As a tribute to all of the nice Somalis that I met today at the Minneapolis airport, this week’s post is all about Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan. Full disclosure: I didn’t really talk all that much to many people during my layover this afternoon, and I guess I can’t really say for sure that everyone I wanted to imagine was Somalian actually was. I do know, however, that Minneapolis has a significant Somali immigrant/refugee population, and that in and of itself is reason enough for me to write about K’naan this week.
Really, just the fact that I like his music is reason enough.
K’naan is the stage name of Keinan Warsame, a Somalian refugee based out of Toronto. As of late, K’naan is enjoying some recognition as a result of cameos on a number of mainstream rappers’ albums and mixtapes, as well as the use of his song “Waving Flag” as the official tune of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The version distributed widely for the World Cup was a remix of the single that appeared on K’naan’s third album, Troubadour, and is in my opinion far inferior. As an introduction to the artist’s work, the will.i.am-produced “Celebration Mix” of “Waving Flag” doesn’t really do K’naan justice.
Backtracking, therefore, a step from the World Cup is Troubadour. Troubadour was released in February 2009 to moderate success, and was my first experience with K’naan. Troubadour is really a very good hip-hop album that blends K’naan’s eye-opening personal experiences with an easily accessible flow over samples of Ethiopian jazz and guest appearances from artists as diverse as Mos Def and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. Troubadour is surely deserving of more press, but with this article I intend to focus on K’naan’s sophomore album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher.
It was over a year after I bought Troubadour before I heard K’naan’s 2005 album The Dusty Foot Philosopher. I don’t know all of the reasons for it, but The Dusty Foot Philosopher feels much more real than Troubadour – the earlier LP is rawer, grittier, angrier. With the tracks I had heard before the rapper spoke of the shockingly desperate times he had been through both in Somalia and in the diaspora, but for whatever reason I feel that The Dusty Foot Philosopher has a greater degree of emotional resonance. Whether it is because he is four years less removed from some of the events he describes or because of other personal reasons, The Dusty Foot Philosopher takes the listener to a very different place.
One difference between Troubadour and The Dusty Foot Philosopher right at the outset is the production. K’naan collaborated with the producing duo Track & Field on both albums, but the tracks on The Dusty Foot Philosopher take a very different vibe. These songs are simultaneously heavily influenced by a harder brand of rap and more traditional East African musical elements. The lead single “Soobax” features a sample of women ululating, and tracks like “Hoobale”, “The African Way” and “Until the Lion Learns to Speak” sample East African instrumental pieces. These stand in contrast to the more mainstream rap-sounding track behind “Boxing My Shadow” and “Smile” and the Ethiopian jazz sample of the album’s title track. Each song has a distinct sound, and the album boasts a wide range of key tonalities and tempos, but something about The Dusty Foot Philosopher is unmistakably African. Added to the musical compositions are the fact that the rapper’s Somali accent is more present in several tracks and that he delivers significantly more verses in Somali than in his later work. From the opening sound effects of people at a river in “Wash it Down”, the Western listener is transported from their own perspective into the world of K’naan’s life. The music behind K’naan’s lyrics does a great deal to bring to life the child soldiers, starving beggars, and corrupt politicians that the artist speaks about.
As I mentioned above, something about The Dusty Foot Philosopher is more personal and emotive than some of K’naan’s more recent work. There’s more than a tinge of anger on several of the tracks, which is absent on Troubadour. The earlier album simply has a little more of an attitude, which really only adds to the emotional appeal of the stories K’naan tells and the complaints he lodges about life as an immigrant struggling to become a musician. This isn’t to say that there aren’t joyful moments on the album, however; something about the song “In the Beginning” gives the listener the nameless warm feeling that leads people to jump or shout for joy. It is telling, however, that “In the Beginning” is preceded immediately by “Strugglin’”, on which the rapper intones “Believe me, I know struggle, and struggle knows me”.
The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a brilliant album because it doesn’t hold anything back. K’naan lays his past, present, and future all into the track, and betrays his fears and anxieties along with his ambitions and boasts. The songs are frequently socially or politically conscious, but are all deeply personal. The fact that this work is lesser known than 2009’s Troubadour is my justification for devoting an entire post to just this chapter of K’naan’s discography. Nobody is listening to The Dusty Foot Philosopher right now, but the high quality of lyricism, emotional appeal, and indexing of African-ness (non-ethnomusicologists can just nod their heads and indulge me with that one) earn it a rediscovery. Whether the listener knows K’naan for “Waving Flag”, for his recent humanitarian work, or for being written about on Nobody Listens to This, taking a look back at K’naan’s The Dusty Foot Philosopher is a transcendent listening experience.