- In the Beginning
Keinan Abdi Warsame better known by his stage name K’naan, is a Somali Canadian poet, rapper, singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist.
He rose to prominence with the success of his single “Wavin’ Flag”, which was chosen as Coca-Cola’s promotional anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Besides hip-hop, K’naan’s sound is influenced by elements of Somali music, Ethio-jazz and world music. He is also involved in various philanthropic initiatives.
K’naan was born in 1978 in Mogadishu, situated in the southeastern Banaadir province of Somalia. K’naan’s family was from an artistic background. His grandfather was a famous poet, and his aunt Magool was a renowned singer. His name, Keynaan, means “traveller” in the Afro-Asiatic Somali language.
K’naan spent his childhood in the national capital, Mogadishu. His father, Abdi, had left earlier when he was still a boy to work as a taxi driver in New York City.
K’naan’s early years were idyllic and enveloped in poetry and song, with his aunt Magool often singing to him. This changed following the start of the civil war, when at the age of 12, three of his friends were shot by an older adolescent gunman.
K’naan also narrowly escaped death one day at his school, when he mistook a grenade that he had found in the dirt for a potato and threw it away just before it detonated. These incidents and the general escalation in violence prompted his mother to seek a visa so that the family could rejoin his father in New York. At the age of 13, K’naan and his mother and two siblings, older brother Liban and younger sister Sagal, subsequently moved to the United States. They stayed in New York for half a year before relocating to Toronto, Canada, where K’naan’s dad had settled. His family still resides there.
In his new environment, K’naan began learning English, partly by listening to hip hop albums by artists like Nas and Rakim. Despite the fact that he could not yet speak the language, he taught himself hip-hop and rap diction, copying the lyrics and style phonetically. He then also began rapping. While growing up in the Rexdale neighborhood, K’naan lost many friends to murder, suicide, prison and deportation.
K’naan was briefly married to Deqa, a pharmacy technician, with whom he has two sons, born in 2005 and 2007. They divorced before he started touring for the 2010 FIFA World Cup with Coca-Cola.
In 2005, K’naan said that he is Muslim.
K’naan became a friend and associate of Canadian promoter Sol Guy, who helped him secure a speaking engagement before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, where K’naan performed a spoken word piece criticizing the UN for its failedpeacekeeping missions to Somalia. One of the audience members, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, was so impressed by the young MC’s performance and courage that he invited him to contribute to his 2001 album Building Bridges, a project through which K’naan was able to tour the world.
This project led to his work at other UN events, as well as the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Halifax Pop Explosion. It also helped him meet Canadian producer Brian West and Jarvis Church and his Track & Field team in 2002, who produced his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. In 2006, it won the Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year, and was nominated for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize. It also won the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in the newcomer category for 2007. The Dusty Foot Philosopher was re-released and repackaged as a “Deluxe Edition” featuring new mixes and a bonus DVD in the United States (and various international territories) by the emerging media company and record label iM (Interdependent Media, Inc.) in 2008.
K’naan toured and collaborated with artists like Nelly Furtado, Mos Def, will.i.am, The Roots, Dead Prez, and Pharoahe Monch on tours such as Live 8 and Breedlove Odyssey. He also collaborated with Damian Marley on the “Welcome to Jamrock” touring session.
K’naan rose to mainstream popularity by participating in the 2008 BET Awards Cypher. This was his first appearance on American television. His second studio album, Troubadour, was released on 24 February 2009 on A&M/Octone Records, and distributed through Universal Music Group worldwide. The album’s first single, “ABC’s”, was released in late 2008. K’naan’s music has featured in several video games such as Madden NFL 09 (with his song “ABC’s”) and FIFA 06 (with his song “Soobax”). The song “If Rap Gets Jealous”, a re-recording of a track of the same name – with different verses – from The Dusty Foot Philosopher, features Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. K’naan was also the first featured artist on X3, a collaborative project between CBC Radio 3,Exclaim! magazine and aux.tv to promote new Canadian music.
In 24 January 2012, K’naan released a 5 song EP under the title More Beautiful Than Silence including songs such as “Nothing to Lose”, “Better”, “Is Anybody Out There?”. The songs also include collaborations with Nas and Nelly Furtado.
K’naan’s 2012 album, Country, God or the Girl, was met with little of the critical acclaim and success that Troubadour had received. Unlike Troubadour, which was produced almost entirely by production team Track and Field, Country, God or the Girl featured a wide range of different producers, many of whom work on more mainstream projects. After the release of the album, K’naan published an article in the New York Times explaining and apologizing for the change in his sound. “My lyrics should change, my label’s executives said; radio programmers avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption,” recounts K’naan. “So I began to say yes. Yes to trying out songs with A-list producers. Yes to moving production from Kingston to Los Angeles.” In the end, K’naan states “I had not made my Marley or my Dylan, or even my K’naan; I had made an album in which a few genuine songs are all but drowned out by the loud siren of ambition. Fatima had become Mary, and Mohamed, Adam.”
In 2012, K’naan published a children’s book, When I Get Older: The Story Behind Wavin’ Flag.
Jim Welte has said K’naan has “a sound that fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip-hop, and brilliant protest poetry.”
His voice and style has been compared to Eminem, but his subject matter is very different; according to K’naan, he makes “urgent music with a message”, talking about the situation in his homeland of Somalia and calling for an end to violence and bloodshed. He specifically tries to avoid gangsta rap clichés and posturing, saying:
All Somalis know that gangsterism isn’t to brag about. The kids that I was growing up with [in Rexdale] would wear baggy [track] suit pants, and a little jacket from Zellers or something, and they’d walk into school, and all the cool kids would be like, ‘Ah, man, look at these Somalis. Yo, you’re a punk!’ And the other kid won’t say nothing, but that kid, probably, has killed fifteen people.
K’naan has said that he is influenced by Somali music and the traditional instruments of Somalia. His 2009 album, Troubadour, also draws heavily from Ethiopian sources, particularly Ethio-Jazz by Alemayehu Eshete and Tilahun Gessesse. This statement was made to explain his position on the world of difference which exists between where he grew up, and the ghettos of the first world. Nonetheless, K’naan denies that he is overtly political, instead explaining that he “[shows] the state of the world [and] if you call it like it is you’re being political.” His own opinion of his music is that it’s a “mix of tradition and [a] kind of articulation of my own life and [..] my past experiences.”