An Exile on Main Street

K’naan’s World Cup anthem, “Wavin’ Flag,” made the Somali Canadian rapper a global star. Now, with a radio-friendly album, he is chasing mass-market (read: American) success

Illustration by Leon Gylve
Illustration by Leon Gylve

Seven summers ago, in downtown Toronto’s Grange Park, the rapper, singer, songwriter, and poet K’naan stood under a tree and told me his problem with shoes. In Somalia, where he comes from, walking barefoot is a rite of culture. It’s how, he said, a person unites his body with the land and his mind with its people.

It was weeks before the release of his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher. K’naan wore a straw hat, a sweatshirt, long pants, and jazzy sneakers. By then, he had lived almost half of his twenty-eight years in Rexdale, a neighbourhood in the city’s northwestern corner with a bad reputation for gang activity. He disliked covering his feet, he explained, but always did so, because this country was not yet his country. He complained of feeling restless here, half a planet from home.

“That was disturbing, wasn’t it? It’s still a bizarre idea, to live almost an entire life with shoes on,” he reminds me when I meet him again in March, over tea in the lobby of the Hazelton, a five-star hotel in Toronto’s toniest shopping district. He has come from New York for a short visit, breaking from work on his newest album, Country, God or the Girl, due out this month. He has a suite upstairs, and a minder from Universal Music Group—corporate parent of A&M/Octone, the high-powered US label that has a hand in all he does—idling a few couches over.

“You want to talk about being connected to the earth, but it’s just pavement now. On top of the pavement, it’s shoes. On top of the shoes, it’s socks. So you never feel the ground that you supposedly live on,” he says. “You only take notice of those things when you come from a place that notices those things: that people like to touch the sand, to remember. Because it’s where [we]’re going, in the end.”

K’naan has travelled great distances since that day at the park. Home has become several places, both real (a New York apartment, his mother’s house in Rexdale) and imagined (“Memories of Somalia are still home,” he says. “You can live in a memory”). He is thirty-five now, though he looks younger, and as thin as ever; the man has never been easy to spot standing sideways. His rebel music, a heady fusion of hip hop, pop, and African rhythms, has made him a star, first in Canada and then internationally. In 2005, at his first big show in Toronto, I had seen a mixed crowd of hip hop heads and hijab wearers lose its collective mind when, in calling for an end to the war in Somalia, he flipped his rhymes from English to Somali without slipping the beat. The next year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher yielded the first of his four Juno Awards. And then, in 2010, his second album, Troubadour, won him Junos for artist of the year and songwriter of the year. Both projects were shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize.

If you don’t know K’naan’s name (the K is long, and “naan” rhymes with “gone”), chances are amazing that his song “Wavin’ Flag” was beamed into your brain during the last World Cup. Coca-Cola made it the anthem of a $300-million campaign, the beverage maker’s biggest marketing effort ever. Once the tournament kicked off, “Wavin’ Flag (Coca-Cola Celebration Mix)” became as prevalent as soccer itself. Come on, let’s sing it together: “When I get older, I will be stronger / They’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.”

The World Cup experience boosted K’naan’s profile virtually everywhere except in the US, Western music’s most influential market. His American invasion, thus delayed, is meant to happen this summer, when A&M/Octone injects Country, God or the Girl directly into the nation’s mainstream, a different strategy than it attempted with Troubadour.

The plan with Country is to elevate K’naan out of music’s thick middle class, where “Wavin’ Flag” left him, and into the rarefied air breathed by the industry’s Gattaca people, that select group of artists who, by virtue of their talents or marketability, are afforded every opportunity to dominate download charts, radio playlists, and award shows. To that end, he sings a duet with Bono on his new song “Bulletproof Pride”; another features Keith Richards on guitar. The album includes several productions by Ryan Tedder, the pop rock savant who invented smash hits for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Beyoncé, and Adele. This casting is deliberate: make the African expat an American idol by pairing him with some of the business’s safest favourites.

It’s well known that record sales have declined into a long-term free fall, though evidence suggests that the bottom is near: global figures dipped by less than 6 percent last year. Smash hits still happen, though few are spontaneous. Months before K’naan completed his new album, A&M/Octone had already received assurances of support for it from such industry heavy hitters as Clear Channel, MTV, and Universal.

Last winter, A&M/Octone released a digital EP to seed the field for Country. The five songs on More Beautiful Than Silence feel lighter and brighter than his past works. There’s still tough talk in a few verses (“Music is my ammo, I’m ready for battle”), but four out of five choruses—all sung, not rapped—brim with optimism (“So I’m coming, coming to America / I hope we gonna have a good time”). The outlier is the lead single, “Is Anybody Out There?,” which pairs his rhymes about common teenage insecurities with a nasally hook by Nelly Furtado. Sonically and lyrically, it shares little with the earlier, grittier K’naan joints that appealed to a narrower audience. Nonetheless, the shift is working. “Is Anybody Out There? ” climbed to No. 27 on the American Billboard charts—over fifty spots higher than “Wavin’ Flag” ever flew.

“In America, you’re either getting played on the Top 40 radio station or on another kind of station, and the difference is 60 million people a week. It’s a significant awareness factor,” he says, adding, “I’m not shy about reaching people; I’ve never been. It’s a wonderful thing.”

What remains to be seen, however, is whether America’s mushy centre is prepared to receive him—a smooth foreigner who can rap like Eminem but would rather sing like Bob Marley—and whether his old crowd will be receptive to this turn away from its expectations.

Somalia is now a name that better describes a geographic location than an organized state. Its territory spans both sides of the Horn of Africa’s peninsular coastline, shaped like an open mouth shouting back toward the continent. Civil war erupted twenty-one years ago, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s military regime was toppled. There has been no end to the fighting nor a unified central government since.

In 1977, Keinan Abdi Warsame, the second of three children, was born in a Mogadishu district whose name, Wardhiigley, translates as “river of blood.” His aunt, Halima Khaliif Omar, was a celebrated singer known as Magool; and his grandfather, Haji Mohamed, once ended a clan war by reciting a poem.

At age nine, K’naan the Skinny, as he was known, shot his first AK-47. At ten, he accidentally blew up his school with a hand grenade. At eleven, he barely outran a truckload of thugs who killed his friends. As Mogadishu braced for the onset of war, his mother, Marian, sold the family home to purchase plane tickets. (His father, Abdi, had fled to New York as a political exile years before.) She escaped with her kids on the last commercial flight to depart the city’s airport before the fighting reached the runway.

The family stayed for several months in Harlem before moving on to Rexdale. There, young Somalis bucked with young Jamaicans to prove who was harder, and K’naan joined in. In past interviews, he has claimed that five of his new friends were murdered and four more took their own lives. He has also admitted to being detained* in Toronto’s three jails while awaiting trial on weapons and assault charges. He left high school and the city in his teens, skipping out on at least one warrant, to become a nomadic poet and rapper in the US.

By the end of 2001, he was touring the world with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, who had been impressed by the young MC’s appearance at a United Nations event in Geneva. (From the stage, K’naan had blasted UN officials for their disastrous missions to Somalia.) An Ontario judge later cleared all court matters against him, after receiving letters of support from the UN and the office of former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

Five years ago, a scout walked The Dusty Foot Philosopher into A&M/Octone’s New York office. The upstart label had launched a few years earlier, funded by Wall Street play money, and it achieved immediate success from the breakthrough of its first act, Maroon5, which has sold 10 million copies of its debut album since 2002. A&M/Octone pursued K’naan on the chance that he, too, might become huge, and flew label execs to Toronto to see him play a private showcase. Afterward, he agreed to what is known as a 360 deal, in which the musician pays a portion of all revenue streams (music downloads, ticket sales, merchandise, licensing, and so on) to the label in exchange for its servicing of said streams.

The 360 forms a tighter bond than traditional arrangements, which had labels involved only in the making and selling of records, and artists tapping other resources to do everything else; it is one of the ways the industry has responded to the stunning reversal in how music makes money. For decades, it earned revenue in this descending order: record sales, publishing (i.e., songwriting royalties), concert tickets, and merchandise. In the download era, the order has exactly reversed: merch, tickets, writing, records.

Meanwhile, pop has not eaten itself, as once predicted, but has instead consumed all other genres, sucking in rap, rock, R&B, dance, and the rest. At the industry’s highest levels, a clutch of diamond-gloved producers and “top-line” writers provide a platinum service, crafting and delivering ready-made megahits into the hands of music’s most mediagenic celebrities—like the Brill Building model on designer steroids. The result is an amorphous, vibrant sound that’s chart dynamite: this is the reason why a Katy Perry song resembles a Rihanna song, which in turn resembles a Chris Brown song.

In its initial year of release, Troubadour, on which “Wavin’ Flag” first appeared, sold 90,000 units in the US and Canada, and had an even slower start in the rest of the world. The problem may have been the lyrics: in rapping about Somalia, K’naan painted verbal pictures of a life and a danger that proved unrelatable for Top 40 programmers. Record labels are notoriously stingy about sharing data, but it’s hard to imagine that A&M/Octone could have been satisfied with Troubadour‘s performance, or could have recouped its investment in the project—at least, not until Coke came calling. (No one involved in the deal has disclosed the financial terms.)

“Wavin’ Flag” began as a song about escape from struggle, but K’naan softened and simplified its message after signing with Coke. While the chorus remained, the verses changed. (Before: “So we struggling, fighting to eat, and / We wondering, when we’ll be free.” After: “See the champions, take the field now / Unify us, make us feel proud.”) He recorded twenty regionally specific versions of the song with local artists, and performed them on a Coke-sponsored tour of eighty-six countries. After the Haitian earthquake of 2010, he produced another version, “Wavin’ Flag (Hope for Haiti Mix),” with an all-star cast of Canadian musicians who called themselves Young Artists for Haiti and donated their sales to charity. Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, Kardinal Offishall, and Emily Haines sang solos, and Drake rapped an original verse. This last rendition debuted at the top of the Canadian charts, then went on to win K’naan’s fourth Juno, for single of the year.

Each of these manoeuvres carried him farther away from his starting place. The Dusty Foot Philosopher opened with “Wash It Down,” a song with a beat made of water—its only percussion the sounds of slapping, swishing, and sploshing liquid—downright experimental by mainstream standards. Troubadour‘s biggest guest was a toss-up between Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and Maroon5 frontman Adam Levine. Now there is Bono, who has lost more fans than most musicians will ever gain; Richards; and of the Black Eyed Peas, a band so close to middle of the road that it straddles the yellow line separating the lanes. If this situation troubles anyone, K’naan feels sympathetic but unconcerned. The path to the thing he wants has shifted, so he must walk a new way to reach his goal.

“People are interested in where they met you,” he tells me in the hotel lobby. “It’s like, ‘I met you in this stage of your life, and I fell in love with you then. If you grow, if you change, how will I know that I still love you?’ ”

Over the past seven years, I have often thought of K’naan as an artist who desires the result of fame—for his music to be heard by as many listeners as possible—yet takes a minimal interest in all that surrounds it. “I’m very lax about the concept of gaining more wealth and being a winner in that way, because I am not convinced by the concept,” he says. “So go ahead and fool me. Make all the money. Great. I’ll write a couple of songs, and I’ll be fine.”

That’s an odd statement for a twenty-first-century star to make: the concept of selling out is anachronistic to our time. Every piece of a star’s life can, and has been, commodified; even their realities are for sale. But K’naan, who divorced three years ago, treasures his privacy, particularly his time with his two young sons, who live in Toronto with their mother. The challenge in his life has been heartbreak, from a subsequent relationship that ended last year. That happened outside the spotlight, and he has kept it there, up until writing about it for Country, God or the Girl. With love and the end of love serving as pop’s two ultimate themes, he seems well armed to enter this next phase of his career: less about home, more about him.

“That’s what an artist always wants to do, in some way: to know his shortcomings, to know his corrupted moments of darkness in his soul, to show it all, to give it all, and for it to still be hugged by someone else. For it to still be loved by someone else,” he says before we part ways. “And you feel then sort of like a successful person.”

* Due to a mistake in the editing process, the printed version of this article states that K’naan has “admitted to serving time in Toronto’s three jails while awaiting trial on weapons and assault charges.” It is true that he was detained as a young offender; however, he was not convicted of those charges—and therefore never “serv[ed] time,” nor claimed to. The Walrus regrets the error.

This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.

Matthew McKinnon
Matthew McKinnon (@matthewmckinnon) is an editor, writer, and designer.
Leon Gylve
Leon Gylve contributes to The Walrus, Wax Poetics magazine, and Stones Throw Records.