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SXSW Thursday preview: K'Naan

March 18, 2009 |  3:59 pm

Sometimes success isn’t just sweet; it’s sanctified. The hip-hop artist K’Naan has been lauded by scribes (including we at P&H) as a harbinger of a new kind of global music. Not quite a month after the release of “Troubadour,” this Somali-born, Toronto-based traveler's debut album for A&M/Octone Records, the music-buying public seems in sync with the tastemakers.

“Troubadour” debuted at No. 32 on the Billboard Top 200, and he’s a featured artist on outlets as diverse as VH1 Soul, Rhapsody and the Playboy Playback channel. K’Naan builds on this growing buzz with several appearances at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival this week, an upcoming tour supporting Snoop Dogg in the Southeast and a slot at the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival.

On a recent trip through Hollywood, K’Naan sat down to talk about his memories of Somalia, life as an immigrant, and making a record that appeals to fans of both Bob Marley and Metallica.

I know you’ve had a rivalry with your fellow Toronto rapper K-OS; did you get your start in the same scene he did? How about Kardinal Offishall?

We all have friends in common. But when their open mic thing was happening, I was living with so much more. I was trying to untangle myself from post-traumatic stress disorder, and making music from that. So there was no way that I was going to go to an open mic. I was just working it out in my basement. Plus I never believed in the instant gratification of a situation like that. But eventually they were all surprised.

So your music was the way you worked through what you’d experienced as a child in Somalia?

“The Dusty Foot Philosopher” [his 2005 independent debut] was started because of that. There’s a song called “Smile” in which I sing, “My tragedy’s different, my life’s deep, listen” --  it was like, just dealing with North America took me to home, and it broke me. I didn’t get out of the house for six months. Doctors wanted to medicate me and I said no, I had to figure it out myself. I’d be in a room making music. Those became the first recordings ever.

Your rhymes often describe really tough situations, but your melodies are so ... charming.

I needed the beautiful sweetened parts to make it work for me. I couldn’t do it with just the words alone.

You often talk about how the American idea of “gangsta” compares, or doesn’t, to the African experience of poverty and war. I know Somalia is in dire shape, but are you, yourself, really that tough?

The persona I’m trying to create is not an individual -- it’s a cultural one. I’m trying to get the Western mind to understand that humility does not mean incapability, even in the street. In American cities that have a Somali population you’ll have Somali people living in the ghetto. But they don’t have any posture about it. Some people don’t understand that the gentleness of these people doesn’t mean they’re incapable of shutting down your entire thing.

I think it’s important that the whole person be viewed. Yes, we are equally tough. But we are equally kind. We work hard equally, we want an education, that kind of thing. But sometimes the streets are important, because we live there.

One song on “Troubadour” addresses the Somali pirate problem.

I’ve been learning things about this in the last two or three years, and trying to get the word out. Listen, there are reasons why this is happening. The West is completely ignoring the basis for piracy in Somalia. The pirates are in the water because there is a nationwide complaint about the illegal mass fishing going on in Somali waters. And nuclear toxic waste is illegally being dumped on our shores. People in Somalia know about this.

Nations pursuing nuclear energy are creating waste, and they don’t know what to do with it. They have it in containers. And they have these companies now who are responsible for getting rid of it. There are legal ways to do it, but it costs a lot of money to dispose. And the old gangs, the mobster types in New York used to be in the fishing industry and now they’re in the nuclear toxic waste. So there are these containers and they put it in cold ocean water. Usually, it takes over 1,000 years to open. But in Somalia we have the Indian Ocean. It’s warmer. It takes about 100 years for the containers to open. We’ve discovered this. There are photos. But nothing has happened.

This is what motivated the pirates to come in and hijack whatever ship they could that illegally came into our waters. Then eventually it became about money. The majority of Somali are still in support of these pirates, because it has become a natural deterrent for the illegal dumping. I don’t know why there isn’t a single journalist to investigate this. I don’t understand how this could be possible. Journalists in Somalia are, but no Western journalists.

“Troubadour” is steeped in African music as well as African consciousness. You used vintage funk from the continent for many of its samples.

I immersed myself in a certain sound for three years. All I was listening to were sounds made in Somalia in the 1950s and 1960s and Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s. The original funk music from those countries. I lived with that for a while.

I used it in such a way, you can hear the samples, but we played them at the same time with the band. Like in “Somalia,” that melody was written in the 1960s.

Everything I sampled, it was so authentic to me, so real. In “15 Minutes Away,” that little horn line ... [he sings] do do doo ... literally takes me to walking by the whitewashed beach houses in Mogadishu and seeing a beautiful girl. I remember her mother braiding her hair. It literally took me there. And so for two hours, I was preoccupied with my dream of this woman, and then my grandmother, I started thinking about sending her money -- it took me home.

You recorded your album at Bob Marley’s famous Tuff Gong Studios. What was that like?

Damien [Marley, one of Bob’s sons] and I are close friends, but Stephen [another son] is like a big brother to me. The original invitation to take over the house came from him. So when I went, I just sat around and did nothing, no music for three weeks. I don’t like to assume that something is supposed to happen, I feel like you’re not making music if you do that. I’m not a plumber. There’s no evidence you can make music -- every time you do it, it’s a blessing. So I just sat around.

My label people were worried. Where’s the music? They’re coming up with money for me to just sit there? But Stephen never asked, he wasn’t worried. So I’d just sit around, read books, go to movies, go to Bob Marley’s house in the evening and eat. Three weeks pass and then I get back to that music, and just start chopping up samples. In six days there were seven tracks.

Was it important to record in Jamaica?

Jamaica is very, very close to Africa. There’s a direct channel. Culturally, the sounds there, the lyrical concepts ... it’s so, so home. I think they just hung on to it longer and harder. In the Caribbean, of the people separated from Africa, there were the nations that were going to work on it and cooperate, and the ones who were always gonna fight.

You have some interesting guests on “Troubadour” -- including Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett on a new version of your 2005 song “If Rap Gets Jealous.” The Metallica boys don’t do many guest spots. How did you hook up with him?

We met at Bonnaroo [Tennessee’s annual pop music fest]. He’s friends with Stephen. We were on the bus and Kirk walked in, so he introduced us. He said, "This is someone whose music you’ll want to hear." And Kirk took note. Eventually the song came up and I asked him to play on it. He played the song for the whole band, and they decided it was something they could get behind.

Do you see yourself crossing over to Metallica’s audience? 

I’ve seen some things on the message boards -- fans sayin', "This is an outrage! Kirk Hammett is doing a song with a rapper!! What the hell is going on, the world is going to hell!!" And then it will say -- "P.S.: but I really like the song!"

-- Ann Powers

Photo: K'Naan performs at the Millennium Development Goals Awards Concert in the United Nations' General Assembly Hall on Tuesday. Credit: Michael Nagle / Getty Images