NEW YORK (AP) — It has been a breakthrough year for rapper K’naan.
A remixed version of his song “Wavin’ Flag” with will.i.am and David Guetta became an international hit; he performed during festivities for the World Cup; and his profile in the rap world and beyond is steadily rising.
Yet the Somalian-born lyricist, who escaped the war-torn country for Canada when he was a child, sometimes finds it difficult to celebrate his success.
The 32-year-old acknowledges that he’s more creative when he’s in a melancholy mood, but there’s more to the root of his discontent: He suffers from survival guilt, and he finds it hard to reconcile the life he is living now compared with friends and family still suffering in Somalia.
“I do most of my work to publicly forgive myself,” said K’naan, whose material often focuses on his Somalian culture and the despair there. “Mos Def said to me … ‘I think you should look in the mirror and say, “I forgive you.’” I haven’t done it yet. That takes a lot of strength.”
K’naan, who is on tour promoting his latest album, “Troubadour,” talked in a recent interview about his bond with Somalia, how it’s shaped his career and his rap skills.
The Associated Press: Is it ever overwhelming being the voice of Somalia?
K’naan: It’s only overwhelming when I pause to think about it. But subconsciously it’s just something that must be done. I don’t really have the time to be overwhelmed by something that must be done. … (Though) sometimes I’d rather just make music and not really have to come to an entire people’s defence.
AP: Did you ever think about just rapping and perhaps downplaying your Somalian connection?
K’naan: I didn’t set out to represent anything, I set out to fix my own problems. By writing those things in a sense it became that I’m writing about Somalia, because there’s no way to represent my life in an honest way without the conflicts in Somalia.
AP: What has been the key that has made this album the breakthrough for you?
K’naan: I wrote songs that are about difficult subjects in an easy way. It’s almost like the things you can listen to, take in, digest, dance about, sing along to, but once you pause to think about them, they’re hard things to think about. I think that’s kind of the mix of this album.
AP: You did a new version of “Wavin’ Flag” for a Coca-Cola campaign for the World Cup, which got some people upset.
K’naan: The strange thing about that criticism is that the song is there. The one they love is there. It’s not like the one they love ceases to exist. That song as it is put out into the world is something that has happened a year before this one, and it has not reacted the way this one has, and the reason for that is those friendlier lyrics. The smiley version of the original “Wavin’ Flag” can – does – reach people, does reach formats. … I’m very happy about that choice because it’s now giving people to see music otherwise they would never access.
AP: Is it still hard for you to break into the American hip-hop scene because you’re not rapping about rims?
K’naan: It was very hard. And it’s easier now but it’s still hard. It’s easier now because Jay-Z likes me (laughs) and Nas calls me great on YouTube videos. … But sometimes I’m very tempted … to take on that world in that language, in the language of the streets. … Some artists actually really want me to do that.
AP: What kind of music would you never do?
K’naan: Something that degrades women. I would not do that, but I can probably make street music more hard and more of the voice of the street than a lot of people are making right now, because I come from it as well.
AP: Do you feel that the world has forgotten about Somalia?
K’naan: I understand why. I understand the silence why. The difference between early ‘90s and now is that Somalia broke America’s heart in the ‘90s, that’s literally what happened. After Somalia, it’s the reason why America did not go in to mediate in Rwanda. The result is a million people died.
AP: What are your hopes for Somalia?
K’naan: Somalia’s scenario is that it’s not good left alone, and it’s even worse intervened. That’s the dilemma of Somalia, because we do not accept foreign intervention. … It doesn’t seem like we can fix our own problems either. That’s the tragedy of Somalia.
AP: How do you instil Somalia in your two young boys since you aren’t there?
K’naan: It’s kind of hard to do that. They learn important values from me and their mom (who is Somalian) … which I think is culture. But I think to get the complete package, to get the complete feeling, they’d have to live in Somalia, and at some point I hope they can.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.