. I mean, the people, the mix.

K'NAAN: Yeah.

SESAY: Ethnicities. Tell me about your memories from that time.

K'NAAN: I just remember everything being just fascinating, you know, like the mix of cultures, you know, in Somalia you just have Somali people. And the mix was really what stood out the most, you know, the vibe of the neighborhood. You know, basketball courts and so on, and all of this, you know. Everything, as you could imagine, was just -- was just different for me.

SESAY: You got here, you couldn't speak any English. And for you, how did you envisage your future?

K'NAAN: I don't know. I mean, I -- I was definitely not going to be -- I wasn't going to have a future without language, I knew that.

SESAY: You knew that?

K'NAAN: Yes. My entire existence back home was -- was language-based. It was eloquence-based, you know. We were taught that to -- our eloquence was our -- the way that we reached manhood back home, and so I just knew that if I didn't have language, that there wasn't much I could do with my sensibilities and how I saw the world.

SESAY: How did you go about learning English?

K'NAAN: Urgently. I went about it in a way that I saw -- I saw language for me as a way to kind of survive. And so, I didn't learn it in a leisurely way, in the way that people would usually learn languages. You know, in the way -- you know, I have time to go school, I learn it this way -- I did everything I could -- everything from listening to songs to try and figure out what they were saying, to going to school, to paying more attention to people who were talking, and listening, and reading and writing. I did everything to regain my own place I thought in the universal context.

SESAY: What do you make of -- I mean, as we walk in the West Village in New York now, almost a universe away from Somalia. I mean, not even a lifetime. And it's bigger than that. What do you make of the culture? You know, the culture, now you speak the language ...

K'NAAN: Right.

SESAY: You are -- you are shaping something else, something very unique. What did you make of the culture here?

K'NAAN: I think it's interesting. I mean, I think, you know, young cultures such as this culture -- I mean, in comparison to our culture, it's a very young culture. It's -- it's still in its, I would say, teenage years. So it's interesting to me that this culture is very much vibrancy- based, you know. It's very much adrenaline-based, it's -- it's still in its teens.

SESAY: Behind you in that store, these t-shirts that you see, "Obama. One love." "Yes, we did." "Rise like a Lion." I'm wondering, you know, as you talk about a culture that's evolving, what your sense is of what potentially is another shift.

K'NAAN: Right.

SESAY: In things now that, you know, America is about to get its own -- its own black president.

K'NAAN: Yes.

SESAY: You know.

K'NAAN: It's pretty amazing.

SESAY: I mean, what are your thoughts on that?

K'NAAN: For me, it says that America is looking to try and regain its political sanity, you know. That is -- that is what it says more than anything else. I mean, many of the scenarios that has shaped black people's history in America have changed, and many things have not. And so, these few years aren't so different than the last few years, when everyone couldn't imagine having a black president. But I definitely think it does give a lot of people a lot more things to aspire to be. And so when that kind of energy-based kind of dialogue is going on between people, I think artists tend to take on those energies a little quicker, and I think that being -- being that hip-hop is very much directly involved in this process, because this was the young vote that really ...

SESAY: Indeed.

K'NAAN: ... Had won him. And the young vote is really hip-hop. I think it's a very interesting place for hip-hop to be, because now it's going to have to reexamine itself.

SESAY: Absolutely. It has to -- I mean, it will have to reexamine its values system.

K'NAAN: Exactly. Exactly.

SESAY: Yeah, and I don't know, would there still be the same appetite for lyrics that aren't about driving around in my new convertible. I don't know, you can tell...


K'NAAN: Right, now, it's not a convertible. You know, it's a Bentley, all right?

SESAY: I read somewhere that you fired your first gun at eight. Is that true?

K'NAAN: Yes. It is.

SESAY: Tell me the circumstances.


K'NAAN: I've had two kinds of childhoods. One was the first -- my first childhood, which is from age one to 11, you know. And that was a beautiful kind of a childhood, majestic, with the ocean, poetry, family and serenity. Somali was -- was a place that to us was invincible. It was in, you know, the ways of our culture, the majesty of it was never going to be degraded into anything else.

After the age of 11 -- 11 brought war. And so that was a drastic change. So I can't even call it one sort of -- one sort of childhood. It was completely a shift from one thing to the other.

Somali is known as the nation of poets. And our predominant form of communication, I mean -- and I mean mass communication, is really poetry.

And my grandfather is a poet, a major poet, whose works have been studied in, you know, in schools and so on. And my auntie is the most -- the most famous singer of all time in my country. Her name was Magool.

The truth is that in Somalia, poetry isn't separate from life, and so the poet is the guy with the gun. And so sometimes people don't understand how I could address war in the way that I do when I would talk about it, you know. You know, yes, I have three friends, and they were very close friends, they were, you know, kids that I saw every day of my life, and then -- and so we're just kind of running around in the neighborhood. The war has become intense, and some of the corners (ph) caught them, and, you know. I remember we were near a white wall, and they were shot. And I kind of just snuck through the wall, jumped it, and made it home. And then had to come back later to find out that that they actually were all killed. And so that was --- that's how that would happen.

But the truth is, it becomes very factual at some point. You know, you know, war is a fact. It's no longer an emotion, you know. That's why people who've seen a few things, that's why they respond to it from a place of this person was killed, this person is alive, thank God, you know.

SESAY: I read somewhere that you fired your first gun at eight. Is that true?

K'NAAN: Yes. It is. It was just learning it. I wasn't really firing in a sense of combat and so on, but it was -- it was a Kalashnikov, AK-47, and ...

SESAY: How did you get your hands on it? Who ...

K'NAAN: An uncle was showing us, me and my brother, who was like two years older than I was. He was showing us, and we were outside of the city. He took us to a place sort of like a range, to kind of show us, you know, in the case that the things fall apart, like he thought they would, that we would be able to defend ourselves. And so he was just teaching us, you know.

And the first time I fired it, you know, the thing has an impact. And so, it's a little more powerful than a child, you know. So when you fire it, the back of it hits my shoulder. So I just fell back a little bit.

SESAY: Tell us about the ABC song.

K'NAAN: I got the inspiration from a thing that we used to say as children in Somalia. "A, B, C (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)". And it means, "they don't teach us the ABCs, they don't buy us the books and pens."


SESAY: Tell me about "The Dusty Foot Philosopher." First of all, tell me about the title.

K'NAAN: The, you know, the dusty foot philosophers to me are the kids I grew up with. Some of the kids who didn't make it, you know, my friends. We were living in this neighborhood, everyone knew, you didn't really go to. And we'd sit on top of abandoned buildings, you know, and just like swing our feet on top of the people that were walking around. And in the evenings, we'd just sit there and have conversations. They would be way beyond what the adults of North America even talk about. We just -- we'd be 12, 13, and ...

SESAY: Talking about what?

K'NAAN: Just, like, the nature of existence, like, you know, philosophy, things that are grand. And we'd dream beyond our means, and we'd dream what would you do, if you -- if you had this, you know, and how would you change this society, and what is the solution to the thing, you know, that kind of thing. And so I looked at them as the dusty foot philosophers, you know. The not necessarily educated type of philosophy, but the truth and the naturally inclined type of philosophy.

SESAY: Do you find it easy writing about war, instability?

K'NAAN: It's neither difficult or easy. It's something unnamed in between the two, because it's -- it's partly what I know. It's -- it's also what the people I love most are still going through.

You see, I left war, but it hasn't left me, to be honest, because I still - - I'm on the phone with it, on a day-to-day basis. I hear what is going on, you know. I have to -- I have to when I'm more better off than others, I have to figure out ways to fix their scenarios. And that is a constant thing for me, you know, and so I'm -- I don't -- I still don't feel very comfortable, and that's kind of why I think I write about that stuff.

SESAY: "Troubadour" is your soon-to-be released second album.

K'NAAN: Right.

SESAY: Tell me about the genesis of this album.

K'NAAN: This album, I recorded it in Jamaica. I recorded it in Bob Marley's house.


K'NAAN: And also, his the legendary Tuff Gong Studios, and so I would be in the evenings in Bob Marley's -- in his home studio, and in the afternoons in Tuff Gong, and back and forth like that. For several months, I stayed in the house.

And so, I just -- I just, you know, I wrote songs that I think are for me, and, you know, artistically, I have grown as a human being and as an artist, and I think "Troubadour" is a really interesting album. I mixed things as I usually do, and I used a lot of inspiration from different areas of my life.

SESAY: Tell us about the ABC song.

K'NAAN: I got the inspiration from a thing that we used to say as children in Somalia, "ABC (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)."

They don't teach us the ABCs, they don't buy us the books and pens. We play on the hard concrete, all we got is life on the streets.

And so, I think that's kind of the melodies of ancient East Africa for me, and hip-hop is what -- what makes me, and so the ABC is really that song.

SESAY: The song "Somalia."

K'NAAN: Right.

SESAY: Interesting song, which references a headline that we've been seeing on the news looping over and over again -- the pirates.

K'NAAN: I didn't know that it was going to get to become news like that, but we were aware of it, and we were writing about it. And Somali people have been, you know, trying to get the thing out there, that there is -- there is a danger of this happening. The entire coast being taken over by -- by young guys from our country. If they are not heard.

SESAY: But now there is a sense that the warlords are using these young men to go off, hijack vessels, so they can use the money to buy further arms to keep the instability going in Somalia.

K'NAAN: Partly true, but it's bigger than that. The truth is that Somalia -- young Somali pirates in the ocean can't be controlled by anybody. The Somalis don't have that sort of a hierarchy, authority kind of thing, you know. Every man is his own ruler. That's what the British used to say about them when they tried to colonize them. And so, the pirates are a stand-alone force of people, and the warlords are a stand-alone force.

SESAY: What are your hopes in terms of going back home to Somalia?

K'NAAN: Well, that's a complicated one.


SESAY: As we bring things to a close, I'm interested in as you talk about the glamorization, the glorification, the packaging. How do you describe your physical style, which is, some would say, is the antithesis of the kind of the bejeweled, the kind of flashy. Is it a manufactured look in a kind of anti-Hollywood, anti-American hip-hop?

K'NAAN: Not really. I have not given it much thought. It was kind of just the way -- kind of just the way I dress. I -- I like these things, you know. I don't really have chains or anything like that.

SESAY: No gold...

K'NAAN: No, because ...

SESAY: ... teeth.

K'NAAN: That's a cultural thing, really. Like I don't even really wear a lot of like -- like, you know, baggy clothes, or sneakers, or something. I mean, I don't think if you love hip-hop, it does not mean you have to transfer every aspect of its -- its dress code or culture to yourself. You can take some beautiful things from it, and the things that don't really fit you, you can just throw away.

I have my own culture. I have my own way of dressing, my own way of seeing the world. I don't have to see it like everyone else.

SESAY: What are your hopes in terms of going back home to Somalia?

K'NAAN: Well, that's a complicated one, because, you know ...

SESAY: Right now it's ...

K'NAAN: If you ever thought that the place couldn't get any worse, it just did. It always does. It's like Somalia is like progressively this country that gets more dangerous and more dire. I don't know what else, you know, people are supposed to do to survive in this place. It's really - it's a very tragic scenario at the moment. But you can - you can't discard hope no matter hard the circumstances are. You've got kind of keep it with you. You've got to kind of see it through, so we will.


SESAY: K'Naan, an artist to watch indeed. You know, I never met a 30- something-year-old philosopher before.

Well, we hope you enjoyed this special presentation of INSIDE AFRICA. Be sure to tune in next week for a brand new episode. Until then, take care.