March 7, 2009 / 1:42 AM / 8 years ago

Somalian rapper turns personal struggles into rhyme

4 Min Read

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Some rappers rhyme about their hard-knock lives to get street cred. But for 31-year-old Somalian-born Kanaan Warsame, who performs as K'Naan, writing about his war-stricken childhood was therapeutic.

"I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and my mother decided not to put me on medication because we didn't trust Western medicine," says the MC, who was raised in Toronto. "So I spent a lot of time in my room alone, writing, focused on trying to get out internal issues I was dealing with, including having survived war, leaving my people behind, the discontent of having a new scenario and being a black African immigrant in North America, among other things."

These are just some of the topics K'Naan dealt with on his 2005 independent, Juno Award-winning album, "The Dusty Foot Philosopher."

He does so again on his sophomore set, the reggae/hip-hop/world music-inspired "Troubadour," which debuted February 24 on A&M/Octone, the label he signed to in 2007. The album bowed at No. 32 on the Billboard 200 for the week ended March 1 with 15,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Recorded at Bob Marley's Tuff Gong Studio after a personal invitation from his sons Damian and Stephen, the album features contributions from Maroon 5's Adam Levine, Damian Marley, Metallica's Kirk Hammett, Mos Def and Chali Zua.

Revolt Through Art

Growing up in a musically inclined family -- his aunt, Magool, was a Somalian singer and his grandfather was a poet -- it's little surprise that K'Naan would use music to assist with his personal struggles. "There was always a playwright and poets around the house," he says. "There was also 'anti' music -- songs of hidden political criticisms and messages about the dictatorship and the war."

It was his family's discord with the Somalian government that prompted K'Naan's mother to petition the U.S. embassy for visas. In 1991, on the final day the embassy remained open, the visas were approved and they boarded the last commercial flight out of the country.

K'Naan and his family relocated to Harlem, joining his father, who had emigrated years before and worked as a cab driver. Due to "immigration difficulties for those seeking asylum as refugees," K'Naan says, they eventually settled in Toronto -- but not before he discovered the power of rap.

"There were many stages of discovery for me, but one was when I heard 'New York State of Mind' by Nas," he says. "It showed me it was possible to be real descriptive and that not all music was just get-by music. I figured if he could do it with his Queensbridge (housing project) childhood, I could be visual about the African slum experience."

And that's just what K'Naan did on "Troubadour," which he describes as "humane music. It's about the conditions of humanity rather than politics."

K'Naan is currently on a stateside headlining tour, and he has a Coachella festival performance and a forthcoming European outing on tap.

"I didn't think this year I'd have an album out and that people would be talking about it, or that I'd be on the Billboard chart, but people are finally hearing," K'Naan says. "I just want to be there when things happen so that I can appreciate it. I just want to be able to continue to say what I feel and to continue to reach people."

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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