A nation of millions may have been attempting to hold Public Enemy back during the height of Hip Hop’s protest era, but Chuck D never had to continuously defend 10 million of his fellow countrymen the way K’Naan has found himself having to over the last few years.
Never before has a Hip Hop artist found themselves in the position that the Somalia-born emcee has, forced to speak up against the misinformation that American media – both liberal and conservative – churns out about his homeland almost 20 years after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident every time that a story of Somali pirates attacking ships of western origin is used to frighten consumers of mainstream media into accepting the narrative that every Somali is a gun-toting savage seeking to rob and kill any foreigner who dare step foot in the east African nation.
But K’Naan has bravely embraced his role as one of the most vocal advocates for his people. And while his occasional flirtations with more mainstream friendly tracks (ala the Nelly Furtado featured “Is Anybody Out There?” ) may have confused the casual listener into believing they were not hearing the sound of a revolutionary rhymer, further inspection of K’Naan’s impressively diverse catalog reveals an evocative emcee defiantly saying something when most of his contemporaries are content saying nothing, creating, as the title of his just-released EP states, a sound More Beautiful Than Silence.
The Toronto transplant spoke to HipHopDX about the meaning behind the rhymes of some of the selections from his first formal release since his 2009 breakthrough, Troubadour. K’Naan also shared his thoughts on distant relative Nas’ recent comments regarding the long strained relationship between Africans and African-Americans, and provided some illumination on the image American media outlets (and possibly even the American President) have propagated about his fellow Somalians. And finally, the artist who has witnessed firsthand the effects of famine and violence in what is one of the most dangerous and depressed regions of the world explained why gangsta posturing rappers “can’t really hold a candle to the kind of experiences I’m talking about.”
HipHopDX: I was just watching your video from a few years back for “Somalia” and it hit me that those couple bars – “A lot of mainstream niggas is yappin’ about yappin’ / A lot of underground niggas is rappin’ about rappin’ / I just wanna tell you what’s really crack-a-lackin’” – those lines are probably gonna prove to be the summation of this generation of Hip Hop, and hell, the way things are going, maybe the next generation in this Rap shit too.
K’Naan: Yeah, well, that’s real, man. That’s kinda just the state of things right now. I hope not for too long, but …
DX: Now on “Somalia” you mention “the pirates terrorize the ocean,” and the news just broke today of a group of Somali pirates who allegedly kidnapped two western aid workers and held them for ransom being killed by U.S. Navy Seals in a raid. Can you offer any illumination on whether or not a situation like this is as the media is portraying it: that this is just another instance of depraved pirates? Or is there more to the story?
K’Naan: Well, I don’t know, it could very well be that it’s actually what is being said. There are a lot of people in the waters [though] that are coming out of real desperate situations. Anybody who’s out there risking their lives – These guys don’t know the ocean like that. They’re often from the city. And so to just get on a small, tiny little motorboat and to try to chase down ships to take over, knowing that there’s a good chance you’ll be killed either in the ocean or by whatever, that’s a desperate situation. It’s kind of suicidal really. [But] that’s what a lot of people are doing right now. A lot of people are coming from that kind of desperation. And so, it could very well be the story as is being told, but there are a lot of stories to be told in that world.
DX: You noted on your new single with Nas, “Nothing To Lose” , “No, I don’t know pilots / Nigga, I know pirates,” and recently Nas himself was quoted in reference to situations like today’s news, saying, “There’s horror stories about Africa that’s out of this world … but I went there and I figured out that there’s been a lot of lies told to American people about what’s going on there.” I know you’re not an American citizen, but I just feel compelled to ask you if you think President Obama has proven himself to be part of that propaganda machine in regards to your homeland?
K’Naan: Well, listen, I think the propaganda machine is us, as human beings. I think we often seek out the kind of information that suits us best. So why we know about certain things that favor our own opinions is just really saying much more about the human being than it is about any kind of an organization or a governmental stance. If you are on HipHopDX and your information solely is based on simply what Hip Hoppers are saying and the rest is coming out of CNN, that’s really a choice that you make. If you broaden your horizons and your mind and you figure out, “Well, really there’s more to the world than what CNN is telling me, I could read up on something,” that’s another kind of a choice that we make. So I think really the responsibility – although some is with others – I would rather put the responsibility on myself and what I consume so that I have control over it.
DX: Going back to that Nas interview, he was also quoted as saying, “One thing about us African-Americans and Africans, we don’t communicate. We don’t talk. We don’t see a reason to talk. We don’t even get along. There’s a lot of Africans that don’t like African Americans, at all. They look down on us; they got their own little racial names for us. We’ve been pulled apart, for years.” Anything you wanna add to what Nas said?
K’Naan: I think he’s right. And it’s an unfortunate circumstance. But you know, me and Nas talk, all the time. I talked to Nas yesterday. So I think the responsibility [to bridge that divide] is partly with us as artists. That’s why you got songs like “Nothing To Lose.” That’s why you got albums like the Distant Relatives album with Nas and Damian Marley. That’s why when me and Wale do something [it’s to] try to expand the scope of what people are thinking about with regards to Africa. That’s why it means something. The generations are changing and right now Africans and the way they think of African-Americans, or African-Americans and the way that they view Africans, is changing dramatically because we’re able to see each other a lot more, we’re able to communicate a lot more. The Internet has changed the distancing tools that have been used for so long [to divide us]. So the excuses are very shallow now.
DX: It’s ironic, I went to watch your “Take A Minute” video on YouTube and the Vevo link popped up with Nas’ “Nasty” video being advertised right below it. You and Nas are becoming artistic allies for real. You mentioned that you just spoke to him. Have you guys been building a lot since “Tribes At War” [from the Distant Relatives album]?
K’Naan: Yeah! Nas had come through for a couple of my concerts. And the one in New York I was doing a version of “New York State Of Mind,” and Nas came up on stage and did his thing. But that’s my homie. That’s like a real brother to me. I mean, we call each other about regular life things and advices and so on. And it’s an honor for me, as somebody who came up on Nas, to be working with him and to be friends with him also.
DX: It’s interesting, when I was listening to the bouncy title-track from your new EP and you spit, “I’m used to bodies chopped / I seen shit to give new meaning to the body shop,” I instantly thought of hoods like Queensbridge and all throughout America where the same atrocities are routinely happening.
K’Naan: Yeah, man, it’s kinda crazy that the balancing act of the universe is always like that. And that song that you’re referring to, that’s the song that the EP, More Beautiful Than Silence, is named after. And so I wanted to – I got a lot of friends, rappers that we all respect, and they know what I do, they know what I can do, and they always [telling] me like, “K’Naan, you need to go at them. You really need to explain this shit to them.” And so, part of my response on the new record is really just to be that, just to show people like, “Look, I can be explicitly direct about this shit.” I took a place for such a long time of humble grace, in which I would rather you figure this shit out before I gotta explain it. But I think it’s time to explain it.
DX: Is that where lines like “Look, I know you think I’m so righteous / But, muthafucka I’m also into rifles” come from?
K’Naan: Yeah, man. I mean, I got a history that is a lot more – to put it mildly – directly impacted [by violence] than a lot of rappers. A lot of rappers that talk all that street talk can’t really hold a candle to the kind of experiences I’m talking about. And so, why then should I have been all these years kind of in the back, just watching it all unfold? And nobody really gives the kind of credit and due something like that deserves. ‘Cause if you listen to the Troubadour album, where the song you’re quoting, “Somalia,” is from, all of that shit is there but it’s kind of there in the more subliminal sense. But the world is too blatant these days, and they need me to say it. And I’m kinda like, “Alright. Well, now you got it.”
DX: You talk about your transition from the east to the west on “Coming To America” from the new EP – which I gotta note has an ill flip of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s song from the movie –
K’Naan: Yeah, that’s right!
DX: In that song you recall moments from your childhood like “playing catch with a hand grenade” and powerfully conclude that you “ain’t the Prince of Zamunda / My life is too gory.” When you visited Mogadishu this past summer, did you still see kids playing catch with a hand grenade? Is life for the kids there still as bad as it was when you left 20 years ago?
K’Naan: It’s a little worse now than it was when I left. The grenade that I’m talking about is a well-documented story. This is actually what happened. I never really put on the records some shit that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t do that. But I never really even did say the things that did happen before. ‘Cause I’m just kind of not the kind of guy that’s interested in all of that. But, I feel like having visited Mogadishu, having seen the way these kids want me to rep, having seen the hunger and the space that’s needed for me to occupy, I really can’t ignore that responsibility. Sometimes I just gotta let ‘em know.
DX: You mentioned the hunger, and you also mentioned that the violent conditions haven’t really changed much. But have the famine conditions improved at all since you visited? ‘Cause some in the media are portraying that situation like it’s over.
K’Naan: It’s not over. There have been some improvements, and obviously natural improvements are taking place as well. But I mean, listen, famine is something that is man-made, and we know that. And we’ve been watching it unfold and we’ve been doing what we can to work against it, but the best thing that we can do now is to make sure that this never happens again. Droughts can happen anywhere, that’s something from God. But famine, that’s something that we’re responsible for as human beings. And so, I think partly as Somali’s, we’ve gotta take responsibility and shoulder much of that responsibility and say “Listen, we’re doing it to ourselves. We’re putting ourselves in that undignified position, and we’ve gotta make sure that never happens to us again.”
DX: I wanna wrap up by just noting that I really appreciate you offering all this clarification about what’s going on in Somalia: with the pirates, the famine. A lot of folks claim they “represent” for their hood, “put on” for their city or whatever, but I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a Hip Hop artist do more to draw attention to the plight of his home than you.
K’Naan: I really appreciate that, man. That means a lot. And I appreciate the support y’all have been giving my work. But, I’m just beginning now. I’m about to unleash on ‘em.