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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

When we talk about Somalia on this program, the news is often about warlords and violence, or as we heard earlier, pirates hijacking ships off the coast. Well, here's a different kind of Somalia news, a rapper named K'Naan is trying to change the way his country is viewed. He's become an artist to watch in the world of hip-hop. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: K'Naan grew up in Mogadishu on what he calls the meanest streets in the universe. In one song on his new CD, he calls his hometown the "risky zone," full of pistols and Russian revolvers.

(Soundbite of song "ABCs" by K'Naan)

K'NAAN (Somalian Rap Artist): (Rapping) I'm from the most risky zone, oh No place is more shifty, no, no More pistols, Russian revolvers We're shooting all that is normal

But it ain't just because we want to We ain't got nowhere we can run to Somebody, please press the undo They only teach us the things that guns do

K'NAAN: So it's called "ABC's," and it's about how, you know, being born in a certain place changes everything in your destiny. When you hear the song, I got the kids choir singing "They don't teach us the ABCs, we play on the hard concrete, all we got is life on the streets." And for us, that is very true.

(Soundbite of song "ABCs" by K'Naan)

They don't teach us the ABCs, We play on the hard concrete, All we got is life on the streets, All we got is life on the streets, They don't teach us the ABCs, We play on the hard concrete, All we've got is life on the streets, All we've got is life on the streets,

BLAIR: Somalia is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. Malnutrition and clan warfare are rampant. According to Amnesty International, some 6,000 civilians were killed in fighting in 2007 alone. K'Naan wants to use his music to raise consciousness about what's happening there.

K'NAAN: The people of Somalia just do not have a voice. They are, to me, the most forgotten people in the world.

(Soundbite of song by K'Naan)

K'NAAN: (Singing) Heaven Is there a chance that you could come down And open doors to hurting people like me

BLAIR: K'Naan left Somalia in 1991 with his mother and older brother. He was a teenager. The country was in a civil war, with multiple factions fighting each other.

K'NAAN: Mogadishu was burning, and the government had just - is falling. And all the embassies are packing up, and my mother is able to get visas to the United States.

BLAIR: She got visas for herself, K'Naan, his older brother, and his cousin, who K'Naan says was his best friend. But in the end, his mother could only afford three plane tickets and had to tell K'Naan's cousin she couldn't take him.

(Soundbite of song by K'Naan)

K'NAAN: (Rapping) My mother tried to get us out planed to the last detail Except the plan got derailed 'Cause there wasn't enough money for the plane tickets,

How bitter when my mother had to choose who to take with her So my cousin got left in the war And that's just hard to record But now I take refuge in prayer Kind of like finding God in the phone book He came to me sounding something like a song book, saying

Heaven,

BLAIR: K'Naan's cousin got out of Somalia last year and now lives in the U.S. K'Naan is not a newcomer to hip-hop. His first CD, "The Dusty Foot Philosopher," was a hit with critics here and abroad. His new CD, "Troubadour," features Mos Def and Damian Marley. The L.A. Times recently listed K'Naan as an artist to watch in 2009. The Guardian newspaper called him "powerfully low-key, theatrical [and] witty." Salem Mohammed(ph) is not a music critic, but like K'Naan, he knows all about growing up in extreme circumstances.

Mr. SALEM MOHAMMED (Community Organizer, Kibera, Kenya): I think one of the things I'm drawn to K'Naan music, he lives it. He talks about the truth.

BLAIR: Salem Mohammed grew up in an orphanage in Kenya. Today, he's a community organizer in Kibera, one of the biggest slums in East Africa. He met K'Naan when they worked on a cable TV show together.

Mr. MOHAMMED: He just doesn't sing for himself. He sings for us. That's the most important thing. And when you hear him speaking, it's a voice of so many coming out of him.

(Soundbite of song by K'Naan)

K'NAAN: (Singing) There's no way to write it There's no way to fight it And I kick and scream But you got me despite it

And I got my prize so I begin to hide it Like fire in Freetown You begin to light it

BLAIR: K'Naan writes in a variety of music styles, but before he moved to North America, before he spoke any English, his first love was American rap.

K'NAAN: (rapping) I came to the door I said it before I never let the mike magnetize me no more but it's frightening

(Soundbite of laughter)

K'NAAN: Eric B. and Rakim, "Paid in Full." I had it memorized just like that. But of course, I didn't know what door meant.

BLAIR: K'Naan could not be mistaken for an American rapper, at least not a gangster rapper. He wears no bling, though he is stylish. He has a kind of vintage bohemian look. K'Naan doesn't think American gangster rap has much credibility, because even the toughest American neighborhoods aren't nearly as dangerous as Mogadishu.

K'NAAN: Where rocket-propelled grenades are fired around you on a daily - you know, a guy bragging about - standing on TV, and talking about how gangster he is, and how, you know, he'll do - for us, it's more a source of entertainment., It's more like a comedy or something that we watch, and we say oh wow, that's kind of cute of American gangsters or something. But it isn't hardcore. It isn't that bad. you know, it's like let's get things in perspective, you know.

(Soundbite of song by K'Naan)

K'NAAN: (Rapping) I don't expect you to feel my pain But with respect to the rules of the game They don't apply 'cause I made it this far staged out like a ghetto rock star

BLAIR: Lately, K'Naan has been talking about the Somali pirates who've been hijacking ships from western countries off the Somalia coast, because, he says, there's more to that story, too. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can download K'Naan's song "Somalia," and hear more of his music at nprmusic.org. In fact, why wait?

(Soundbite of song by K'Naan)

SHAPIRO: This is Morning Edition from NPR news. I'm Ari Shapiro.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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