Straight Outta Somalia

New hip-hop sensation K’naan, a Somali refugee, overcame a gun-toting childhood to rap about peace and love. He talks to Touré about pirates, and how U.S. “thugs” have nothing on him.

Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

New hip-hop sensation K’Naan is a Somali refugee, who overcame a gun-toting childhood to rap about peace and love. He speaks to Touré about his homeland’s pirate problem, why he’s confident enough in his manhood to rap in a high voice, and how American “thug” rappers have nothing on him.

Somalian pirates took American Richard Phillips hostage for five days, pushing the ongoing pirate saga to a new level of horror—and edging that East African nation dangerously close to becoming America’s New Big Villain.

No single Superman can save the day, but it seems as if the universe knew that Somalia would need a classy, articulate ambassador at this moment. Up comes K’naan, a 31-year-old rapper/poet who grew up in Mogadishu and has lived in Toronto, Harlem, and Los Angeles. He comes from a hellish, war-torn, lawless country where guns and violence are omnipresent, but his recently released album, Troubador, doesn’t traffic in the violent imagery and hyper-macho gun talk of gang-influenced hip-hop like N.W.A. or The Game. It has the softer edges, intellectual air, and peace-seeking nature of A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul, as well as some traditionally African sounds that might be familiar to listeners of Youssou N’Dour or Fela Kuti.

“I lived in the slums of Africa for half my life and in the ghettoes of America for the other half. So my perspective is clearer on those things.”

K’naan and his family escaped Somalia in 1991 as a civil war was dragging the country into entropy. On the last day that the American embassy in Somalia was open, they got a visa and seats on the last commercial flight out of the country. They settled in Harlem, and K’naan began learning English by listening to MCs—he’s now fluent in both English and hip-hop. He spoke to The Daily Beast from London as he took a break from recording. Somalia may be troubled, he says, but Americans should not look at his home country as an enemy.

Captain Richard Phillips was held hostage by Somalian pirates for five days and I’m curious about what that makes you think.

So it’s very unfortunate that this captain, who has a family, was in this dangerous position but the reflection has to be greater as to where that comes from and what it means—that there’s a breakdown.

America right now feels anarchic because of so many losing jobs, losing money, losing homes, lives changed beyond their will, but you’re like, I know real anarchy. This is nothing.

Yeah. The truth is that people tend to feel that their place in the universal context, wherever they stand, is the only perspective that they can look at things from. And with regard to how people are dealing with the economic crisis in America, it’s massive to them obviously. But the world has different degrees of pain and struggle and we’re dealing with the bottom of that. We’re not dealing with a place where you can have roundtable discussions about things. This is when things completely fall apart. This is when every man is for themselves.

What’s it like in Somalia on the ground? Is it that there’s a government but the police can do anything they want?

There is no government. It’s just been without a central government for 18, 19 years. There is no police system. There’s none of that. That’s what a lot of people in the West can’t grasp. You’re talking about a country without any real functioning institution. There’s no police, there’s no ambulance service, there’s just people with guns fighting for different corners.

In your music, you talk about that there’s a lot of child soldiers and kids with guns in Somalia. Did you ever have to hold a gun and shoot somebody?

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I’ve been very fortunate to have survived. I learned to hold guns at a young age like many of my friends and family members who themselves have not made it. But I’ve been very fortunate to have some sacred things which have protected me.

In your music, you talk about ghettoes. We talk about ghettoes over here, police shootings, gang shootings, but where you grew up it’s a whole other level.

That’s Somalia, you know. By all corners of the political world, this is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, more so than Iraq. It’s so vast, the violence and the nature of violence in this place that it’s not special. In America, it’s pockets of violence and corners that are struggling, economically deprived neighborhoods. But this is a country that’s made up of just that neighborhood.

Depending on how this particular hostage situation plays out Somalia could be the new villain in the average American’s eyes. What do you think about that?

It’s like America needs an enemy. It’s like we’re in a dramatic soap opera and every once in a while there’s gotta be something to get the attention of the people and to point to. I would encourage people to investigate further why they are pirates and why this is happening .

It’s interesting that you’ve had such a violent background but your music is not that. It’s loving, there’s a sweetness to it. Why’d you move toward this poet, loving side of you instead of making N.W.A.-type of music?

If you just talk about what made us become what we are, I’m not very separate from what has made me who I am. In some instances in my life, I could be the most violent guy you know. But the truth is that that is not the aspect of life that is attractive to me. What’s attractive to me is the pursuit of peace. The pursuit of beauty and to spread love. That is more attractive to me than the side of the world that is violent. I know that side all too well. I know what it does.

You say you learned English after you moved to Harlem by listening to albums from Nas and Rakim.

I learned the cultural context that I was supposed to belong in as soon as I arrived in America. But I was interested in music and in lyrical music and what I did was I would listen to Illmatic and decipher sentences and great phrases and lines. And I would take apart the similes. Lyricists are different than other musicians, because what they pack into one verse is the equivalent of three songs. It was more of a crash course.

You have a high voice for a rapper.

I don’t know who wrote the book on rap and what rappers are supposed to sound like.

Obviously there’s no supposed-to-sound-like. But I think most of the guys who get a lot of love talk in a lower register and it sounds more sinister and manly.

That’s more about the culture of masculinity and machoness than it is about the person’s actual voice. ‘Cuz some of those guys who rhyme in a deep voice, if you talk to them, they actually talk with not such deep voices. They’re putting it on. I have different ways I use my voice as an instrument.

The thing is, I’m just so open with myself that I don’t a lot of the fears that some of these guys who rhyme tend to have. I don’t have a lot of the insecurities that they tend to have. I don’t have a reason to feel like I need to be tough or sound tough or prove myself or be scary. I walk into a room with a bunch of gangsters and I don’t feel that way. I talk like I talk, I smile when I want.

I know a lot of black men who are poetic and philosophical get around the thuggish guys and feel inferior.

I have a different background than a lot of those guys. I’m actually from those thugs. I’m really not separate from that. When you have that kind of realness about the whole thing, it’s hard to be intimidated.

When you lived in Somalia, did you have hip-hop? Did it reach you?

I was in Mogadishu and I got sent Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full. That was my first connection to it.

Now that you’re fluent in hip-hop and English, what do you think of Paid in Full, which is still perhaps the most incredible hip-hop album ever.

I’ve begun to unravel all its genius. For me, that album is like the map. I’m coming to a new world, a new place, and the navigation system that I have is in the sound. It helped me navigate: Here’s where you turn, here’s where you stay away from, here’s how you say, how you walk, how you talk. It’s a whole thing.

Why aren’t there more African MCs?

A lot of times when someone’s coming from another place, and begins to rhyme and especially begins to rhyme in English, sometimes it finds itself in cornball corners. And the reason for that is that the cultural context for it is missing both in America and in the artist who’s coming from somewhere else. So it doesn’t really cut through.

And I think the reason why my stuff is being appreciated by Americans and people outside of America is my stuff comes from both corners. I understand. I lived in the slums of Africa for half my life and in the ghettoes of America for the other half. So my perspective is clearer on those things.

Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once . He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid, Soul City, and The Portable Promised Land.