Lyrical warrior: K'Naan

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Rapper K'Naan spoke to Colin Smith about growing up in Somalia and using beats against US foreign policy

Your sound is very different from the mainstream hip-hop or rap music around at the moment. In particular you use a lot of African rhythms and instruments on your backing tracks.

It's a sound that just came naturally. You could have asked me how come I speak Somali half the time. Music is a direct and honest expression and extension of who you are. Having spent half my life in Africa and the other half in North America what could I do that is honest? That's my sound. It's a fusion of the two worlds. And I couldn't help but create it just like that.

Somalia has the greatest influence on me. A lot of influence did come from North America because it was where I reflected on the experiences of home and where I was made to feel that I was a foreigner. So some of that discontent really makes me want to write music, but the events that have shaped me really happened in Somalia.

Do you see a relationship between what George Bush is doing in the world and what's happening in Somalia?

I think warlords are warlords wherever they are, whether in the US or in Somalia. That's the direct relation that they have. But the indirect relationships are how a culture of imperial dominance, economic dominance, military dominance and so on can become a perversion. When you impose your qualities and values on a people who already have their well-defined values that are maybe 1,000 years older than yours, you disregard who they are. That relationship is a big thing that I sometimes try to address and sneak into my songs.

You say on one of your tracks that hip-hop is like a tool or a weapon for poor people to express themselves to fight back. You also talk about a gangsta culture, a reference to people who maybe distort some of the meaning. How do you explain that contradiction?

There's not really a contradiction - there's just accessible hip-hop and non-accessible hip-hop, at least in the mainstream culture. There isn't a shortage of good music - there's a shortage of promoting good music. Often hip-hop artists take the flak for being misogynistic, stupid and not saying anything important.

Hip-hop is saying quite a lot of important things. It is also quite lyrical. It just depends on where you're going for your hip-hop. And if you're going to mainstream television you really need to think about who's promoting that music and why.

The interest of those companies which continue to propagate the same imagery in hip-hop culture and who say, "Well, look, it's just these young black guys who are really misogynist and not well thought out in the way that they write."

There's Mos Def who just released an album in the US called True Magic. It has just been pulled off the shelves because nobody's really buying it. No one even knows that it's out. So there is that and then there is what's on television all day and it's the same company that puts these out. That's where the problem lies.

Have you personally felt that your music hasn't been played or promoted, or that people haven't had access to it because of its message?

It's interesting, because I think my music is different to a lot of would-be big hip-hop records. People tend to find a different thing in the music I do. So it finds its way in these avenues in the mainstream format. It takes a back door. Instead of me saying something about a woman's ass or something to be played on MTV, I've a video that I shot entirely in Kenya where I show dignity, power and struggle, and it ended up on MTV. So the more I seem to ignore the system the more they want to show the thing.

I think that hip-hop is not a separate entity from the people who create it. And it always tends to reflect what is going on in society, in the collective consciousness of people. I'm not constrained by hip-hop. It's a culture that I come out of and I go wherever I feel with my music. So it will always have its roots in hip-hop but I want to be free enough to create the music that I like.


The Dusty Foot on the Road

K'Naan's latest album, The Dusty Foot on the Road, was recorded on various legs of his recent world tour. It combines live versions of tracks from his first album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, with new material, including a fantastically soulful a cappella with Mos Def.

From rapping about the brutality of life in Mogadishu to his critique of "gangsta" rap, from comments on US foreign policy to Somali beats and lyrics, his work is completely original and alive.

The whole album is a pleasure to listen to. And as you might expect from someone who has recently played at an event with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, his message is just as good.