Outside it’s business as usual under the blitz of neon in Times Square, with the weekend crowds jostling past the theatres offering the big Broadway shows. Inside the Nokia Theatre, the audience is faced with far more unexpected and challenging entertainment. On stage there’s a sharply dressed young man wearing a long, yellow scarf and a natty hat, talking about “dignified beauty and struggle” in Africa. For much of his set he is backed by just one African drum as he mixes minimalist hip-hop with singalong African songs and poems that deal with survival and suffering in his native Somalia.
K’Naan is a powerfully low-key, theatrical, witty and disarmingly charming performer by hip-hop standards, but he dares to announce that he has seen more suffering and brutality than those American superstars who brag about gangster lifestyles and violence. The dismissive What’s Hardcore? starts with a brutal (and accurate) description of contemporary life in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, followed by a swipe at American rappers: “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive/I would make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit.” The New York crowd scream with delight.
These are extraordinary days for K’Naan, a 28-year-old African exile who was named Kaynaan (Somali for “traveller”) Warsame. Now based in Canada, he was in New York as part of a marathon 43-date tour across the United States with his close friends, Stephen and Damian Marley. The sons of Bob Marley, one of his early heroes, have decided that K’Naan is “one of our own” and “stands for the same struggle”. Once this tour is over he will be in London for the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music at the Barbican, where he will be presented with the best newcomer prize, even though “politics and distribution problems” have stopped his much-praised debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, getting an official release in the UK.
“I was very surprised to get the award,” he said. “It’s very cool, but am I world music? There’s trouble placing my thing in a category right now.
“Some call it world, some call it singer-songwriter, or Africa. It’s all of that. In Canada, my album was hip-hop album of the year.”
After the Barbican, he will be moving on yet again, playing at the Glastonbury festival (where there is likely to be another collaboration with the Marley brothers) and then a possible project with Damon Albarn.
But when I meet him, it’s winning over a New York crowd that excites him, because the city played an important part in his story. His father was a taxi driver in the city when K’Naan was growing up back in Mogadishu and it was from here that he sent his son his first hip-hop record, Eric B and Rakim’s Paid In Full — “the most legitimate hip-hop you could find at that time.” He didn’t understand the lyrics then “but I could tell they were bragging. I understood the emotions and that’s what attracted me.” He could hear connections with Somali music too. The melody for one of K’Naan’s songs, Until the Lion Learns to Speak, is taken from a song by the Somali poet and 1950s musician Areys Ise Karshe, “who used to have just one drum and was incredibly braggadocious”.
“He would say that other poets had no clue what they were doing and that he was so fierce as a poet that the planet stops when he speaks,” K’Naan says. “But then he would go on to say something relevant about the social situation.” The way K’Naan describes him, it sounds as if hip-hop was invented in Somalia.
Mogadishu is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but when K’Naan was growing up there it was “amazing, peaceful and almost beautiful to a fault”. He came from a famously artistic family: his grandfather was the poet Xaji Mohammed — “they lowered the flag for three days when he died” — and his aunt was the celebrated singer Magool. Like many Somalis, he went to the theatre and listened to music and poetry “because in Somalia it’s not a big thing to be a great vocalist, but you have to be an amazing lyricist. Somalia is called ‘the nation of poets’ and the memory bank of the nation carries on through poetry and proverbs.” He wrote his first poem when he was seven: “My mother and grandfather were in the house, and I came up to them and said, ‘I have something to say,’ and recited a poem about my father’s absence. From what they tell me, it was really touching.”
His artistic childhood collapsed almost overnight in January 1991 with the overthrow of Somalia’s dictatorial leader Siad Barre. In the absence of any recognised central government to take over, Mogadishu became a battleground between rival warlords and clans — a situation still unresolved today, after 16 years of anarchy and bloodshed.
“You could see a civilisation ending,” said K’Naan, “That’s how it felt. Everything was on fire and people were dying.” He was 13 and his strongest memories are of fighting and killing and the day his friends discovered a grenade in the Qur’an school they attended. “We figured it was something strange, but didn’t know it could explode. So we threw it around until the pin came out. I was really lucky. My ears were ringing when it went off and half the school was blown up, but luckily it was after school hours and no one else was there so we survived.”
K’Naan’s mother managed to get her family out of Mogadishu and they joined his father in New York, before moving to Toronto. There he learned English and four years later he began to develop his own Somali style of hip-hop, after deciding he was not impressed with the American rap hierarchy.
‘When I look for the blues in hip-hop, the pain that mirrors mine, that I can identify with, it only goes so far. It’s as if they are speaking about a headache and I’m talking about bullet wounds. I used to watch gangster rap videos with my brother and he’d say, ‘don’t they remind you of really rich spoiled kids who talk about having nothing?'” And how have America’s hip-hop heroes reacted to his criticism? “Well I met 50 Cent on a movie set and he was very pleasant. He didn’t say anything, but he was smiling and gave me a hug. He was very cool.”
K’Naan’s African/hip-hop fusion is special both because of his musical style and his lyrics, and though he is direct and clever rather than bombastic, he is never one to play down his achievements. Asked about his minimalist stage show, he answers: “A brave man doesn’t need weapons. It’s the coward who arms himself with all the equipment in the world. It’s part of that tradition — having an impact without all the tricks and explosions.”
But once he has won over audiences with his current style, he says he plans to move on, “adding horns in with acoustic hip-hop — because in Somalia there has always been a tradition of using brass. I have been discussing brass ideas with Damon Albarn.”
As for his lyrics and his stance on the continuing horrific events back in his homeland, he admits he has problems. Taking on the hip-hop hierarchy is one thing, but rapping about the situation in Somalia is quite another. The past year has seen the warlords ousted from Mogadishu by the hardline Union of Islamic Courts, who were themselves then forced out by invading Ethiopians, backed by the US, who accused the courts of harbouring al-Qaeda. Now the warlords are back and the violence in Mogadishu is worse than at any time since K’Naan left — so how does he respond to all that?
“Some people say K’Naan is mad — how could he support the Islamic Courts when they ban music and he’s a musician? I don’t care. Ban music, if you’re not killing people, there’s not mass rape going on and there are not people getting robbed and shot. The Islamic courts accomplished something by bringing stability to Mogadishu after 16 years.” Now that’s hardcore. — Â