Rapper K'naan Captures Somalia Crisis In Rhyme The music of celebrated hip hop artist and poet, K'naan, chronicles Somalia's civil war. His childhood marked by violence, K'naan fired his first gun at eight and, at age 11, saw gunmen slaughter three of his friends. His new CD, Troubador, blends hip hop vibes with African and rock rhythms and gives voice to the crisis in his homeland.
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Rapper K'naan Captures Somalia Crisis In Rhyme

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Rapper K'naan Captures Somalia Crisis In Rhyme

Rapper K'naan Captures Somalia Crisis In Rhyme

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TONY COX, host:

Here's another listener favorite.

Celebrated hip-hop artist and poet K'naan grew up in war-torn Somalia, but he's got more street-cred than your average gangster rapper. He fired his first gun at eight, and at 11 he saw a gunman slaughter three of his friends. Eventually, K'naan fled Somalia and now he is making music about his experience. His new CD "Troubadour" blends hip-hop vibes with African and rock rhythm.

(Soundbite of song "Take a Minute")

Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) How did Mandela get the will to surpass the everyday, When injustice had him caged and trapped in every way, How did Ghandi ever withstand the hunger strikes and all? Didn't do it to gain power or money if I recall, It's to give; I guess I'll pass it on, Mother thinks it'll lift the stress of Babylon, Mother knows, my mother she suffered blows, I don't know how we survived such violent episodes, I was so worried, and hurt to see you bleed…

COX: K'naan, welcome to News & Notes.

Mr. K'NAAN (Hip-hop Artist): Thank you for having me.

COX: How difficult was it to come up to become a musician and an artist growing up in Somalia during the very difficult days that you did while you were there?

Mr. K'NAAN: You know, that was difficult for everyone. And so I kind of shared in the piece of the pie of all that struggle that is coming from these kinds of political breakdowns when the center can't hold anymore. And so I'm just a part of that group of people. And eventually, that's really what fueled my music. That kind of a curse ended up being a blessing to a degree.

COX: Do you ever wonder why you growing up in Mogadishu, one place that you've already described as the meanest streets of the universe, why you turned the direction that you did? You're not out with the pirates out in the Gulf of Aden. Do you ever think about how you made the choice you made?

Mr. K'NAAN: I got fortunate, you know, to be able to channel some of my own internal crisis, you know, like the crisis of being faced with these immeasurable amounts of difficulties that the people I come from face. And then having no, absolutely no venue of expression for it and no one to listen is really kind of a hard thing to kind of survive. And so I was really just fortunate to have found melodies and poetry and then music, which has let me released that kind of, you know, problem externally.

(Soundbite of song "I Come Prepared")

Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) Set to high Now callin' the rerevulationary youths…

COX: On your new CD "Troubadour," there are a number of very interesting songs on there. One of them is "I Come Prepared."

(Soundbite of song "I Come Prepared")

Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) I made the list this year I'm on a roll You ain't no east African rock and roll You don't know what time it is like your clock is old You ain't know y'all packin' like the block is sold How could it be to the deep and darkest of zero To become the king of New York like the negro And he ain't even from New York that's what's weird, yo But he's from they repetatattapatatta So come now don't you try to play the hero…

Mr. K'NAAN: The idea of the song is, we are survivors, and so we come from this, and to have emerged on the other side is really something that takes courage, and it takes fortune and humor and all of it mixed up. And so what I'm saying is "I Come Prepared" is kind of saying, well, hey, you know, I couldn't have been any other way.

COX: You know, you have another song in there, it's the first cut. It's called "ABC's" and…

Mr. K'NAAN: Yeah.

COX: It reminds me of really a profound combination of message, of music, of beat and lyrics. And it seems to be sort of along the lines of what you're talking about with "I Come Prepared," isn't it?

Mr. K'NAAN: Yeah. "ABC's" is just kind of like one of those moments, you know, where - and I'm using like a children's choir to tell my story.

(Soundbite of song "ABC's")

Unidentified Children's Choir: (Singing) 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

Mr. CHUBB ROCK (Singer): (Singing) Rock, you know my era B-boy seasoning, salt-n-pepa Grown and sexy, come with the extra Crushed up linen, fly like Cessna…

Mr. K'NAAN: I have so many different influences and inspirations and I feel like there's never a reason to disguise those influences. I think "ABC's" is just like a classic K'naan song in the sense that it gives you the conflict of, should I dance or should I think, you know.

COX: Does suffering make for more realistic rap lyrics and provide more credibility the more you suffer?

Mr. K'NAAN: Well, I think those who do not seek credibility tend to usually have credibility. I think that struggle does fuel good perspective.

(Soundbite of song "ABC's")

Unidentified Children's Choir: (Singing) All we got is life on the streets All we got is life on the streets

Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) Superman is known by the locals As this dude who's so fly it's global…

COX: Well, I asked that because I wonder - I've heard comments that you've made to some extent, denigrating certain parts of American hip-hop culture and music. And I'm wondering if you think that it's necessary or if it's because of your experiences in Somalia that what you say has a greater weight than someone who's rapping in American about something of lesser consequence.

Mr. K'NAAN: Well, the truth is that I do respect people's struggles. You know, my gunshot wound is the same to you as your - the headache that you have. Everyone is entitled to voicing a struggle where I was commenting on on some of my songs and some of, you know, what you might have heard on the interview, is really just about the glorification - the Hollywood version of violence that is in the genre that sometimes people put me in that I'm sometimes a part of. But just because we come from the real ugly version of violence, it's hard for me to respect it when it's the picture-perfect type of violence that is in hip-hop.

COX: Let me ask you about your personal life a little bit. You and your mother escaped from Somalia in 1991 and what I understand is a pretty amazing story. You were in the states for a while, you now live in Toronto. The difficulties in Somalia continue. They're on the news everyday. Are you torn about where you should and want to be with your life with regard to where you were born and where you are and what you are doing now?

Mr. K'NAAN: Yes, sometimes I am. There is no true consolation for those sort of things. When you're on the phone with your cousins who are your age and aunties and so on, and they don't have the natural rights of a human being. None of them have plans for the next day. They can't really. You just might be killed. And so, when I'm hearing these things on a day-to-day basis, it's hard for me to sometimes, you know - I feel like I can never really do enough and that's part of what my music comes from, kind of this survival guilt, you know.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) Yeah, it's K'naan Yeah…

COX: I asked my students if they had a question for you after listening to your CD. And here's one from Juliana Silverstein(ph). She says, what is your inspiration?

Mr. K'NAAN: My inspiration is the continuous things that happen in the world, which either surprise us in grace or surprise us in the way that they seek destruction. These sort of extremities are truly what inspires me. Nothing in the middle ever inspires me, no mediocrity. And if it's bad, it's the worse which inspires me. And if it's great, it's the greatest.

(Soundbite of song "Does it Really Matter")

Mr. K'NAAN: But I do it on my own way. I do on my own way. I do. If you do what you do your own You could be famous too. If the beat is hot does it matter who or where it's from...

COX: K'naan, it's a pleasure having talked with you and I hope to get to meet you at some point. Good luck with the CD.

Mr. K'NAAN: Thank you so much. I really truly appreciate it.

(Soundbite of song "Does it Really Matter")

Mr. K'NAAN: (rapping) If the girl is hot does it really matter where she's from. If the beat is hot does it matter who or where it's from If the floor is hot does it really matter...

COX: Somali hip-hop artist and poet K'naan, his latest CD is "Troubadour." He joined us from our studios in New York.

(Soundbite of song "Does it Really Matter")

Mr. K'NAAN: (Rapping) So I could have been from the west side Or the sharp(ph) town like twister With a flow so sick It'll blow you to bits And you show you the glitz And gold on the wrist And the boats and the fish And I blow them a kiss That's bloke must be toking a piece

COX: You're listening to News and Notes from NPR News.

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