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K'naan offers glimpse into his childhood in first kids' book `When I Get Older'

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rapper K'naan, shown in a handout photo, is the author of a new children's book "When I Get Older: The Story Behind 'Wavin' Flag.'" THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Patrick Hoelck
Rapper K'naan, shown in a handout photo, is the author of a new children's book "When I Get Older: The Story Behind 'Wavin' Flag.'" THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Patrick Hoelck

TORONTO - As a newcomer to Canada, K'naan was able to find a source of both solace and expression through music.

The launch of his first-ever children's book represents a full-circle moment of sorts for the award-winning rapper, as he fuses literature, art and music to share his childhood story of the immigrant experience.

While the Somali-Canadian poet and MC initially planned — and still hopes — to pen a memoir for adults, "When I Get Older: The Story Behind 'Wavin' Flag''' (Tundra Books) documents a pivotal period of K'naan's life geared towards a younger audience.

The book offers a window into life growing up in his native Somalia, and his mother's decision for the family to flee the African country following the outbreak of civil war in 1991. It includes vibrant illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez as well as a brief summary on the history of Somalia.

"When I Get Older" chronicles the challenges K'naan faced to adjusting to life in New York and later Toronto where he describes feeling like an outsider in his new environment, from his clothes to contending with a crude classmate.

"I thought it would be really more interesting for me — at this moment anyway — to write a little story contextualizing certain things which could seem so mythical to kids, and putting them in simple words around a song they already love," K'naan said in a recent phone interview.

The song, of course, is his anthemic hit "Wavin' Flag." Sheet music and lyrics for the chart-topper are included in the book, with references to the tune's ubiquitous chorus threaded throughout the story.

In the book, the "When I get older, I will be stronger..." verse is introduced as a poem written by K'naan's late grandfather, famed Somali poet Haji Mohammed, that the pair recite together. In reality, the track was co-written and co-produced by Bruno Mars's production team, The Smeezingtons.

"The origins aren't necessarily directly from my grandfather's poetry but ... it's the inspiration of his poetry, that's the origin of this song," said the singer-songwriter, whose grandfather died just before K'naan left Somalia.

"Everyone has inspiration — it's just mine happened to be very close to my door, because my grandfather was a very enormously respected poet," he added. "And so, a lot of what I would console myself with as a young person dealing with conflict was from the words of my grandfather."

While framed as a story about the immigrant experience, K'naan believes newcomers and citizens alike will find the story relatable.

"The implications are similar," he said. "One of them is for relating to and the other is for understanding; and so I wanted to contextualize the immigrant experience for children so that it doesn't seem like it's some `other.'

"The idea of an immigrant to a child, it can seem like its own universe where `That's what those people are,'" he added. "No one is inherently such; and immigrants have had their own language and their own family, and they were loved by their own grandparents. These are things, I think, that for a child need contextualizing."

Recounting his personal story is one that has proven to be cathartic for K'naan.

"It's beautiful. It's pain in a way like a funny bone," he said. "When you hurt your elbow on the door, you know, that kind of beautiful pain. That's kind of what this experience is.

"And now, I've made so much music and art out of the actual pain that used to just be pain, but is now beautiful and humorous or whimsical. It's what, I think, art has given me."

Music will again be in the forefront for K'naan with the upcoming release of "Country, God or the Girl" on Oct. 16.

The new album will include a number of high-profile collaborations, including with Bono. K'naan and the U2 frontman have previously teamed up outside of the recording studio to bring awareness to the plight of famine in Somalia.

The country recently elected Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as its new president. Somalia had not had a fully functioning government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

K'naan said he congratulated Mohamud "in the Twitter universe." While he admits to not know much about the new leader, K'naan believes "there's lot of hope in the atmosphere" in Somalia.

"I hear from my father who's in Mogadishu at the moment, and there seems to be a new air of goodwill and intention and an idea of a future for Somalia which seemed so far away to many Somalis when I was there just a year ago," said K'naan.

"This is certainly a good step. It's not an answer to Somalia's problems at the moment as they are so large. But I do think it certainly gives people a renewed energy towards doing something great for the nation."


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