Growing up in war torn Somalia during the height of a Civil War, as K’NAAN Warsame did, would undoubtedly elicit it’s fair share of repercussions. PinBoard caught up with the man himself during his short stint in London, last week.
In past interviews K’NAAN – now on to his sophomore musical offering, Troubadour – has talked of growing up around resounding sounds of gunfire, as mutilated dead bodies paved the streets of Mogadishu, where he spent his formative years. Dodging bullets and losing loved would surely have damaging psychological effects, yet conversely, the survival of such troubling times allowed K’NAAN the sensibilities to thoroughly observe his environment (“My job is to write just what I see/So a visual stenographer is who I be”- “I Come Prepared”, Troubadour) .
Having been accustomed to constantly watching his back, for the sake of life preservation it’s no wonder that today, K’NAAN describes himself as a “Consistent Observer”. And with observations, came the personal musings and philosophies that set K’NAAN’s lyrical prowess apart from the rest.
If you’ve listened to a K’NAAN Verse, an interview, or even a Twitter offering from the Universal signed rapper, it’s clear that he’s as sharp as they come, and his art only further demonstrates his abilities. If this were a music class the ‘slow’ rappers would be huddled in the corner, drinking purple substances from Styrofoam cups, sporting their aptly labelled ‘dunce’ hats, while spitting incoherent babble (“A lot of mainstream niggas is yapping about yapping/A lot of underground niggas is rapping about rapping/ I just want to tell you what’s really crackalacking” -“Somalia”, Troubadour) while K’NAAN sits quietly confident, top of the class. For this Somali born musician, it’s not about ‘privileged’ or education (“probably get a Grammy without a grammar education/so f**k you school and f**k you immigration.” “Somalia” Troubadour). It’s about street smarts, and observation based philosophies.
So, exclusively for PinBoard, observe K’NAAN’s musings and philosophies…
PinBoard: If you were to use an analogy to describe what your new album Troubadour represents to you, what would it be?
K’NAAN: There’s a guy that had an analogy for it. Jimmy Lovine, the CEO of Interscope in the U.S, the guy that works closest to him said, K’NAAN’s album is as if hip hop is glam music now and this is Nirvana. It’s a big compliment!
PinBoard: And in laymen’s terms, what does Troubadour mean to you?
K’NAAN: I think it’s different, it’s fresh, it’s like it’s own path that it’s finding. There is nothing that is made as a blueprint that this album is following. So even whatever artists I might be fans of in hip hop like Nas, or Jay- Z or something, they never made this kind of album, so even they’re not the Blueprint for this.
PinBoard: What sets this album apart?
K’NAAN: The album has a certain musicality to it, certain melodic capacity to it so you won’t find a song like ‘Fire in Freetown’ on a lot of albums, you won’t find a song like ‘Waving Flags’ on a lot of albums. Content wise I think it’s different but it’s also what I like about hip hop, what’s fresh about hip hop. A song like ’15 Minutes Away’, about money transfer, that’s what a fresh hip hop artist would do. Like when I first heard KanYe, I thought he would make something like that.
PinBoard: Was it an organic process or more contrived like ‘what can I do to raise the bar’?
K’NAAN: For me it was about raising my own bar. I wanted to see how much I’d grown as an artist, so most of anything I do in my life are really quite selfish. I do things for my own entertainment or to test my capacity as an artist and this was one of those journeys.
PinBoard: What’s the response to your music been like from your family and community?
K’NAAN: It’s been really positive for the most part. But if you talk about Somali people as a community, it’s the songs of their experience so it means more to them. But even then there’s cultural complications. There’s religious elements, like someone who’s seriously religious might say “well I don’t like it, ’cause he’s doing music, period”. So that’s a cultural response in itself, but outside of that it’s been wonderful.
PinBoard: I recently spoke to an artist called Corneille who is of Rwandan parentage and he said he found it burdensome having to try and represent in some way not just his country but also the continent of Africa in a wider sense. Do you ever feel that?
K’NAAN: No, because it’s necessary…I take the opposite of his philosophy. I get why it could be burdensome, and I know it’s not easy but that’s why it must be done. Not too long ago, you wouldn’t have expected a rapper, from Africa, naming himself as an African and talking about African experiences, to do anything in the U.S let alone for other artists who are generally the heroes of the public to be seeking him out. KanYe puts so much of my music on his website. He premiered the video for ‘”T.I.A (This is Africa)” on his website. Nas is the same and vocal about the music that I’m making. And that was not in our foreseeable future and it takes for someone to be proud and really, like pride, not saying pride. And you can see it, you can hear it in the music.
“T.I.A (This is Africa)”
PinBoard: How do you feel about often being labelled as the African War Child?
K’NAAN: Well it’s not my identity. I’m an artist and I feel like people who know my music tend to label me as an artist. They see the interesting compositions, the signature changes I can make, the melodic sensibilities of my music, lyrics, they see those things. For example when Nas is talking about my music, he doesn’t talk about the person who comes from war, he’s like “the music on this thing is like…” he’s talking about it from that sense. It’s media that usually pick me out as an African war child or something like that, because even that is fine, even that needs representation. But if you ask me as I person, I represent my art, but if they take me on as ‘that guy’ I’m good for that too.
PinBoard: How would you define personal success?
K’NAAN: It’s rarely attainable in my view, I mean in art. Because there’s always this small faint light which is dangling just above where I’ve reached. So whenever you’ve reached somewhere, there’s always that bit further, another light that I have to reach. And I want to touch all my lights, that’s my idea of success.
PinBoard: So what do you foresee? International Stardom?
K’NAAN: Honestly, that’s not an artistic thing at all, that’s not an accomplishment, it’s a bi-product of my art. I really never had ambitions to be famous and whether I like it or not, I can see that things are happening. But I’m really not made that way, I’m very much private and very much comfortable in my creative world rather than the exposure of the craziness, so I don’t entertain it. Like recently I was in Miami for the Winter Music Conference, which is crazy, like South Beach. And I was staying in the Delano hotel, right in the centre of everything where Diddy was having his personal parties in the lobby and stuff like that. I had a show to play at the pool. I played my show, came up and ordered room service and that’s the extent of how I see that world, so I’m just not made for it.
PinBoard: A lot of artists nowadays seem to create affiliations with other artists outside of the music, which in some way helps to propel them. Do you ever feel the pressure to be part of ‘the scene’?
K’NAAN: No, I don’t. It’s not any disrespect to Diddy but I don’t do music or create songs to propel me to anything. I do it to propel a people, and that’s a whole different philosophy.
PinBoard: You’ve had mild criticisms here and there for using the N-word, and I recently read a comment somewhere where they said the use of that word isn’t synonymous with being a ‘conscious artist’. What’re your thoughts on that?
K’NAAN: I don’t even know what a conscious artist means, to be honest. I think sometimes it’s nice when people say conscious, but that’s if they really mean it, sometimes they mean it by the category or the ghettoization of an artist who’s good. If you’re a good lyricist you’re conscious and that’s a ghettoization because it’s like, “we don’t have to listen to it”. “He’s very good, but he belongs in this world, like Mos, like Talib”…why not listen to the same artist like you do Drake or Lil’ Wayne? what are you really saying? So I don’t subscribe to the term and the truth is, a lot of the artists that may write in that world, the supposed conscious artists don’t have the experiences that I do. They’re not from what I’m from, they didn’t grow up in that world. They grew up privileged, they know College and stuff like that. I know war, and from that I know the hood in America and so that’s my life for real. So I’m not from privilege, I talk like how I feel, how I see.
PinBoard: You recently dubbed yourself a ‘Love Expert’ on Twitter, how so?
K’NAAN: I’m just one of those people…what is it they say? Those you can’t, teach. I’m just one of the people, I’m not very good at the actual manifestation of it in relationships, but I know very much how it works. I understand it very much.
PinBoard: Where did that insight come from?
K’NAAN: From being an observer, I’m a really consistent observer, I’m an avid listener and I have a real close-knit relationship with my mother.
PinBoard: Are you going to share this insight via any other non-music related mediums?
K’NAAN: I’ve been asked by some publishers to consider a book and I’m think about that. I’ve been writing a book, but it’s different from what I’ve been asked to do. I’ve been writing a novel, a fiction novel. This new thing I’ve been asked to do is autobiographical. What I’ve been writing- the fiction piece is called Marriage Class. And it’s about a group of girls who go to a school to learn marriage and how it works, but the teacher is a thrice divorced man who falls in love with one of the students and they have a complicated relationship.
…But it doesn’t end there. On the day of the above interview, K’NAAN was to perform a one off show at Cargo, East London. So there it was, he’d talked the talk, but the real manifestation was to come later. Thing is, London audiences sometimes give a less than luke-warm reception, even to artists they’re crazy about. So after all that was said and done, this had to validate him. Oh, and it did!
He absolutely, indisputably ripped the Cargo show to shreds. K’NAAN exported us out of East London, into the slums on New York, and back out further, deeper, into the heart of his home, Somalia. It was less of a gig, more like a cultural/musical exploration from experimental sounds (70’s Somalian Jazz anyone?) to lyrical cultural references that the largely Somali audience (a guesstimate would be 70%) connected with, as did we all. K’NAAN’s material was largely from the new album Troubadour, which offers both sweet and bitter memories, all done with artistic gusto. He performed with such bravery of spirit that it could have easily been a political rally; fists in air, booming percussions from the accompanying band’s mighty drummer. K’NAAN proved that he’s not just good at stringing words together, he breathes music, and that’s no philosophy, it’s fact.
K’NANN’S second album Troubadour is out now.