K'Naan fled Somalia's civil war in 1991, and lived in Harlem, New York, for less than a year before settling in Toronto. K'Naan was exposed to North American hip hop while living in Somalia, and despite the language barrier, was immediately entranced. He learned English with the help of hip-hop lyrics (the US rap duo Eric B. & Rakim was a major influence) and soon afterward began writing his own poetry and rap verses.
Style and Influences
Although rooted in hip hop, K'Naan's music also incorporates elements of pop, rock, soul, folk, and reggae. His vocal tone has been compared to that of Eminem, and his tracks comprise a mixture of rapping, rhyming, and singing. K'Naan's artistry has been inspired by his family (his grandfather was a poet and his aunt a celebrated Somali singer) and his culture. His arrangements often combine African and Western instrumentation, and have featured traditional Somali melodies. His lyrics, some of which are written in the Somali language, are known for their political commentary and frequently shed light on Somalia's economic and social strife.
Early Career and Recordings
K'Naan's early poetry and independent music recordings gained him a fan base within Toronto's Somali community. In 2001 he was invited to perform at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. His criticism of the organization's work in Somalia attracted the attention of prominent Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. Later that year, K'Naan contributed to N'Dour's compilation album Refugee Voices: Building Bridges, and accompanied N'Dour on his European tour.
K'Naan released his first full-length album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (Track & Field/Sony BMG 82876709762), in 2005. The album, produced by the Grammy-award-winning duo Track and Field, received praise from fans and critics. Many of the album's tracks, including "What's Hardcore," "Soobax," and "My Old Home," addressed issues of corruption and violence in Somalia. K'Naan's second album, Troubadour (2009, A&M Records/Octone B001247802), was recorded at Bob Marley's studio in Jamaica, and featured appearances by Mos Def, Adam Levine, Damian Marley, Kirk Hammett, and Jurassic 5.
K'Naan has toured with such artists as Jason Mraz, Stephen Marley, Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def, and Damian Marley. He has been featured on tracks by Dead Prez's M-1, Nelly Furtado, and Keane. In 2010, a remixed version of K'Naan's "Wavin' Flag" was recorded by Young Artists for Haiti to benefit earthquake relief efforts.
In 2006 The Dusty Foot Philosopher won a Juno Award for rap recording of the year and was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Troubadour also made the short list for the Polaris Music Prize in 2009. In 2010 K'Naan won Junos for songwriter of the year and artist of the year; Troubadour was nominated for rap recording of the year.
The Dusty Foot on the Road. 2007. Wrasse Records WRASS 195