Maroussia :Your website is called the dusty foot philosopher. Why is your foot dusty ?
K’naan :Because that’s what I am called. It represents children out of Africa that I was hanging with when I was younger. Coming up, we didn’t have much, we were poor. But we were always articulate kids. We’d talk about things and imagine places, dream about things that we didn’t have immediate access to. We were philosopher in dreams but dusty in our means.
M :Let’s talk about your video Soobax (soo-bah). What does that word mean ?
K :It means come out in Somali. The song is a conversation/confrontation with warlords and gunmen from my part of the world who have taken over my country. Somalia has been without any structure or government for fifteen years now. It’s run by gunmen. This is just talking to them and say Come out of our country, you’ve done enough.
M :In Congo, the government officially prohibited rap music and videos in 2004. Although the censorship has been lifted, it’s still a sign that critical thinking is not well accepted. Are africans being denied free speech ?
K : My video is free to play there. The only place it got censored is on MTV. But in Africa it plays in its natural way, how we shot it. Sometimes I do think that videos, political statements or art forms are censored in Africa, often because of the ruling powers. Those are people who are in control, they hold down a lot of different aspects. Africans do understand art as a weapon of change. And so it happens, but it happens just as often here, in America. I don’t really think only Africans are being held down. Everywhere artists are known to be the ones changing the world.
M:Would you say censorship is more subtle here ?
K: I don’t think it’s even more sublte ! In M.I.A.’s video, for example, she says “I’m pointing my sunshowers at you” and MTV censored it cuz someone metaphorically translated it and said “that must mean a terrorist thing. Right there”. It’s huge that MTV would do that ! That’s not very subtle. And it happens all the time. (the sunshowers that fall on my troubles/ are over you my baby/ and some showers I’ll be aiming at you…)
There’s also another kind of censorship that happens here. Stations simply do not play some music. If something has strong content and doesn’t fit into the formula between Jessica Simpson and the next reality show that’s hot at the time. If you can’t entertain people in a way that’s as silly as the 30mn before and after, your video is not getting played. That’s censorship. I think it’s not subtle anywhere. Africans are able to say it though. The can be like We’re censoring your ass rather than come with a politically correct way to do it.
M: Tell me about your experience shooting Soobax in Kenya.
K: It was the first time I returned to East African in fourteen years. I had gone to West Africa in 2001 to work with Youssou N’door. But East Africa is entirely different to me cuz it’s close to home, it’s where I was born. It was an impacting experience for me to go there and to see family members who’ve made their way to Kenya. The environment, the smell, the people, the strength. I also missed just being a human being, as opposed to being a black human. I became black when I left Africa. Because there everyone is black, you don’t have a reason to be black. You are able to exist. I haven’t existed comfortably as a human being for fourteen years. Over there the cab I hold down will stop for me as it would the next man. That whole thing drops, it’s a heavy, heavy weight on your shoulders. I felt the relief, it was impacting.
M: Are you dealing with that pressure better with time ? Do you feel less spotted ?
K: No because I’m an artist. We are naturally sensitive people. While I think my non-artist friends who come from the same background as I do have gotten used to it, I have not. It’s always there. I try to go rent an apartment and the phone conversation and the physical conversation that I’m having are very different because now I’m in a historical context when I appear by face. Sensitivity brings that forward to a 3D. I don’t think I ever will get used to it.
M: Is that a driving force in your music ?
Every injustice is. My aunt observed me very well when I was young and she said :This kid never gets upset over anything unless that is injustice. She was right.
M: You’re from Somalia, a descendent of poets and your family has an important role in the country’s struggle for independence. Can you tell me a little more about that ?
K: To say that you are from a petic family means one thing. To say that you are from a poetic family in Somalia means another. Somalia is known as the nation of poets. Almost everyone is a poet. It’s so enshrined in the society that to be a lawyer you have to be a poet. My family have been renowned poets over there. My grandfather was Hajin Mohammed (Ahyaa Wadani), he was a leader on a group called SYL which is the Somalia Youth League. They were a revolutionary group, that, by force, fought colonial power. He was a leader by the word. They used his poetry to incite the revolution which in turn outsed the colonial forces from my country.
M:Before coming to TO, your first contact with North America was Harlem, New York. Was it rap music that helped you bridge the two worlds ?
K: I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but yeah music is the bridge, still now my day-to-day get through. It made me gain a strong sense of purpose to say : look we come from a continent that is often injured, misunderstood and raped and here we are, among the wealthiest nations. They are wealthy not by accident, but by the taking of resources from the very continent that I come from. It was built on Africa’s back, and I’m here to try to make some sense out of that through music and make sure the youth know we are dignified people, coming from a dignified struggle. We’re not Africa the poor, Africa the give aid. We are 50% of the world’s resources. Have been and continue to be. That’s a big thing for people to realize.
M: You learned English through rap, not school.
K: I went to grade 10 and left grade 10. I’ve never gone back. It was trying to prolong a child-like mentality I didn’t even have. I was a grown person by the time I was 8. A fully functioning, thinking human being with responsibilities. So here I am 14, in North America and I’m expected to act like a child. It was trying to revert me into being a child and I wasn’t having that. I didn’t speak to my reality : I was an immigrant with poor parents who couldn’t make the rent, thrown in a country… Welfare is gonna pay 80% of the rent. What about the other 20% ? And what about food ? It was us that had to go get that. Anyways I think school is silly, anyone who gets the chance should drop out.
M: On your website’s history section, you specify that feminism is required from both men and women, Did you write this because you felt there’s negative perception of Muslim men ?
K: That, and that it’s honest. M’saalam was one of the most feminist men to come to this earth. He was no joke ! He was about completely holding feminism. People found a way to make Islam look like the ultimate oppression weapon against women. Here was the guy who brought the teaching to us –Sunni Muslims are supposed to follow his teaching. It’s all polar opposite, nowadays :the creators of Civilization, Africans, are now the poorest of the world. And we’re the terrorists, while our religion is about peace. I had to bring some realism to what we are.
M: You won a United Nation’s “messenger of truth” award , and performed in Spain for them. Were you surprised the top international institution recognizes hip hop like a positive force in humanity ?
K: I’m surprised it’s taken this long ! Those people have researchers thinking about what is influential to youth. They know that hip hop is where it’s at. The powers have always tried to find a way to connect themselves with their possible adversaries. Once you align yourself with your enemies, you melt them, they become a part of you. Any stronghold will try to align with the underdogs so that it can swallow it up.
M :So the U.N. is trying to swallow hip hop ?
M: According to them, you will “dedicate your time, your art and their energy to spread the Millennium Development Goals and support initiatives for the development of young people in underprivileged districts and urban centers.” How do you plan to do that concretely ?
K: In United Nations language, they’re saying I will continue to do the work that I already do. I wasn’t doing it because of them. I am doing it for me and my people.
M :Any featurings on the album ?
K: Mwafrika, from Kenya, is on the album, He’s the proclaimed illest Swahili emcee. I respect him a great deal. He would defend his title until he started making his rent out of battling. He was providing for his family through the art of rhyming and battling. He was sure he would win ! But this album is about me, so it’s the only featuring.
M: Who would you like to work with, if you were given a passport for one song with the artist of your choice ?
K: And they have to be alive huh ? Some artist that I love greatly and deeply, I wouldn’t work with. It’s like trying to self-impose yourself on an already beautiful picture. They are them without me… But I’d like to collaborate when I feel I’m a contribution for real… Tracy Chapman, Bebel Gilberto, Gege from Ethiopia, Nas, Gill Scott Heron, Mos Def…
M: When’s the album coming out ?
K: June 28th in Canada, United States a little later since we’re working a distribution deal over there. It seems we’ve built more momentum there than in Canada, for Canadian reasons : insecurity. Even concert goers seem insecure. But that’s generalizing, in Montreal it’s not like that. But in Toronto it is. The crowd is worried about what the next men will say if they react. Canadian music seems like it’s run by old white people. It’s young people making the music but the industry wants us to go by the value system they adore and adhere to. There’s no risk taking. The way that American scene progressed is with young entrepreneurs taking risks. A guy will be dope, another one will come with some money and say Yo : let’s blow up . Here you’re gonna need six months to make the first decision.
M: Are you releasing this independently ?
K: Yes. But Sony/BMG is distributing it. We’re one of the few bands who have the fortune of getting what we want out of the majors without selling our souls.
Big shout out to big dawg from D-block, to Ray-ray, rarawreks, big brother Lee, all the kids out of Dickson. One.