The Crazy Pride of a Free Man of Color: K’naan, Troubadour

By Daniel Garrett

K’naan, Troubadour
Executive Producer: K’naan
Album produced by K’naan
and Sol Guy, James Diener,
Ben Berkman, Manny Marroquin
M/Octone Records, 2009

“I see our work as an artistic antidote, not a solution.”
—K’naan to Derek, PopMatters.com (August 2008)

The circumstances for each generation are unique in balance, emphasis, and possibility; and yet certain quandaries remain regarding knowledge and ignorance, wealth and poverty, individuality and society.  In a society that is trying to move away from barbarism, the gentleman may be an ideal—or a rough renegade may be an ideal.  In a society of conformity and repression, the rebel may be an ideal—or the bureaucrat.  It all depends on the balance of factors in the society.  The ideal may embody the values of the current state of society, or the values thought necessary to begin a new society.  Hip-hop music emphasizes rebellion—in language, dress, and behavior, endorsing violence; and much of hip-hop endows hard times with a false glamour, even when those hard times yield moral compromise and failure.  Topical, rhyming, political, funny and vulgar, the Somalian rapper and singer Kaynaan Warsame, better known as K’naan, compares the false ghetto mythology of a lot of American hip-hop music with real world African trouble, where need and violence and war are no fantasy.  Honest, critical, and philosophical, K’naan identifies problems with a defiant, pleasure-seeking spirit.

Kaynaan (K’naan) Warsame’s first album was called The Dusty Foot Philosopher (BMG), released in 2005 in Canada, and in 2006 in the United Kingdom, and two years later, in 2008, in the United States: and in an article (“Kicking Up Dust”) on K’naan for the CBC.ca, the writer Matthew McKinnon wrote, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K’naan’s full-length debut, is the type of record you give to people who say they hate hip hop, then dare them to resist its charms”(June 30, 2005); and in the British newspaper The Guardian (February 19, 2006), Charlie Gillett wrote, “The songs are full of unusual rhymes and images, bursting with the fresh insights of a wide-eyed writer for whom English is his second language”; and later when Spin magazine’s David Peisner heard it he called K’naan “a deft, imaginative lyricist who buoyed his desperate tales with warm, hooky melodies, African percussion, clever pop-culture references, and a surprising dose of humor” (August 20, 2008).

On K’naan’s Troubadour album, he demonstrates a melodious grasp of rap, and connects to various parts of the African diaspora (Jamaica and the United States): K’naan has an international perspective and, with his broad musical palette, great energy suffuses the album’s seamless productions.  K’naan talks about life, family, and love, he talks about the morality he learned at home as well as Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, and he talks about Somali pirates, and his own ambition and the relief of getting paid.  (K’naan is inclined to call for divine intervention in light of human problems that seem beyond human solutions.)  However, some of his lines are too casual, like conversation, rather than being refined, like poetry.  Yet, K’naan goes beyond stereotype because of his consciousness.  He has an imagination rooted in empathy as much as pride.

K’naan’s pride in his own integrity is interesting to me, because it is recognizable: I had assumed, like many, that my own forebears came from Africa and were enslaved for years, even though I knew there were free people of color in the state, Louisiana, in which I was born.  I recall that many years ago when a New York publishing colleague asked me about family history, my response was, “I thought Alex Haley took care of that with his book Roots”—and my colleague laughed and called that attitude, “Me, too.”  I was more concerned with the present and the future.  It was in a recent conversation with an elderly aunt, one of my mother’s sisters, when she made it clear that my ancestors had been free people of color, insisting that neither my grandmother’s or grandfather’s family had been slaves, that I was forced to reconsider my assumptions: and better understand the quality of pride, sometimes mystifying pride, my mother’s family has (an African-American, Louisiana Creole, Catholic family), and how and why personal efforts and habits and traditions are highly regarded.  When K’naan talks about the morality he learned from his grandmother, it reminds me of an aunt describing the kinds of things her mother, my grandmother, used to tell her—it is interesting to have a seventy-nine year-old woman in a wheelchair recall with pleasure and pride something she was told when she was a girl (and this woman, whose life I have thought of as hard, tells me with joy that she has had a good life!).

OnTroubadour K’naan grounds his work in his Somalian reality in “T.I.A.,” yet refers to international musicians, revered figures, such as Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, and Lucky Dube, while acknowledging that most rappers are posers, actors.  K’naan, with a good voice and a great beat, says, “The streets is tricky in these parts here” and “holidays quickly turn to hell days,” while youthful voices and a masculine chorus—friends? audience?—fill out the background.  K’naan’s bragging lyric, accompanied by a quickened beat, engages collaborator Chubb Rock in “ABCs,” a composition in which formal education is surpassed by street life, in which “you real but my real is ten-fold” in a place where “nobody fat enough for lipo.”  Suffering is not an achievement, something I hope K’naan knows—and lines such as “it’s okay to feel good,” suggests the beginning of that awareness, though he does not simplify the circumstances in which offense can be self-defense in a life of strife.  K’naan acknowledges his own tears (which may be fact enough for me to regard him fondly).  Yet, K’naan’s work does not go far from a sense of the crowd, of himself as a voice in the crowd.  There are always, it seems, new styles of blackness, although blackness is thought to be an essence by many, no matter how brief or different the style said to embody it: and for too long the current style of male blackness has been one of inhuman toughness.  (The casual use of the “n” word is like swallowing poison and pretending it is refreshment: and even on K’naan’s recording there is liberal usage, and Tupac Shakur is referred to as HNIC, head nigger in charge.)  Society—which is usually not only them but also us—often prefers people fit into narrow boxes, despite the threat of suffocation—and society treats with contempt those who are confined in boxes—whether those boxes are labeled class, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality—and yet punishes attempts to escape.  In light of hip-hop’s materialism, narrow perspectives, prejudices, violence and vulgarity, it can be hard to know whether hip-hop is worth critical attention (and many rappers reject the value of critics).  Who is paying (perceptive, thoughtful) attention, to artists, to critics?  It is fascinating, if not perplexing, that the blackest of genres—hip-hop—has found acolytes around the world, in places such as France and Israel and Russia and Japan—and Somalia.  I suspect that what many hear in it is self-affirmation, a toughness of sensibility equal to the toughness of the world.

K’naan’s perspective sees beyond borders; and his collaborators are evidence of that.  Damian Marley, performing Jamaican dancehall rap, is with K’naan on “I Come Prepared,” which discusses different kinds of masculine initiative.  (I loved Bob Marley, for his music, politics, and sense of the human spirit; and it’s good to have his children, Damian and Ziggy, take a place with iconic integrity on the world stage.)  “A visual stenographer is what I be,” says K’naan.  Some of K’naan’s rap has pop music influences, sometimes bringing to mind Prince and Michael Jackson, as on “Bang Bang,” a romantic song about a dangerous young woman, which features a chorus by Adam Levine.  A reiteration of K’naan’s difficult life and career mission occurs in “If Rap Gets Jealous,” which is made more interesting because of a thrashing rock-style guitar and rhythm-and-blues chorus.  Somewhat sad, with a slowed-down beat, and about the subject of commitment and struggle leading to an inevitable survival and triumph, is the composition “Wavin’ Flag,” a piece that is kind of anthemic.

The song “Somalia” mentions violence, drug abuse, sea pirates, deaths and more in the country of Somalia; and K’naan damns pointless raps.  The song has a very harmonious chorus, a very pleasing sound; and it is like the confirmation of an old ambition, the combination of art and purpose, of music and meaning.  With a short, slightly abrasive beat, the song “America,” featuring Mos Def and Chali 2na, is a mocking revision of the optimistic American national mythology, and the use of a foreign language in it is effective, offering more proof of a unique perspective.

Dwight Dawes’ piano and Matt Cappy’s horn are threads in the love rap of remembrance and regret, “Fatima.” K’naan’s voice in his middle range is very attractive in “Fire in Freetown,” reminding me of both Fela and Nina Simone.  “Dear Mama, you helped me to write this, by showing me to give is priceless,” K’naan declares in “Take A Minute,” identifying the importance of humility, patience, and quiet strength, sentiments that place K’naan within a humane tradition, familial, communal, and artistic.  (There is a perceptible desire to give pleasure in K’naan’s music, one of the most winning ambitions of any artist.)  Of course, the demands of reality do not stay far from K’naan’s mind.  The importance of a money transfer notice—and the relief one feels to get that notice—is conveyed by “15 Minutes Away,” the composition in which K’naan speaks of carrying on his grandmother’s morality.  With strings by Mychael Danna, “People Like Me” focuses on war and love and debt and salvation.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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