Dusty foot philosopher a true rapper without borders
“I don’t think hip-hop necessarily needs peace. Hip-hop needs all the elements of the world – it needs perversions, it needs sanctity, it needs violence and it needs its beef. I’m trained in combat, I kill you with love.”
The statement rattles around the mind like the pea in a spray can. Delivered from the mouth of a man who thanks “Mr. And Mrs. Positive” in the liner notes of his albums, and raps about surviving and thriving through adversity, the quote leaves a question mark hanging overhead.
And yet, somehow, it’s a fitting comment from a man who admits if an organization called Rappers Without Borders were founded, he would be its first president. Keinan Abdi Warsame, “Africa’s rap Bruce Lee,” is a different breed of hip-hop star.
Material possessions mean little to K’naan, who was raised in the Wardhiigleey district of Mogadishu, Somalia, also known as “The River of Blood,” during the civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s.
Having lived not only in the slums of Somalia but also in some of North America’s toughest neighbourhoods – including Toronto’s notorious Rexdale area and Washington, D.C.s southeast side, a place responsible for the city’s moniker as the “murder capital” – K’naan is more focussed on survival than he is new shoes.
“The western mindset that material attainment is success is not a universal law,” K’naan says over the phone from a restaurant in New York. “We don’t think that way and, therefore, we don’t feel like we’ve arrived if we’re successful materially. We don’t feel happier, because we have other things to measure success by.” Things, he says, that can’t be stashed in a Swiss bank account, like love, decency and positivity.
For a man who couldn’t speak English until he moved to North America in his teens, who learned the language listening to old Nas and Rakim records, K’naan is as articulate as a Pulitzer Prize winner.
His views on everything from music to murder are fresh and borne of experiences rooted in the best and worst of conditions in the First and Third Worlds. K’naan eschews the clout of cash, cars and cribs, crediting world travels with his brash world view.
When considering the impact of the war on his African homeland, for instance, he stresses the importance of “attaching dignity to the struggle. Without it,” he says, “it becomes what’s called suffering. We do struggle, and it’s clear, but we’re not devoid of our dignity.
“I feel like I have been fortunate to listen to the silent conversations, the silent discourse that happens between humans. In humanity, the observer is a witness to the aspirations, ambitions and discontents. So I write those things.”
For K’naan, possessions fall into the same category as drugs and liquor, or awards and nominations– they don’t mean shit. He has never consumed alcohol and, despite touring extensively with the Marley brothers and recording his latest classic Troubadour in Bob’s home, he’s never smoked a joint.
As per awards, the soft spoken Somali-Canadian isn’t even sure which ones he’s won. “I guess I won the Juno that time. I also won a BBC award and there’s a new nomination lately but I forget the name of it,” he admits.
Unlike the infinite message of his songs – which K’naan says is universal because it has the potential to appeal to kids in the slums of Somalia or the suburbs of Scarborough – awards and material wealth are a reality that few in the world can relate to.
“If your value system is based on the attainment of material things then you look at those without as people who are suffering or people that don’t have,” he considers. “The truth is, of course, you have to respect people’s struggles. I’ve lived in an apartment where it was $20 a month, where people were getting shot all the time, so I understand that struggle.”
Story by Remi L. Roy