K’naan (pronounced /ˈkeɪnɑːn/), born Keinan Abdi Warsame (Somali: Keynaan Cabdi Warsame, Arabic: كنعان عبدي ورسمه) in 1978, is a Somali-Canadian poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist.
Born in Somalia, K’naan spent his childhood in Mogadishu and lived there during the Somali Civil War, which began in 1991. His aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia’s most famous singers. K’naan’s grandfather, Haji Mohammad, was a poet. He isMuslim, and his name, Keinan, means “traveler” in the Somali language. He spent the early years of his life listening to the hip-hop records sent to him from America by his father, who had left Somalia earlier. When he was 13, K’naan, his mother, and his three siblings, older brother, Liban, and younger sisters Naciimo, Sagal were able to leave their homeland and join relatives in New York City, where they stayed briefly before moving to Canada, to the Toronto neighbourhood ofRexdale, where there was a large Somali community and his family still resides. There, K’naan began learning English, partly by listening to hip hop albums by artists like Nas and Rakim. Despite the fact that he could not yet speak the language, the young K’naan taught himself hip hop and rap diction, copying the lyrics and style phonetically. He then also began rapping.
He is married to Deqa, a pharmacist. They have two sons, born in 2005 and 2007.
K’naan became a friend and associate of Canadian promoter Sol Guy, who helped him secure a speaking engagement before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, where K’naan performed a spoken word piece criticizing the UN for its failed aid missions to Somalia. One of the audience members, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, was so impressed by the young MC’s performance and courage that he invited him to contribute to his 2001 album Building Bridges, a project through which K’naan was able to tour the world.
This project led to his work at other UN events, as well as the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Halifax Pop Explosion. It also helped him meet Canadian producer Jarvis Church and his Track & Field team in 2002, who produced his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. In 2006, it won the Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year, and was nominated for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize. It also won the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in the newcomer category for 2007. The Dusty Foot Philosopher was re-released and re-packaged as a “Deluxe Edition” featuring new mixes and a bonus DVD in the United States (and various international territories) by the emerging media company and record label iM (Interdependent Media, Inc.) in 2008.
Since then, K’naan has been on tour promoting his album and working on his follow-up release, “Troubadour,” his debut album for new label, A&M/Octone Records. He has also been collaborating with artists like Nelly Furtado, Mos Def, Will-I-am, The Roots, Dead Prez, and Pharoahe Monch on tours such as Live 8 and Breedlove Odyssey. He also collaborated with Damian Marley on the “Welcome to Jamrock” touring session.
K’naan released The Dusty Foot on the Road, a collection of recording made during his world tour on Wrasse Records.
K’naan rose to mainstream popularity by participating in the 2008 BET Awards Cypher, This was his first appearance on American television. His second studio album, Troubadour, was released on February 24, 2009 on A&M/Octone Records, and will be distributed through Universal Music Group worldwide. The album’s first single, “ABC’s”, was released to radio in late 2008. K’naan has featured in several video games such as Madden NFL 09 with his song ABC’s, and FIFA 06 with his song “Soobax”. The song “If Rap Gets Jealous”, a rerecording of a track of the same name – with different verses – from The Dusty Foot Philosopher, features Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. K’naan was also the first featured artist on X3, a collaborative project between CBC Radio 3, Exclaim! magazine and aux.tv to promote new Canadian music.
Style and influences
Jim Welte has said K’naan has “a sound that fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip hop, and brilliant protest poetry.” His voice and style have been compared to Eminem, but his subject matter is very different; according to K’naan, he makes “urgent music with a message”, talking about the situation in his homeland of Somalia and calling for an end to violence and bloodshed. He specifically tries to avoid gangsta rap clichés and posturing, saying:
|“||All Somalis know that gangsterism isn’t to brag about. The kids that I was growing up with [in Rexdale] would wear baggy [track] suit pants, and a little jacket from Zellers or something, and they’d walk into school, and all the cool kids would be like, ‘Ah, man, look at these Somalis. Yo, you’re a punk!’ And the other kid won’t say nothing, but that kid, probably, has killed fifteen people.||”|
This statement was made to explain his position on the world of difference which exists between where he grew up, and the ghettos of the first world. Nonetheless, K’naan denies that he is overtly political, instead explaining that he “[shows] the state of the world [and] if you call it like it is you’re being political.” His own opinion of his music is that it’s a “mix of tradition and [a] kind of articulation of my own life and [..] my past experiences.”
In a December 2008 interview with Hard Knock TV, K’naan stated he had never smoked marijuana or drank alcohol, despite having toured with the Marleys. This is in-keeping with K’naan’s deep Islamic beliefs.
K’naan has said that he is influenced by Somali music and the traditional instruments of Somalia. His most recent album, Troubadour, also draws heavily from Ethiopian sources, particularly Ethio-Jazz by Alemayehu Eshete and Tilahun Gessesse. These influences can be heard in the Ethiopian jazz samples in his songs “America”, “Dreamer”, “Somalia”, “ABCs”, “Bang Bang” and “I Come Prepared”.
Prior to the release of Troubadour, K’naan performed with a small acoustic band, consisting of Rayzak (back-up vocals), Kierscey Rand (acoustic guitar) and UDOGG-The Funky Drummer (djembe and drums). This style was an essential element of what set K’naan apart from most hip-hop acts. More than that, it reflected K’naan’s value of meaningful lyrics over shallow theatrics. One of the last performances of this band was on March 16, 2009 when K’naan rendered four songs from the newly launched album for CBC’s program Q withJian Ghomeshi, although Rayzak continued to join his subsequent shows and Kierscey Rand made occasional appearances, such as his World Cup Trophy Tour.
Since Troubadour, K’naan has toured almost exclusively with a larger electric ensemble – consisting of drums, bass, electric guitar, and keyboards – and his performances now also feature elaborate lighting. This change in showmanship, along with his collaborations with such high profile artists as Adam Levine and Mos Def, has helped to shift K’naan more into the mainstream flow of the music industry and has helped him gain exposure to a wider audience.
In 2009, K’naan, along with 800 other artists from the Arab world, participated in the Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.. The three-week gathering, which took five years and $10 million to organize, is the largest showcase of Arab art ever held in the United States. The festival featured music, dance, theater and many art and cultural exhibitions, with artists carefully selected according to the quality of their artistic performance. Arabesque also provided a platform from which artists from the Arab world could correct prevailing and often negative misconceptions regarding their identity, and offered an opportunity for the participating artists to reclaim their right to self-definition. K’naan put on a free live show during the festival’s opening weekend, attracting many fans toward his message of reframing the limited perception of Arab cultures in North America.
2010 FIFA World Cup tour
A remixed version of K’naan’s single “Wavin’ Flag” was chosen as the Coca-Cola anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa. In December 2009, K’naan performed the song live during the Coca-Cola-sponsored FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour, which took him to 86 countries around the world.
- In 2008, K’naan collaborated with the Malian duo Amadou & Mariam on the song “Africa” from their album Welcome to Mali.
- In 2009, K’naan collaborated with British rock band Keane on two songs from their EP Night Train including their latest single ‘Stop for a Minute’, and ‘Looking Back’.
- In 2009 K’naan also Collabrated with American Rapper Wale on the song “Um’Ricka” for Wale’s mixtape “Back to the Feature” and on the song “TV In The Radio” from Wale’s debut album “Attention Deficit”
- In September 2009, K’naan teamed up with J. Period, an LA born DJ/producer, and released “The Messengers”, a three volume remix project. Each volume pays tribute to one music icon: Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. It was released and is hosted online for free at Jperiod.com/knaan.
- K’naan also toured with Jason Mraz during the summer of 2009 for Mraz’s Gratitude Cafe Tour. He is currently on tour with Lenny Kravitz on the LLR tour.
- In 2010, during the Vancouver Olympics, 50 other Canadian musicians and artists came together with K’Naan under the collaboration name of Young Artists for Haiti at the Bryan Adams Vancouver studios to produce a charity version of his song “Wavin Flag”. The music video was released March 1, 2010. String students from Lord Byng Secondary and Magee Secondary joined together momentarily and formed an orchestra which accompanied the song. It was released for digital download on March 12, 2010.
- In 2010 K’naan featured on the first unofficial single, “Mask On My Face” off of Chin Injeti’s album, ‘D’tach.’
- In 2010, a remixed bilingual English/Spanish version “Wavin’ Flag” was made under the title “Wavin’ Flag (Coca Cola Spanish Celebration Mix)” with Spanish pop artist David Bisbal after the song was chosen as the Coca-Cola anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to be held in South Africa. K’naan sings the English lyrics and Bisbal the Spanish lyrics. He also featured Banky W. and M.I in the Nigerian version of the song “Wavin’ Flag”, Nancy Ajram for the Arabic version of the song, féfé for the French version, Skankfor the Brazilian version & will.i.am and David Guetta for the English version of the song.
- In 2010, he has also collaborated with Damian Marley and Nas, in the album “Distant Relatives”, where he is featured in the songs: Tribal War & Africa Must Wake Up. The album was released on May 18, 2010.
K’naan won the 2010 Juno Awards for Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year.
In popular culture
Dispute with k-os
In 2005, the Canadian music scene featured a low-key feud between K’naan and k-os, one of the most prominent Canadian hip-hop artists. Following the release of the music videofor the song Soobax, which was shot by K’naan and a film crew in Kenya, k-os released a track B-Boy Stance attacking K’naan : “They took cameras to Africa for pictures to rhyme / Over; Oh, yes, the great pretenders […] Religious entertainers who want to be life savers.” Though the feud never became high-profile, with K’naan expressing confusion at the attack and respect for k-os, he nonetheless responded with the mixtape Revolutionary Avocado which argued “You the all-knowing with a beer bottle / Wishing you was Plato and me Aristotle? / …Suburban negro turned hip-hop hero / Is there a reason he really hates me, though?” — a rebuttal CBC’s Matthew McKinnon called “cold-cocking the champ”.
Views on piracy
K’naan states that piracy off of the coast of Somalia, while not to be condoned, has a reason for its existence.
|“||It has no basis, no roots, and I’m not talking about, when I say basis – it’s not the same as justifications […] but how there came to be pirates, I think that is probably the most undiscussed thing in major media today – it’s as if they just sprung from nowhere. But Somalis have long known about the issues.||”|
According to K’naan, Somali fishermen organized and armed themselves so that they could protect the Somali shoreline from illegal dumping of nuclear toxic waste from private companies. He goes on to state that, “greed and the lure of money eventually produced what we see today as Somali piracy”. On April 15, 2009 K’naan publicly criticized the approach to the problem of piracy off of the coast of Somalia after the kidnapping of Richard Phillips of the United States flagged MV Maersk Alabama container ship 240 nautical miles(440 km; 280 mi) southeast of the Somali port city of Eyl.