The Shifting Republic of K'Naan

A deft Somali rapper, now ensconced in Canada, prepares his American invasion

I hadn't spent two weeks teaching at International Middle, a mostly Somali, mostly Muslim charter school in Minneapolis, before I realized someone should make a movie about these kids. It was more than my naive notion that Muslims are a Hollywood coming-of-age flick away from American acceptance. At this school, where teachers keep extra headscarf pins in their desks, the gleeful sorority of girls would give way to snaps in a circle and (until recently) Chris Brown songs, while the boys' courtly manners could accommodate hip-hop slang. A generation was becoming American before my eyes—except "We're not Americans," corrected one eighth-grader in a U.S. history class, a girl who had grown up here with no memory of Somalia.

Keinan Warsame of Mogadishu, a/k/a K'Naan, was about the same age when he arrived in Harlem in 1991, speaking no English except what he'd learned phonetically from Nas and Rakim songs. Moving to Toronto (where he's still based) with a year spent in Minneapolis, he has become a pivotal figure for an audience that is hip-hop before it's American or Canadian. K'Naan raps like Eminem sucking Lil Wayne's helium, and he finds more than one opportunity to rhyme the word "anus." Yet he embraces his Somali-ness, calling out warlords in the rolling Rs of his native Somali, quoting songs from home, and covering his late aunt, singer Magool, a national hero there. He's East African enough to assume reggae as a given in his rap-musical DNA and recorded much of his bright new album, Troubadour, in Jamaican studios once used by Bob Marley. But the album doesn't sound particularly Jamaican—or Somali, for that matter—his African tunings and time signatures are so fully absorbed into a Jay-Z/Tracy Chapman Top 40 dream that they barely register.

In concert, K'Naan dresses like a rude-boy Sgt. Pepper, beautiful with his Afro and soft-focus eyes. He's relaxed in his approach, if attuned to the wackness he risks as a voice for peace. When I ask him, before a recent concert in Minneapolis, about a string of unsolved murders that claimed the lives of two friends there last year (he has shouted them out in concert), the rapper is careful to say he doesn't pretend to have words of wisdom for the young. But his perspective is unique: "It's weird, because it's like this ghettoized version of clans," he says, referring to Somali violence in North America. "Back home, we're fighting over clanism and sub-clans, the intricate ways that Somalis find to be divided. And then we brought it here, but in a kind of gang version."

K'Naan says he escaped Mogadishu on the last commercial flight out—and sings about leaving his cousin behind in "People Like Me": "There wasn't enough money for the plane tickets/How bitter when my mother had to choose who to take with her," he raps. "So my cousin got left in the war/And that's just hard to record." He has the quietness on these subjects of someone who has experienced traumatic violence and rarely discusses his Toronto rap sheet in interviews, dwelling instead on how he fired his first gun at age eight—target practice, he says, with an uncle preparing him for defense against social collapse. On his debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (released in the U.S. last year), he claimed the worst neighborhood of the worst country in the world as a way of suggesting that yours might not be so tough. But there was a more appealing arithmetic behind the idea, expressed in "If Rap Gets Jealous" (and re-recorded for Troubadour with Metallica's Kirk Hammett), that surviving as long as he has gives him license to do what he wants musically.

It's charming that K'Naan even cares what rap thinks, but this can lead to poor decisions. The final version of Troubadour scraps a structurally superior original mix of "ABC's," where the only vocal accompaniment was what sounded like a middle-school classroom of kids singing along, for a new version with Chubb Rock. It deletes "Dusty Streets," his most memorably Marley-like one-world anthem, to make room for a Mos Def collaboration. It buries "15 Minutes Away," a Chongalicious immortalization of that rite familiar to all immigrants: the Western Union cash transfer. There's still a great album in here, even if Adam Levine's power-pop "Bang Bang" wears more ordinary than Damian Marley's sing-jay "I Come Prepared," in which K'Naan rhymes "weird, yo" with "De Niro" to proclaim himself the King of New York.

I suspect rap's attitude toward all this is more polyamorousness to the point of indifference, and so it will be until he makes good on his 2004 demo title, My Life Is a Movie. That would finally give Somalis something other than the "skinnies" in Black Hawk Down to point to as pop iconography, and, besides, as the rapper himself might put it, his biopic would make 8 Mile look like Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em: The Movie. Half a lifetime away from the River of Blood (his old neighborhood), the man whose first name means "Traveler" shows no signs of stopping. He admits there's no place like home. But where is home?

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