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Singer/rapper K’NAAN’s name has become synonymous with conscious music, and the man himself, a person willing to speak out about injustice and poverty, and suggest aid and solutions. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame, he had lived in Mogadishu as a child during the Somali Civil War and even when his family safely arrived in North America, when he was 13, the memories of those times never left him. Many years later, they found their way into his music, particularly on 2005’s Juno Award-winning The Dusty Foot Philosopher, then his international breakthrough, 2009’s Troubadour.
“Thirteen years in Somalia is going to be more important to you than 20 years in Canada,” he once said.
Over the course of the past two years, the 34-year-old, Toronto-raised rapper (now living in New York) has seen his single “Wavin’ Flag” become a bona-fide anthem for peace and unity, as he collaborated on versions with artists all over the globe as part of its license to Coca-Cola for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Then Bob Ezrin produced a “Tears Are Not Enough”-type benefit single re-make under the banner Young Artists For Haiti – to help earthquake victims there – with 50 other Canadian artists, such as Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Sam Roberts and Drake.
Long before the launch of his music career, K’NAAN appeared before the U.N. Refugee Agency when he was just 21, performing a spoken-word piece that criticized the U.N.’s failed aid missions to Somalia. Last summer, he met with Bono to discuss the drought and famine in his homeland. Later, the pair made media rounds together on CNN and other important outlets to raise awareness about the severity of the conditions in East Africa.
So it’s a little unusual that on K’NAAN’s new album, Country, God Or The Girl, out in June, that the musician should pull back a bit from politics and go for some “me” time.
He got divorced in 2010, but his new relationship had started to fall apart when he returned from an extensive world tour, and that – in the time-honoured tradition of songwriting – is the source from which he drew much of the inspiration for his songs this time. One title is “Hurt Me Tomorrow,” produced by Ryan Tedder; another “The Sound of My Breaking Heart,” produced by Redone; and then there’s “Alone,” featuring will.i.am, and co-produced by the Black Eyed Peas star and Ezrin.
: “You don’t really know the meaning of what you’re writing until you’re in the place to listen to it.”
“There was [a relationship with] someone I cared about that ended just as I was writing music,” says K’NAAN. “It was hard because in all my music before, I had written songs while having some distance from the events that I was writing about, and so this is the first time, while in the middle of the scenario, that I’m also writing songs.”
He’s not certain it made him feel any better about it, though.
“I can’t be sure,” he admits. “It would be as painful to listen to when I wrote one as it was when I was writing it, but it’s because I didn’t have any distance. It’s hard – I mean, an ensuing breakup. You’re still seeing the person going through this idea of ending something and, in the evenings, you’re in the studio writing it; it’s kind of insane, you know?”
While writing from both a temporal and geographical distance from his life in Somalia provided much-needed perspective, K’NAAN found that writing in the moment about a personal relationship brought forth a floodgate of honesty and emotion that he didn’t hold back.
“I wrote it all,” he laughs. “In fact, in that way it was therapeutic because of the lack of censorship, because I thought the only way I know to properly talk about something is to write it in a song. So a lot of time, it was actually helping me figure out where I stood within the context, and how I felt about what was happening, rather than already knowing and writing about it. ”
It’s not that his beliefs in activism and his interest in social and political justice – and just plain helping to improve the conditions of peoples in impoverished conditions – didn’t enter into the lyrics on Country, God Or The Girl. Much has been made of the viewpoint that this is a personal album, but that isn’t to the exclusion of all else.
“It’s not just an album about the heart, or about love in that sense,” says K’NAAN. “It’s because it introduces my personal life, and writing about those things in this album, which I haven’t before. And so, I think that’s the only way that it is different, but it isn’t that I’ve stopped writing about other things that concern me.”
He starts to recite the lyrics to “The Seed,” which was produced by Sham and Motzart.
“‘I was a seed/Planted by lovers in a refugee camp/Then overseas, I grew free/Out grew my roots and I became a tree/So now they’ll never cut me down.’ What that song is about is, out of the vulnerability of the concrete jungle comes something that can withstand and not break,” K’NAAN explains.
“Bulletproof Pride,” the song featuring Bono and produced by Brian West, Chuck Harmony and Jon Levine, he says can be interpreted in different ways.
“You don’t really know the meaning of what you’re writing until you’re in the place to listen to it,” says K’NAAN. “It’s like listening to the radio, and you listen to a song, and it’s totally cheesy, and sometime later you might have had an experience in which, when you listen to that song you’re like, ‘This totally makes sense.’ ‘Bulletproof Pride’ is a deceptive song because sometimes I listen to it and it’s about country, and sometimes I listen to it and it’s about the girl, and sometimes it’s about myself.”
K’NAAN says of “Gold In Timbuktu,” a song produced by Chuck Harmony and Gonzales, is about old age. “The way that I wrote the song, it’s the perspective of someone who has gotten old, and instead of looking back at their years, in that kind of grace, they look at their son and they’re envious of the infinite potential of someone who now has their life to live, when they [themself] are at the end.”
The new album also includes guest appearances by Nas on “Nothing To Lose,” Nelly Furtado on “Is Anybody Out There?” and none other than Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards on “Sleep When We Die.” The Richards connection came through K’NAAN’s friendship with drummer Steve Jordan, who’s also on the album.
“Steve is friends with Keith [he actually co-produced Richards’ solo material and played in his band],” says K’NAAN. “So he played my music for Keith in a studio and Keith, from what I hear, just loved it. In fact, I was away and Keith phoned me, and I remember my response to the person on the other end, and me saying, ‘Whoever you are, you do a very good Keith Richards.’”
Country, God Or The Girl features many producers, but only a few share in the songwriting with K’NAAN, namely Tedder, Sham and Motzart, and Lil Eddie.
“The way that I look at production – because it isn’t just somebody who has made a beat, and then I write [to it] – is, I don’t separate it from songwriting,” he says. “So in that sense, because Chuck [Harmony] – who doesn’t write lyrics at all, or melody, I write all of that – plays the chords, and because that takes the song in a direction that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have taken it, he becomes part of the writing for me.”
Country, God Or The Girl comes at a time when K’NAAN’s persona has come to mean a lot more than the words he puts to music. He is viewed as an advocate and activist. This new album just might be the thing that stops him getting pigeonholed as the guy who writes about his childhood in Somalia and refugee status.
“It would be dishonest to just be that guy all the time because I am not that guy all the time,” he states plainly. “I have a life. I have concerns. I have thoughts. I have feelings. It’s not a tactical decision, but it is the truth and I couldn’t imagine just writing another Troubadour or another Dusty Foot Philosopher because it’s not how I’m feeling. So I think it’s a good time. “We’ll see how people respond to it, but that’s secondary in my view. What’s important to me is just to create what I need to create.”