I’m a dreamer but I ain’t the only one | Got problems, but we love to have fun | This is our world, from here to your hood | We alive man, it’s okay to feel good
Delivered in a sing-song that’s not entirely unlike Jay-Z’s 2003 single ’99 Problems’ (but without the menace), ‘Dreamer’ by Somali/Canadian rapper K’naan is a good starting point for listening. He was 13 when he left Somalia, a war-torn African country that instantly credentializes K’naan, in a way. Like the reviewer at PopMatters said, you’d like to listen to the music on its own merits, but that’s sort of difficult when the MC is from one of the world’s political hot zones, mostly ignored by the world community and a place where civil war essentially continues without an end in sight, to this day.
Continuing with the biography for a moment, K’naan’s family left left Somalia on the last commercial plane out in 1991, first settling in New York City (where K’naan’s father had already lived and worked as a cab driver for a few years), and later in Toronto, Canada. K’naan knew early that he liked hip hop, learning lyrics from Rakim and Nas records phonetically before he learned English. Right from the outset, there was always a strong world music inflection to K’naan’s music and lyrics; he was no gansta but a man with a political mission. ‘Discovered’ by Youssou N’Dour while delivering a spoken word performance in front of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 1999, K’naan’s first record, The Dusty Foot Philosopher was released in Canada in 2005 and finally saw a US release in 2008. (All of this info courtesy of Wikipedia, of course.)
It’s an imaginative, interesting and engaging record with more than enough musical interest to match K’naan’s strong poetry. As discussed by other reviewers, K’naan sounds a little like Eminem – less angry, less clever with his words, perhaps, but also significantly less acerbic and hurtful. I’m reminded more of the Fugees during their classic The Score period. The Fugees always sounded as if they were dipping their feet in their Caribbean origins, sounding a little reggae, a little soca, a little zouk and a lot r&b in addition to their conscious but not fun-averse rap. And in a way, that’s exactly the kind of sound K’naan achieves. There’s as much party and pop in his records as there are in, say, the latest 50 Cent oeuvre. But it’s a different kind of party, one where women are a little more respected, where the partiers discuss the politics of back home while some Fela Kuti or fiery Afro-jazz rumbles in the background (something like the middle section of Troubadour‘s ‘Fire in Freetown,’ maybe).
I walk with three kids that can’t wait to meet God lately | That’s Bucktooth, Mohammed and Crybaby | What they do everyday just to eat, Lord have mercy | Strapped with an AK and they blood thirsty | So what’s hardcore, really? Are you hardcore? Hmm… | So what’s hardcore, really? Are you hardcore? Hmm…
K’naan is a man with a message, and, like any poet on a mission, it’s often delivered in a less-than-subtle way. Hip hop has never been a subtle art form, and so subtlety is not a requirement. Being cleverer, sharper and more insightful is; and K’naan definitely makes himself heard on these records. Marley looms large in K’naan’s CDs to date – he’s there in the sing-song, and in the moments when K’naan directly invokes and channels him. That’s another parallel to the Fugees: Wyclef has made a very successful career out of channeling Bob Marley, in voice and lyrics often sounding uncannily like him. K’naan follows this model in many ways; Troubadour, released in 2009, was even recorded at Marley’s Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica.
Comparing the two records, it’s clear that The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a more interesting, better-produced record, while Troubadour is more consistent, poppier, lighter and more party-oriented. Production on both records was handled by Canadian production duo Track & Field (Gerald Eaton and Brian West of r&b band The Philosopher Kings, also the producers behind Nelly Furtado’s first two albums which had a whimsy similar to The Dusty Foot Philosopher), and their sound is always impeccable. There isn’t a single track on these two CDs that falls into that category of “didn’t need to hear that” so many hip hop records are plagued by. The beats are always elegant, never heavy-handed, and there are so many acoustic instruments here that aural fatigue doesn’t have a chance to set in. K’naan is a gifted MC and a good singer, alternating between the idioms with great ease.
Where The Dusty Foot Philosopher is angry about the state of the world, its steadfast ignoring of Africa’s plight and strife, and driven by the impulse to spread the word, Troubadour picks up the story of a highly assimilated quick-learner immigrant grappling and coming to terms with life in Canada. Waiting for money transfers from Western Union (’15 Minutes Away’) or integrating the breakup of his mother’s marriage after what sounds like domestic violence (‘Take a Minute’), these are Canadian preoccupations. Perhaps not typical middle-class Canadian preoccupations, but observant analyses of the African diaspora’s life in the Greath North.
And, taken against this background, maybe Troubadour‘s more streamlined sounds are entirely appropriate – a reflection of K’naan’s participation in weaving the ongoing fabric of the music of Africa’s great international migration. His main shingle may say hip hop, but this is much more universal than that. Africa, as it does so often, turns lemons into lemonade in its cultural exports.