With much of the North American urban-music market enthralled with gangsters, it's easy to forget that in other places in the world, hip-hop culture stands for something very different. On the track "What's Hardcore" off his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher, Somali-Canadian emcee K'naan puts forward a chilling reminder. "If I rhymed about home and got descriptive," he raps, "I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit."
K'naan elaborates on his position over coffee with the Straight. "When someone is talking about the ills of America, or the violent gun life that they have in their neighbourhood-and glorifying it-in Somalia, where there were no options, it can seem a bit brattish, you know, like very suburban, to us," he offers. "There is a certain level of violence that you would have to have seen to know that there is no glory in it. There is no glory in the gun."
"Now the youth that came from that struggle have a voice," he continues. "They look to me as the guy to shed light on how they've lived. And to make sense of how they are currently living. They don't really relate to American hip-hop."
K'naan-who will be performing at Ginger 62 on Sunday (April 24) in conjunction with the screening of a new global hip-hop documentary series, 4REAL-grew up in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. His childhood was characterized by a warm, loving family life, and by the powerful influence of his grandfather, Xaji Mohamed, a famous poet. But when the civil war erupted, K'naan's neighbourhood became a war zone.
The track "What's Hardcore" details that experience, touching on how that period in history looked up close: what it felt like to navigate daily roadblocks, riots, looting, and stray bullets. In the end, K'naan's family narrowly escaped death; they were on the last commercial flight out of Somalia. They moved to Harlem-which K'naan found peaceful in comparison-and later to Toronto.
The lead single for The Dusty Foot Philosopher, the infectious, percussive "Soobax", is a direct address to the gunmen who terrorized him and his people. The video for the track was shot in a Somali refugee community in Kenya, and is getting rotation on various MTV subsidiaries overseas, and is currently the No. 2 most downloaded video on vh1.com, making K'naan a revered figure for the hip-hop generation in Africa.
"Soobax" is not the first time that K'naan has spoken out on behalf of his peers. When he was invited to perform at the 50th-anniversary celebration for the United Nations, K'naan took the opportunity to call out high-ranking officials for their handling of the crisis in Somalia. He received a standing ovation from the audience.
"At the time of the U.S.-led mission in Somalia, which resulted in the blockbuster Black Hawk Down, I was not in Somalia," he explains. "But I left some people behind that were killed by that situation, some of which were two young kids that I had potty-trained. They were hit by an American missile."
"It was me now-their cousin, their very [own] cousin-standing on the stage, able to speak to the world," he reflects, still visibly amazed by the experience. "I took that opportunity. If I hadn't, I would not be able to justify my existence. I wouldn't be able to justify my struggle, my survival."