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Somali-Canadian Rapper K’naan on Journey from Civil War Refugee to Global Hip-Hop Artist

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As Secretary Hillary Clinton meets with Somali President Sheikh Ahmed Sharif today, we turn to a different voice from the war-ravaged country of Somalia. K’naan is a Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist who moved away at a young age to escape the civil war that had engulfed his country. We speak to K’naan about on his life, his music, and the impact of U.S. policy in Somalia. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Take a Minute” by Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan.

Secretary Hillary Clinton meets with Somali President Sheikh Ahmed Sharif today in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on the second day of her eleven-day tour of seven African countries. We turn to a different voice from the war-ravaged country of Somalia.

K’naan is a Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist who was born in the Somali capital of Mogadishu and moved as a young boy to New York, then to Toronto, to escape the civil war that had engulfed his country. His first album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, met with critical acclaim. His latest album is called Troubadour.

Well, as Clinton prepares to discuss stability and security measures with the Somali president, we’re turning to K’naan, politically conscious young musician and poet, talking about his life, his music, and the impact of US policy on his country, on Somalia.

We just interviewed K’naan earlier this month when he came to New York. He’s back again on Friday night to sing at Jones Beach. This is K’naan.

    K’NAAN: I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and I was born there during a time of relative peace.

    AMY GOODMAN: What year?

    K’NAAN: In the late ’70s. And it was incredibly beautiful and poetic, my environment. My grandfather is one of the major poets in the country. My auntie is probably the most famous singer of all time from that country. And so, I grew up in a household full of artists and playwrights and poets and near the ocean. Somalia has the longest-running shoreline in Africa. And we had an incredible time, until the age of around nine, and that’s when the war started.

    And so, the war invaded, you know, and kind of cut the umbilical cord of structure, and destruction began. And I lived through that for about three years. And around thirteen, we left, and we were very, very fortunate, as we — at the brink of the country’s complete collapse and shutdown, we were able to manage to get on one of the last commercial flights to leave the country, came to New York City.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your grandfather and your aunt, as well?

    K’NAAN: No, my grandfather passed away shortly before the war really submerged. My auntie stayed behind. She also later passed away.

    But, yeah, so we made it out to New York, and then we relocated to Toronto, where I started to make music about those kinds of experiences.

    AMY GOODMAN: Siad Barre was the longtime dictator, long supported by the United States.

    K’NAAN: Mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: What was his effect on your country and where it is today?

    K’NAAN: Siad Barre, like a lot of militant revolutionaries in Africa, started out as someone who was kind of a hero. He came to power through a coup and was sort of like — he was going to revolutionize the country and get rid of this idea of the clan system. The political clan system, which existed for thousands of years, he thought he would do away with.

    Eventually, something happened, a turn, like it always takes with guys like that, and he started to turn. He got paranoid and started to turn against most of his countrymen and only surrounded himself with his own clan, and his sub-clan, specifically.

    I think he had an immense impact on the country. I mean, you know, he had ties which fell out with most of other countries. He started a war with Ethiopia that wasn’t productive or necessary at the time. Eventually, the country basically began to collapse, and war — war came.

    AMY GOODMAN: And so, here in the United States, how has it been for you to adjust? Talk about your music and how you grew to who you are today.

    K’NAAN: Well, I began to write my first songs because of the experiences of Somalia. They came back at some point to haunt me in a way that I didn’t expect. So I was diagnosed with something called post-traumatic stress disorder. And my mother didn’t believe in Western medicine. She didn’t want me medicated. And so, I had to kind of figure out how to survive it. And so, the first melodic, poetic things I wrote were a direct experience that came from how to respond to that. And so, I didn’t expect success. I just kind of hoped to survive through songs.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember some of that? Can you repeat, recite some of that?

    K’NAAN: Yeah. There is a song:

      My tragedy’s different
      My life’s deep listen
      Gotta bail I’m limpin’
      Walk out of hell’s kitchen
      Why bother cherishin’?
      My past is everything
      Wrong and my…

    This whole, like — this song was going into my — you know, dates and times and places that were very difficult for me to write about. There’s a song called “Voices in My Head,” which just basically deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did it manifest itself in you?

    K’NAAN: Through depression, through, you know, the fragility of sanity. You start to think, wait a minute, what’s going on with me? Things are falling apart. And I became a recluse. There would be times when I would be in a room by myself for months.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you pull out?

    K’NAAN: I did pretty well after having these writings coming out slowly, through my friends listening to the things I was writing, and playing a little bit of music. And melody helped me a lot. And eventually those recordings became a song — songs, and those songs became an album, which is now my first album called The Dusty Foot Philosopher, and started to win awards. And I was very fortunate and started to tour.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn English?

    K’NAAN: In an interesting way. I kind of was teaching myself. I wasn’t very interested in school, because I had bad experiences in school. When I — I remember the first couple of days I was in school, I met this teacher who was supposed to be an English as a second language instructor. And so, she says to me, she says, “Kanaan, something something something,” and speaks in English. And I can’t respond, and the whole class is waiting for me to respond. And so, I look at her, and then she repeats what she was saying, only louder, you know. And so, I turned to my friend who spoke Somali, and I said, “Could somebody tell this woman I am not — I’m not deaf, I just don’t speak her language?”

    You know, so, shortly after that, I left school and began to teach myself through songs. I would pick up hip-hop records and listen to the phrases and begin to try to teach myself the meanings of these things, and through television and through conversation.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get your name, K’naan?

    K’NAAN: Actually, it’s my real name. I couldn’t think of anything more creative than my first name, which actually means “the traveler” in my language.

    AMY GOODMAN: What your parents named you.

    K’NAAN: Yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: What does Somalia look like to you here from the United States? And how does it compare to your life experience there?

    K’NAAN: Somalia now looks like — it looks grainy. It looks depleted. It looks like it fell out of the pocket of life. It doesn’t look — it looks suspended. When I was home, it looked colorful. You know, you had like sapphire sky that bled into earth, and you had, you know, the hue on the ground, the magic of the colors, and the ocean being blue, the white sand. Everything was very, very colorful and vivid. And so, it’s changed now; it’s black and white.

AMY GOODMAN: Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan. We’ll continue with our conversation after break.


AMY GOODMAN: K’naan, performing “People Like Me” here in our firehouse studio, singing about his beloved cousin, who he had to leave behind in Somalia when his family came to the United States, then Canada.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with K’naan. As [Secretary] Clinton meets with the Somali president, we speak with the Canadian-Somali rapper about US policy in Somalia, Black Hawk Down, piracy, American hip-hop, and his new album. This is K’naan.

    AMY GOODMAN: There was a piece in the New York Times a while ago, front page, Sunday section — you might have read about it — about Somali-Americans going back to Somalia to fight against the West, to fight for their country, as they thought they were doing. What do you think about that?

    K’NAAN: I think it’s very tricky to kind of — for people who are non-Somali, it’s very difficult to understand where that’s coming from. A lot of people thought that that movement, the young people leaving the country here, who don’t really have Somali experiences, you know, who were kind of born here even, going to Somalia and fighting for, you know, militant groups that America labels to be terrorists or so on — it wasn’t a religious factor that had driven these men, because if it was religious, it would have happened a long time ago. It has nothing to do with religion. It really was driven by nationhood. A lot of people thought, because of the invasion of Ethiopia, supported by the United States —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Overthrowing the Islamic Courts Union.

    K’NAAN: That’s right, which basically was the only relative peace that the country has known for twenty years. There was a militancy that has -— began in Somalia, which we had never known before. Somalia is a very cultural country. It’s a moderate country. It’s an Islamic country. But we don’t have militancy in that way. So that only began after the overthrowing of the Islamic Courts Union, which were a group of clerics who cleaned up the country. These young men were convinced that they were fighting for their country, that Ethiopia was invading their country. And it’s true.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of US policy in Africa, and specifically Somalia, as you talk about the US supporting Ethiopia, overthrowing this government of stability?

    K’NAAN: Well, I think the US policy has been like many — like many different places in the country — in the world: complicated and difficult and eventually something which has caused the destruction of places. And Somalia is no exception, unfortunately.

    The US policy to Somalia has been do for the US what you can and nothing for the people of Somalia. And so, the US has always found a way to align itself with people who are not enforcing the will of Somalia or the people of Somalia at all.

    There was a moment during this relative calm that we’re talking about when the warlords were being kicked out of the country by this group called the Islamic Courts Union. And I think maybe just because of the name alone, the US said, “This might not be a good idea,” started to align itself with five of the major warlords, which had been causing havoc for eighteen years in this country, and they called them the Alliance for Restoration of Peace. This was the name given by the US. And those guys started to come back and destroy more. And so, even if we don’t go back into history into how the US has been effective in that country, up to the present has been not great.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on President Obama, the first African American president of this country?

    K’NAAN: I think it’s amazing. I think that Obama’s election — what Obama does with it will be decided in the future, as it always is. But alone, the nature of it alone, that election alone, is something that’s, I think, hard to deny. I think that it’s — it was a sign, in that moment in time, of America attempting to regain its political sanity, in some way, in the eyes of the world, anyway. It was, “Oh, wait a minute, America can be sane again,” you know.

    AMY GOODMAN: The way most people know Somalia today is piracy. That’s when it gets attention in the United States, piracy on the high seas.

    K’NAAN: Right.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what’s happening?

    K’NAAN: Well, I can try to make that quick. Piracy in Somalia is something that is fairly new and has a reason for happening. Not a justification, but a reason for happening. Since the fall of Siad Barre’s government in 1991, a lot of major Western nations had been bringing their vessels into Somali waters and not only illegally fishing, costing Somali waters and that country over $300 million a year of stolen fish, but also dumping nuclear toxic waste into our shores.

    And Somali — the Somali press has been writing about it and talking about it since then, but it was only when the tsunami hit that a lot of the containers had been brought to the shore in Somalia and actually caused death from direct effect of what is contained in those containers. About 400 villagers in the shorelines had passed away from those issues. So the fishermen, the ex-fishers and even ex-coast guards and militiamen got together, went into the waters, and those are your original pirates, who held at bay these criminals, who are usually from the West, those major pirates. And then the trade became kind of a little bit out of control, and it became every hungry man to the water.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think would change it?

    K’NAAN: Cultural solutions. I don’t think that you can — the big guns won’t scare Somalis. It’s not — it’s just not the way that culture works. If you look at its history, all the way from the pre-colonization, Somalis have never been afraid of war. They’ve never been afraid of major powers. It’s a country that has led the longest anti-colonial war in Sub-Saharan Africa. So there’s something about the people there that is resilient to things like that.

    Now, the only thing that — the only solution, I think, that could really be effective is we have a cultural system, we have a clan system, we have an elder system that can be worked out. So, basically, every pirate group that’s in the waters has a clan that they answer to. Now, if you talk to the clan elders and you are able to assure them that the crimes against Somalia and against our waters and against our region will in fact be looked into and will cease to continue, it’ll be shameful for that certain clan not to bring their men out of the water.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did you follow the young man who was brought here?

    K’NAAN: Yes, yeah. I mean, it was just a sad thing to witness, you know. You can — as a Somali, you’re watching the cultural nuances of his arrival, you know. And, like, he’s smiling, you know what I mean? And a lot of people thought, “What is he smiling about?” in America. But he’s Somali, and he knows that it’s not — the world is watching, and it’s not polite for him to just be gloomy, even though he understands he faces major issues. He’s a teenager. That’s the best he can do, is smile and, you know.

    AMY GOODMAN: This is the one surviving young man who was — who took the US ship.

    K’NAAN: Yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the other ones were killed.

    K’NAAN: Yeah. Yeah, others were killed.

    AMY GOODMAN: You write about, you sing about hip-hop and what it means.

    K’NAAN: Mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you see hip-hop doing now? How is it evolving?

    K’NAAN: I think that hip-hop’s strength has always been when it was kind of the journalism of a community that’s otherwise inaccessible to major — to mass media or mass culture. And so, I think that if it — when it continues to be that way, it will still be relevant. But for a long time, it’s been taken over by corporate interests, really, and so the hip-hop that you’ve been getting for a while has been more of — you know, employed, I think, for more production and more things, more — when it comes from the have-nots, I think, when it goes global, like with what I’m doing with it, I think it’ll continue to have its relevance in some way.

    AMY GOODMAN: K’naan, talk about “What’s Hardcore?”

    K’NAAN: It’s a song of mine. “What’s Hardcore?” is just a song that was kind of comparing the conditions of a lot of — you know, a lot of — even though a lot of rappers come from struggle, which is relevant anywhere in the world, a lot of people tend to glorify, with certain posture, the difficulty that they come from. And we grew up in a place that’s far, far worse. I mean, just to be honest. And so, the song parallels those experiences and kind of asks the question, what is hardcore?

      So what’s hardcore? Really, are you hardcore? Hmmm…
      So what’s hardcore? Really, are you hardcore? Hmmm…
      We begin our day by the way of the gun,
      Rocket-propelled grenades blow you away if you front,
      We got no police, ambulance or fire fighters,
      We start riots by burning car tires,
      They looting, and everybody start shooting,
      And politicians talking ’bout solutions, but it’s all talk,
      You can’t go half a block with a roadblock,
      You don’t pay at the roadblock, you get your throat shot,
      And each roadblock is set up by these gangsters,
      And different gangsters go by different standards,
      For example, the evening is a no go,
      Unless you wanna wear a bullet like a logo,
      In the day you should never take the alleyway,
      The only thing that validates you is the AK,
      They chew on Jad, it’s sorta like coca leaves,
      And there ain’t no police.
      So what’s hardcore? Really, are you hardcore? Hmmm…
      So what’s hardcore? Really, are you hardcore? Hmmm…

    AMY GOODMAN: 1993, Black Hawk Down, US military lands, and eighteen soldiers are killed. Maybe you can tell us how many Somalis died then and what effect that had. Were you there then?

    K’NAAN: No, I had left. We left just before that war.

    Well, I think that — I remember when it was starting to happen and what would cause — what was beginning to cause it, because, you know, America was largely welcome, because Somalis thought, OK, maybe let someone else do the job, if we can’t figure out our own problems and how to find — how to find a resolution between the clans that are at war. And so, when the US landed, there was a lot of applause and a lot of —-

    And I remember the photos coming in of the US -— the Marines conducting, the Rangers conducting themselves at their arrival. And I was thinking, this is not good, this is going to lead to something. There was a picture of a US soldier holding down a Somali boy with his foot on his neck and his gun held high. And that was two days after they had arrived. And so, there was a photo of that. And just being Somali, I know what that means. You know, that literally — that photo gets published in Mogadishu, that literally means war. That doesn’t mean conversation. And so, I just know — I just knew that things were doomed to fail from the arrival.

    And a lot of people died, you know, because of the ensuing events. A lot of —- you know, the US lost some people, but we lost far, far more people than that. I mean, they -—

    AMY GOODMAN: Thousands.

    K’NAAN: Thousands, yeah. They were talking about over about 10,000 or so, but it was never really a number that you could publish. It was just black dots that you were shooting. And that’s — even in the film, it’s the way that that’s depicted.

    AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Troubadour.

    K’NAAN: Troubadour is an album, my latest album, which had come out in February and has been having some surprising success out here. It’s debuted at a top thirty on Billboard. I recorded the album in Bob Marley’s house in Jamaica and was very fortunate to have that privilege given to me by his family.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet up with them? How do you know them?

    K’NAAN: They had been — I’ve been touring partners with his sons, Stephen Marley and Damian Marley, for a few years. They have been the torch holders for my music and supporters in North America. And so, yeah, we recorded this album that talks about a lot of different experiences, and I’m just in a very fortunate position to be playing my music.

    AMY GOODMAN: What’s your favorite song on it?

    K’NAAN: It’s hard to have — it’s like when you’re — it’s really true when artists say it’s difficult to have a favorite song. It’s kind of like choosing your children over one another when you choose a song, because you have a relationship with them, you wrote them. But I think that the most far-reaching song on this album is probably going to be a song called “Waving Flag.” It’s just something in the melody, something in the feeling that it gives you, one of those songs that you just kind of come upon.

    AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to it.


      When I get older, I will be stronger
      They’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag
      Born to a throne, stronger than Rome
      But violent prone, poor people zone
      But it’s my home, all I have known
      Where I got grown, streets we would roam
      Out of the darkness, I came the farthest
      Among the hardest survival
      Learn from these streets, it can be bleak
      Accept no defeat, surrender retreat
      So we struggling, fighting to eat and
      We wondering when we’ll be free
      So we patiently wait, for that fateful day
      It’s not far away, but for now we say
      When I get older, I will be stronger
      They’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag
      And then it goes back, and then it goes back
      And then it goes back, and then it goes
      When I get older, I will be stronger
      They’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag
      And then it goes back, and then it goes back
      And then it goes back.

AMY GOODMAN: K’naan, performing in our firehouse studio, the Somali-Canadian rapper. You can go to our website later today for the full versions of his songs and the full interview with him. He’s performing here in New York Friday, August 7th, at Jones Beach Theater. Special thanks to Travis Collins and Rah Campenni.

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