It’s hard not to be politically minded when revolution is in your blood. Chalk it up to a rich, cultural inheritance bestowed by a family of prolific poets and singers, but Somalia-born rapper K’Naan has no qualms airing the dirty laundry of failed governments. In 1999, he caught the ear of famed Senagalese singer Youssou N’Dour after a spoken-word performance at United Nations which balked at the organizations lack of aid missions to his homeland. Instead of major backlash for expressing his political views, N’Dour invited him on a wolrd tour and he’s been recording and traveling ever since. Now, his second thought-provoking effort, “Troubadour,” has K’Naan doing what he does best: educating and making people think. ESSENCE.com caught up with the Harlem-bred, Canadian-raised lyricist to discuss his musical schizophrenia, how African rappers truly perceive American Black women, and why he’s not worried about his legacy.
ESSENCE.COM: We love that your album is like a smorgasbord of hip-hop with featured guests like Chubb Rock, Mos Def and even Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. Are you ever concerned that you might be viewed as musically schizophrenic?
K’NAAN: (Laughs.) No, not at all. Musically I think of all those genres I use as positive because I have felt those experiences. So my musical schizophrenia has been more of a blessing.
ESSENCE.COM: Because of your diverse travels and background, did you feel a need to implement a musical strategy to appeal to the American hip-hop community.
K’NAAN: The only strategy for me is to be sincere. Whatever the feeling of the song is where I go. I never intellectualize a song like, “Oh, I should put this in there.” It just comes with the territory and my experiences make their way into the song.
ESSENCE.COM: So we understand that you taught yourself to speak English by listening to rap music and perfecting eight bars. Do you think getting hooked on phonics might have been an easier study?
K’NAAN: (Laughs.) We were all learning the language at the same all of us similar experience except the processes are different and some of us went to school. I was listening to reggae and the cultural context of where I was living in Harlem. We were in the hood it was kind of preordained for a Black person to live in the hood because we were low-income Black immigrants. At that point it wasn’t like some soap opera made sense to me because I wasn’t into “days of our lives” but Nas and Mob Deep. A lot of times, I would hear a phrase and take it apart and ask myself, “Okay, why is the artist saying this?” It forced me to read and study the English language because there were metaphors and other sayings that I just didn’t’ understand and it really helped me.
ESSENCE.COM: Hip-hop culture has been adopted globally and many inherit a lot of the negative stereotypes from using racial epithets as a greeting or term of endearment to their perception of the way Black women are portrayed. Do you think African rappers objectify their women or view Black American women differently than their own?
K’NAAN: Sometimes, because, in America you have a separation of music and culture and music is a form of entertainment and it can be a bit misleading. In Africa, rap music and videos are viewed as the gospel. African rappers don’t objectify their women despite having a low budget and what some might view as corny videos they still have a true dignified way in which they interact with women.
ESSENCE.COM: Because you have such a rich cultural legacy, have you thought about which one you’ll leave behind?
K’NAAN: I don’t care about a legacy. For such a long time I’ve not been sure I wanted to have one. It’s a bit of an interesting egotistical thing that happens on earth. So if I ever leave any form of a legacy, it would be as simple as someone saying, “he’s done more good here than bad.”
Pick up K’Naan’s album, “Troubador,” in stores now.
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