War and conflict inspire Somali rapper’s rhymes

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.

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