K’naan, born Keinan Abdi Warsame in Somalia, is a soft-spoken man whose many life and cultural experiences have given him an air of warmth and wisdom. The poet, rapper, and singer-songwriter, most famous for his 2010 World Cup song “Wavin’ Flag,” lived in Somalia during the time of the Somali Civil War, moving in his early teens to a Somali-heavy borough of Toronto, Canada where many of his friends were lost to murder, suicide, prison and deportation.
Despite the combination of assimilating in a new culture with tragedy happening all around him, K’naan was able to transmute his life into something positive with music. K’naan told interviewer Casey McCabe at AMP Radio/Los Angeles that he picked up English through the medium of music, citing specifically rapper Nas’ Illmatic.
“Obviously, when I was fourteen, I didn’t speak any English at all,” elaborated K’naan. “I came from Somalia then and so picking up the language, one of the sources for me, was music. I just stumbled upon Nas’ album. He was one of the great teachers of mine.”
“Music in general has been in my life since I was a little kid,” continued K’naan. “My family is made up of a bunch of musicians. My auntie was a really famous singer and my grandfather was a poet. So, my household was kind of full of characters–that was my real musical introduction. But listening to hip-hop came from Nas’ Illmatic. And at that time, I didn’t really know English. I was new to North America–Toronto. It was kind of one of my textbooks on learning the language.”
K’naan said he also listened to Gang Starr, Lyricists Lounge, Rakim and Eric B, basically “anything that was smart, that was saying something,” even if at the beginning he didn’t necessarily understand what they were saying.
“I had the Paid In Full album while I was still in Somalia, but at that time it could have been rhythmic gibberish,” K’Naan confessed. “I had no idea what they were saying.”
Twenty years since his arrival in North America, at the age of thirty-four, K’naan has four studio albums under his belt, one EP, and a forthcoming album called Country, God, or the Girl which features major musical players like Nelly Furtado, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, and U2’s Bono who K’naan said is very “fun to be around.”
“He sends me really funny text messages,” said K’naan laughing. “He’s like the furthest person to take himself seriously. I would get a text message in which he’s writing me a joke and then he’s like, ‘Ok, gotta go. I’m with Sarkozy.’ He’s amazing. He’s a good friend now.”
“I was a big fan of U2. I’m not unique in that, but he kind of knew about my work and we met up during this devastation in East Africa where the drought happened,” explained K’Naan on how him and Bono first linked up. “We met and he said, ‘I’ve been following your music and we’re looking for a new kind of music in this arena, in this world. Trying to be charitable and he was a true friend when I needed him. So, it was after that that music was a natural way forward.”
K’naan also has hit-making super-producer Ryan Tedder working on his new album. “He really was somebody that knew my music; he was into my music,” said K’naan. ” So, I walked into this space where there was this hit maker kind of character but who had some serious respect already for what I’d done.”
This level of respect was necessary with the kind of topics K’naan is delving into with Country, God, or the Girl. He said he’s trying to reveal much more of himself saying that Country, God, or the Girl is a “true kind of journey into being brutally honest about things.”
In the past, K’naan, who said he doesn’t have an idea of who he wants to collaborate with until the song calls for it, also met Metallica guitarist and “If Rap Gets Jealous” collaborator Kirk Hammett at Bonnaroo in a random way–through musician and Bob Marley’s son, Stephen Marley.
“It’s a wish list I didn’t even know. I think that’s the greatest kind of wish list. When it comes around from the corner and you didn’t see it coming.”
“There’s a song in this record called “Rabbit Hole,” elaborated K’naan. “I take the perspective and it’s a very uncomfortable perspective of a child solider who is working under Kony and what he would feel and what he would think and he how he would see the world. From that to self-criticism and love relationships that fell apart; just a kind of self-examination is on this record.”
These introspective moments of self-examination is what led K’naan to write his hit song “Wavin’ Flag.” The singer-songwriter said he was taking a break, walking through New York after it had rained and came up with the melody.
I was just walking along and I was taking a break from a song I was making in the studio and I went back to the studio and started writing ‘Wavin’ Flag,'” said K’naan. The song took him to 86 countries in the last year of his tour.
“People are singing this song in Brazil, North Korea, Guana, you know, anywhere in the world,” continued K’naan. “It’s just a trip to think that you would write something in your solitude and that it would translate to people. ”
K’naan said his favorite country to visit was Vietnam, a country that many Western people have a relationship with based on cinematic documentation of wars, “but it’s so beautiful and incredibly lush and green and vibrant.”
“And the food is unreal. You have that [Pho] for lunch and dinner and you don’t want anything else. It’s so fresh,” said K’naan, recalling his time riding motorbikes around in the rain.
“You get so much from witnessing life at work; how people are the same in so many different respects,” continued K’naan, describing the lessons his culture-infused life has bestowed on him. “You think the differences stand out so much when you’re not around a place or around a people and you kind of just witness how human beings are one single path to try to be happy.”
–Nadia Noir, CBS Radio Los Angeles