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Wandering star

K'Naan escapes certain death in Somalia for a new life behind the mic

K'NAAN

With The Love Movement, DJ Nana as part of the Kuumba Festival. Sat, Feb 12. Brigantine Room, Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W. $10 from 416-973-4000 or www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

BY MIKE DOHERTY

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAULA WILSON

K'Naan has spent a lifetime cheating death. You wouldn't know it to see him -- the 27-year-old hip-hopper is affable, soft-spoken and quick to laugh, and his biggest complaint is the cold Toronto winter. Listen to the stories he tells with his rhymes and a more harrowing picture emerges.

He grew up in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, which was torn apart by warlords when K'Naan was 10. "It was like a fire coming into your house," he syas, "and you not having a place to exit. You were certain you were going to die, 'cause everyone else was [dying]. I imagined I would not be fortunate enough to live, let alone escape Somalia, so we were just running around careless and wild in the streets."

At 11, he and his three best friends were running away from armed gunmen; his friends got killed, but he evaded the bullets. His brother, who was two years older, was imprisoned for blowing up the federal court building. The day he was to face the firing squad, he escaped with the aid of his aunt, Magool, one of East Africa's most famous singers. Meanwhile, the boys' mother had been visiting the US embassy every day, pleading for a visa so they could flee the wartorn country and join their relatives in America. The day the embassy was packing up, a staff member finally took pity and stamped her visa. She and her two boys flew out on the last plane out of the country.

In Somali, K'Naan means "traveller." From the age of seven, he had been listening to American hip-hop, memorizing Rakim's rhymes phonetically -- even though he didn't know a scrap of English -- and dreaming of escape. The records, sent over by his estranged father in New York City, connected him to another world, and spoke to him of another oral tradition, in a more affluent culture.

When his family resettled in Harlem, K'Naan was amazed by its size but unfazed by its violence. He recalls, "One day, we were eating dinner ... outside of our window, there was a gunshot. My uncle ducked, and me and my brother didn't flinch. My uncle was like, 'You see the guns here? You have to be careful.' And my brother said, 'What? That was popcorn.' Because in Mogadishu, handguns aren't considered dangerous. You have to shoot something heavy: AK-47s or RPGs...."

The following year, K'Naan, his mother and his brother moved to the Somali community in Rexdale, Ont. As his English skills improved, he began devising raps of his own. He would "sit on those big garbage boxes and bang on them with the rhythm, and start rhyming off the top to kids. They thought it was fascinating. They were like, 'Man, you're going to be the first Somali rapper ever.' It turned out true."

K'Naan dropped out of high school in grade 10 and, as befits his name, spent two years wandering across North America. In DC, he ended up on stage at Big Tigger's State of the Union club night. "I was frightened to be in front of people," K'Naan says, "doing rap in my own way, [but] it was immediately like, 'Man, that's fresh! You sound good! Your voice is crazy unique.'"

K'Naan's flow has something of Eminem's venom, Quasimoto's intense, helium-fuelled delivery, k-os' conviction and Woody Allen's barbed self-deprecation. Gangsta-rap posturing is absurd for a man from one of the most violent 'hoods in the world.

As he puts it, "All Somalis know that gangsterism isn't to brag about. The kids that I was growing up with [in Rexdale] would wear baggy [track] suit pants, and a little jacket from Zellers or something, and they'd walk into school, and all the cool kids would be like, 'Ah, man, look at these Somalis. Yo, you're a punk!' And the other kid won't say nothing, but that kid, probably, has killed 15 people."

Eventually, K'Naan hooked up with T-dot urban promoter/artist manager Sol Guy; they became "instant friends in philosophy." Through Guy's auspices, he ended up performing live at the UN's 50th anniversary concert in Geneva in 1999. At the time, he thought, "How silly is it to actually consider not speaking in front of my aggressor? I needed that moment to go and justify the rest of my life. In the middle of a song, I stopped the band.

"It was this abrupt and tense feeling; some of the organizers in the UN knew my politics and had trouble with them. Someone had to bring the house down, let 'em know that they're still sitting on fire."

K'Naan rapped out an a capella poem, calling out the UN for their botched operations in Mogadishu in the mid-'90s. "I had names in there, of people who were sitting in the audience. When I finished, there was a gap of two seconds -- the most uncomfortable time of my life. And then a standing ovation -- a sea of people got up."

One of these people was Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour, who was immediately struck by the rapper's bravery and enlisted him for his Building Bridges project, a 2001 album of musicians living in exile.

Through N'Dour's patronage, K'Naan would travel the world, playing at other UN events as well as the Montreux Jazz Festival. Through Sol Guy, he met Toronto producers Track and Field, who are producing his forthcoming debut, The Dusty-Foot Philosopher, which marries Western production to Somali rhythms and percussion, rock choruses to rap verses and lyrical darkness to melodic light. K'Naan shot the video for its first single, the warlord-baiting "Soobax," among exiled Somalis in Kenya. It's an uplifting and powerful work, and a triumph for a street poet who spent his childhood shooting real guns. K'Naan's "prize possession," as he puts it, is the fact that he's never killed anyone. And, oddly, the closest he's ever come to being killed was not in Somalia, but Toronto.

"Just about a year ago," he says, "I was sitting in front of my house, talking on the phone to a girl. There was a drive-by, and about 15 shots hit around my head and body area -- they cracked the wall behind me. [The gunmen were] just trying to kill somebody, 'cause somebody from their neighbourhood got killed by somebody from our neighbourhood. Some punk dudes, trying to shoot all cool. You can't really hit your target sideways.

"My mother patted me for blood. She said, 'How unfortunate would it be to have left Mogadishu and never been shot, and shot here?'"

Torstar Corporation Torstar Digital