Music Break: “They Love K’naan in the Slums and in the Native Reservations”

I can’t wait until January. That’s when Somali-Canadian artist K’naan’s new album, Troubadour, drops. I haven’t been so excited by an album since Outkast came out with Aquemini in 1998. And this one is better.

I first saw K’naan in early September at Le Poisson Rouge in the village, and I’ve been hooked since. At that show, Mos Def appeared in the crowd at one point, and got on stage to perform this number with K’naan.

When Mos Def endorses something in the music world, you should probably pay attention. That night, K’naan had all of us not only paying attention but also singing along with the anthems he unleashed.

The other day, I finally had the chance to get a sneak preview of Troubador at the house of a friend who had a hook-up.  I was blown away. It’s a soulful, rousing, thought-provoking, witty and moving hour of classic joints. Dare I say it? OK, I will: Grammy 2010. If K’naan gets the kind of publicity he deserves, this will be a game-changing album, in a time when everyone is going back to the one-off single model on iTunes.

To understand the significance of K’naan’s music, you need to know a bit about his life story. Born in 1978, he grew up in Somalia and left on the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu in 1991, before the civil war descended into total chaos. In much of his music, he talks about the deaths of friends, violence and deprivation that characterized his youth. During that time, he listened to American rap music, memorizing lyrics before he knew what they meant. He’s been pursuing that passion ever since arriving in North America.

The pain and beauty of K’naan’s homeland resonate in all his music. In some songs, he samples old Ethiopian melodies, drops hip hop beats on them, weaves anti-violence rhymes through them, and links them with addictive, heart-tugging choruses. In the song “Somalia” — from which the title of this blog post comes — he sings:

What you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?
To never know a single day without a big commotion
It can’t be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion
And when I try to sleep, I see coffins closin’

(You can download that song for free on K’naan’s MySpace page)

K’naan obviously listens to a lot of music. His flow most closely resembles Eminem’s. But elsewhere, like when he says I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations/Creatin’ medication from my own tribulations on “Take a Minute”, he sounds just like 2Pac. And when he speaks at the end of the same song, he sounds like Mos Def: “Nothin’ is perfect man, that’s what the world is, all I know is, I’m enjoying today. Cuz it ain’t every day that you get to give.” Elsewhere, he sounds like John Lennon: I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

His subject matter is a long, refreshing drink of water in the desert of still-bling-obsessed, violence-celebrating mainstream rap. K’naan talks about family, the virtues of generosity, the immigrant experience, the scars of war and — in one of the best songs, “Fifteen Minutes Away” — the simple pleasure of a wire transfer back home. He can afford to laugh at gangster-posturing American rappers because, he sings, he has lived a ghetto harder than anything they can talk about. The song “Strugglin'” from his excellent first album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, showcases classic K’naan content, and his fusion of folk melodies with Hip Hop:

In the most moving song of all (and there are many on Troubador), a tune called “People Like Me,” K’naan sings a verse that I wish would come to define a new era in Hip Hop. In the first verse, a first-person poem reminiscent of Eminem’s “Stan”, but with more of an advocacy angle, K’naan takes on the voice of a soldier in Iraq. I made my friend let me write down the whole verse, and I’ll leave you with that:

Is it fair to say that I am stressing out?
I’m stationed in Iraq and they won’t let me out
My homie said I was stupid for even joining
My counselor said my decision was “disappointing”
Oh she had good slates (?) at state colleges
And with my good grades it wouldn’t have been a problem
But they don’t understand just the power of significance
More than brilliance and certainly more than dividends
And if you ask me now, Would I repeat it?
Would I fight in a war I don’t believe in?
Well the answer is, it’s not me where the cancer is
They’ve been doin’ this before Jesus of Nazareth
And after all this time it is still deadly hazardous
And Bush isn’t really bein’ all that inaccurate
When he says we winnin’ the war, ‘cuz it’s staggerin’
But that’s ‘cuz we’re killin’ everybody that we see
And most of us soldiers we can barely fall asleep
And time and time again, I’m feelin’ incompetent
‘Cuz my woman back home, we constantly arguin’
And I must be crazy, ‘cuz all I’m obsessin’ with
Is her MySpace and Facebook, and who’s commentin’
Swear to God if she’s cheatin’ I’m doin her ass in!

I could tell with one look
And it came to me, soundin’ somethin’ like a song hook:

[Hook]
Heaven, is there a chance that you could come down
And open doors to hurting people like me…

Isaac Hayes and Mahmoud Darwish

It’s a cruel year when we have to mourn Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes and Mahmoud Darwish, three personages that are so big it is hard for me to think of them as dead. All these guys were revolutionaries in their own ways.

Isaac Hayes passed on Sunday, and I will not repeat the incredible details of his life here, since you can read them yourself in this very good Washington Post obit.

Hayes’ 1974 song “Hung Up On My Baby” has probably my favorite guitar lick of all time (OK, with the possible exception of some Ali Farka Toure stuff, but I consider any comparisons with him unfair). It’s the one sampled in the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” and it’s completely haunting and unforgettable.

The song also has the second best guitar lick ever, which 2nd II None sampled in their early 90s hit, “If You Want It,” which was one of my favorite songs when I was about 12. Little did I know how much better the original was.

Mahmoud Darwish was, of course, a Palestinian poet — the Palestinian poet, really. His death on Saturday is a big loss not just because of his artistic genius but also because he was a voice of compassion, reason and nuance in a conflict and region rife with extremes. I feel lucky I got to see him read in person in Damascus in 2005. Here’s a decent LA Times obit (read it now because the link will probably only work for a while).

I’ll fill for them the parting glass, and I hope you’ll do the same.