The dusty foot philosopher makes tracks

July 2005 | The Martlet

Photo by Kris Krug

Asked to describe his music, Canadian rapper K’naan is at a bit of a loss.

“It’s tough to describe, to be honest,” he said. “Musically, it’s something that’s kinda new. It’s a medium between two continents.”

The same could be said of K’naan himself.

Growing up in Somalia, K’naan was given hip hop records from his father, who worked as a cab driver in New York. The young, would-be MC spoke only Somali, but taught himself to mimic the American rappers perfectly.

It wasn’t until he left Somalia — on what turned out to be the last commercial flight out of the country — and moved to first the U.S. and then to Canada that he learned what the words meant.

Even more than a rapper, K’naan is a poet. It’s in his blood — his grandfather is one of Somalia’s best-known poets — and it’s how he started. In fact, it was as a spoken word poet that he first earned notoriety.

In 2001 K’naan was invited to Geneva to perform at the 50th anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees. In front of some of the biggest suits in the world, he brought the house down with his politically charged poem. “I basically called out the UN for its failed relief mission in Somalia,” explained K’naan. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

The transition from poetry to hip hop was a natural one. “I was doing poetry, and it kinda felt like I needed to do music,” said K’naan. “It felt like a natural progression. At some point I was just making music.”

And what music it is. Equal parts hip hop and protest, K’naan’s music blends African percussion and with the rhythm of North American hip hop to create a unique sound.

Comparisons to other artists — he sounds a little like Eminem in some tracks — are inevitable for a new artist. K’naan doesn’t mind.

“Whatever comparisons people make, they’re made because of their historical understanding of what an art should be, or it’s the sound of my voice, something as simple as that,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, he is unlike any other artist. “There has never been an artist with my history. I became an artist and I’m making music for that reason. Not because I wanted to be unique, but because there was no one else doing it and I had to do it.”

Music is therapy, he said, his lifeline. “I create [music] because I don’t have an option. How else do you articulate such heavy struggle? How else do you come to terms with such heavy struggle? I make it because I need it.”

Besides promoting his album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K’naan has been performing across the country, including at the recent Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ont.

“It’d be very arrogant to think that a concert out here in North America or in the western world can go and fix all the problems in Africa,” he said of the Live 8 effort, “but it’s a start.

What I thought was really important about these concerts is they were trying to rally people in the west behind a political change that will start to look at the deep-rooted injustices that are in economic imbalances.”

He pointed out that artists often work for political or social change.

“Once again, it’s artists that are taking the initiative on things like that. I’d like to see police officers get together and say, ‘We want to change the world.’ ”