NEW YORK, (Reuters) – Somali rapper K’naan mixes hip hop swagger with reggae and traditional music in his second album, “Troubadour,” but his message is grounded in the war-torn streets of Mogadishu that he fled as a child.
The album, released last week by A&M Octone Records, was recorded over three months in the late Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica at the invitation of Bob’s son, Damian Marley, who makes a guest appearance on the track “I come prepared.”
U.S. rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli also contribute verses, as do Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine.
“I’m a Somali. I’m a black Muslim immigrant. It’s pretty hefty when you cross the border,” K’naan told Reuters.
“There’s so many reasons to pull you off the line. And every time they do that, it makes me think of the conditions of humanity and the world, and it makes me write some things. So I kind of appreciate all the problems I have.”
Reviews of the album have compared K’naan, who is 29 and based in Toronto, to Eminem, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent. The New York Times called him a “lithe and nimble rapper.”
In hip hop terms, there is no doubting K’naan’s claim on “street cred,” though he said of Somalia’s perpetual violence, “Ours is just not cool.”
K’naan, who raps mostly in English, left the Horn of Africa country in 1991, amid the chaos that erupted when warlords ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and then turned on one another.
In the last two years alone, violence in Somalia has killed more than 16,000 people and uprooted 1 million, and the chaos has fueled kidnappings and piracy off the East African coast.
Much of K’naan’s music is upbeat, even if his verses address the hopelessness of a youth caught in an intractable conflict as well as the immigrant’s longing for home.
“We alive man, it’s okay to feel good,” he raps on “Dreamer.”
K’naan was born Kanaan Warsame in Mogadishu. His maternal grandfather, Haji Mohamed, was a well-known Somali poet and his aunt, Magool, was one of the country’s most famous singers.
“I used to be around these people who were making a real impact on the country — playwrights and political activists who were all around the house,” K’naan said.
That pedigree didn’t count for much when war broke out, he said. K’naan said he escaped with his mother on the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu.
They ended up in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and later in a crime-ridden stretch of Washington, D.C., where K’naan said he rebelled against the low expectations set for African immigrants. The period “encapsulated my discontent,” he said.
In 2001, K’naan met Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour at a United Nations refugee agency event and later joined N’Dour on “Building Bridges,” a collection of songs by musicians with refugee backgrounds.
The next year K’naan released his debut album, “The Dusty Foot Philosopher.”
K’naan said it is only natural that Somali artists in exile have emerged to interpret the conflict for a global audience. The bullet-riddled streets of Somalia also serve as a muse for novelist Nuruddin Farah, based in South Africa, who has been called a guide to his homeland’s “Dantean Inferno.”
“Somalia is a nation of poets, it’s a nation of artists,” K’naan said.