12/12/2018
Today from Hiiraan Online:  _
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Somali singer K'Naan's music transforms him into a global icon
K´Naan´s ´Wavin´ Flag´ was performed at end of the Winter Olympics.
K'Naan's 'Wavin' Flag' was performed at end of the Winter Olympics.
WHEN THE GLOBALLY attuned Somalian rapper/singer known as K'Naan poses the question "What Is Hardcore?" - challenging gangsta poses and talking about his own experience on the mean streets - he's not just blowing smoke.

When he was still in knee pants, K'Naan knew how to operate an AK-47 assault rifle and throw a hand grenade, " 'cause that's what you do where I grew up, in a country that's suffered from civil war for almost 20 years, and still lacks central leadership. Protecting yourself is an everyday fact of life."

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And that's why even tough guys like T.I. (recently sprung from prison) don't take offense at K'Naan's challenges. "They tell me they respect me," shared the talent, who arrives here tomorrow, along with his band, for a show at the Trocadero that also spotlights the talents of rap buddy Wale.

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At another extreme, when K'Naan delivers his reggae-flavored shout-out "Wavin' Flag," a lulling, lovely anthem of liberation, patriotism and peace, the artist is hailed as a mellow messiah and global icon in the great tradition of Bob Marley.

Recently, at the tail end of the Winter Olympics, the likes of Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber and Drake massed in Vancouver, Canada, to cut an all-star version of "Wavin' Flag" as Young Artists for Haiti, a Canadian contribution to the island relief effort. Since K'Naan now lives in Toronto, they embrace him as one of their own. The performance debuted late March at No. 1 on the Canadian singles chart.

Oh, and Coca-Cola has started to use yet another version of that same anthem - originally found on K'Naan's much-admired 2009 sophomore album "Troubadour" - to teach the world to sing, again.

"Wavin' Flag" has been embraced for an international ad campaign, as the soda maker's celebratory jingle for the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament commencing June 11 in Johannesburg, South Africa. A pretty big deal.

"It's amazing what that one song has already done for me," said K'Naan, checking in by phone from Slovenia, "a tiny, tiny country in central Europe. That's why I'm here. Because they love the World Cup and what it means. And what a great opportunity this is to unveil the rest of my songs."

'Obsessed with eloquence'

Born just shy of 32 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia's seaport capitol (and infamous pirate hangout), Keinan Abdi Warsame was raised to be an artist, not a fighter. His aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia's most famous singers and his grandfather Haji Mohamed, a poet.

"Somalia is a country obsessed with eloquence," K'Naan told me. "It's known as the nation of poets. In the Somalian cafes, you'll hear major exchanges of Shakespearean-quality poetry. The point of language is not just to communicate. You wear it, employ it as something that represents you. Words are life and death."

His rhymed word play in English is masterful, though K'Naan (it means "traveler") said he "only started speaking it at age 15." That was a year or two after he, two siblings and their mom hopped on "literally the last plane out of Somalia before the airport shut down," and took flight to the United States.

This saved him from certain conscription into one warring tribal faction or another. (Even today, 16 years later, he refuses to publicly identify with one tribe for fear of retribution against family members, especially from Al-Shabab, the most reactionary, music-condemning religious faction.)

K'Naan stayed briefly with relatives in Harlem, N.Y., then moved to a neighborhood in Toronto with a large Somali population.

"I learned English by listening to records - my influences are everyone from Nas and Rakim to Bob Dylan to Fela [the late, great Nigerian funk/jazz/protest superstar]. I attacked the pursuit of English with the same kind of fervor I use in my raps and songs."

His first big break came with an appearance before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, where K'Naan delivered a spoken piece criticizing the U.N. for its failed aid missions to Somalia. The Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour was in the house and was so impressed by K'Naan's eloquence and courage that he invited the young man to contribute to his 2001 album "Building Bridges" and join a world tour.

From that sprang the chance to make his debut album, "The Dusty Foot Philosopher," which won a 2006 Juno Award (Canada's equivalent to the Grammy) as best rap recording. The album also scored in Britain with a BBC Radio 3 Award, hailing this genre-straddler as best newcomer in world music.

K'Naan has gotten an even bigger push since signing with A&M/Octave Records and releasing "Troubadour," which made many a "Best of 2009" list.

"In K'Naan, we see a hybrid of musical styles," said James Diener, CEO and president of Octane. "There's an African hip-hop component, but what distinguished him were the elements of reggae and world music, and most interestingly, his sense of melody and his pop aesthetic. The album has incredibly commercial appeal."

That's really Keane

A concert recording of his early material, "The Dusty Foot on the Road," also released last year, found K'Naan working with a stripped-down trio, heavy on the African hand percussion and rapping more than singing. Nowadays, K'Naan tours with a larger, more traditional rock-style group and dramatic lighting rig.

Also seeming to point in a certain direction - his next big exposure will be word slinging and singing on an album by British melancholy popsters Keane called "Night Train." (Philly folks will especially connect with the "Rocky" references on the song "Looking Back.")

Still, K'Naan won't be pinned down to any singular course his show and work might be following. He clearly enjoys carrying different passports, touching a diverse audience.

"I have a bunch of incredibly talented musicians. Sometimes we break down in the middle of a power show and go into an acoustic melodic show, then bring it back up. It's a journey of emotions. We're just trying to keep it honest." *

K'Naan, with Wale, guests John Forte and Tabi Bonney, Trocadero, 10th and Arch streets, 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, $23.50/$25, 215-922-6888, www.thetroc.com.