From humble beginnings in war-torn Mogadishu, to a hardcore life in the ghettos of America, K’Naan never dreamed he would be a musician, let alone have his song “Waving Flag” chosen to be the Coca Cola 2010 World Cup anthem.
This selection is quite significant for K’Naan who uprooted from his homeland Somali desires to reconnect with the mother continent.
In November, K’Naan was in Nairobi for the Coca Cola 2010 World Cup Trophy Tour. In this exclusive, the poet, rapper and musician talks about his music, the 2010 world cup and what it means to be an African.
What did you feel when “Waving Flag” was selected as the Coca Cola 2010 World Cup anthem?
I was not thinking of the world cup when I wrote it. But “Waving Flag” just seems so perfect for the world cup. The melody, the feeling, I do not know a more fitting song.
Is this the most memorable achievement in your career so far or is there something else?
This is a big deal. It is a huge deal. There have been many different things. My new album Troubadour when it came out in the US a few months ago, debuted in the Top 30 Billboard. No one expected that, not even my record label at all. So that was a big deal. I have many cornerstones that have been great.
You are African, but not really from Africa. What about you, do you feel, made Coca Cola choose your song to be their 2010 World Cup anthem? Would perhaps an African artist residing in Africa have been more deserving?
I think you are wrong. You are right in that I do not live in Africa, but that I am not African, is untrue. I am probably more African than some kids who live in Africa. The value system is what makes you who you are; the language you think in is what makes you who you are. I still think in my language, I am very Somali and very much about African issues. I grew up in Somali. I left when I was 14 and everybody expected me to forget my language and to become an American and instead I become more and more myself.
What makes you, K’Naan, African?
As I said, it is a set of values. For me it is culture. For example in my country, we have a certain idea of success. If you look at North American version of success, I am supposed to be very successful. But when people ask me if I feel successful I say “no, not really.” In my culture for you to have success, it means for your community to have success. I am still waiting for Somalia to get on its feet. I still call older women auntie. Those kinds of things make African.
Will you be visiting Somali as part of the tour?
Due to security and safety concerns, no. It is kind of a difficult thing for me. I would have liked my country to be a part of it.
What were your dreams as a young man in Somali?
My dreams, one of it was to travel the world. I took geography classes very seriously. I memorised the world’s countries and their capitals by age 11. I have gotten to see many places that were in my head.
I have listened to some of your music and it comes across as very spiritual, very African and yet you have spent a good chunk of your life in the West. How do you keep grounded to your roots?
When I left my country, I did not leave while not proud. Even though we came from a place and a time that was very difficult, I grew up proud knowing who I was. I brought my whole self with me, I still hold Africa dear.
Did you ever live in Kenya?
No. I had a cousin living here and they brought him back to Somali and he did not speak Somali, he only spoke Swahili and we found that hilarious.
You shot a video in Kenya though.
I shoot “Soobax” here in Kenya; Kenya was the closest thing to home. I wanted to shoot a video that would show the vibrancy, the colours, and the energy of Africa. I wanted to shoot Africa as Africans see it rather than as foreigners see it. That is why that video for me was so successful. It was like the first video that was on MTV. I got to use my own language. I wanted to make cool what Africa find cool.
How did you get an interest in music? Did you always want to be a musician?
No, I have many musicians in my family and I had always been around them. I thought I was going be an eye doctor (laughs). I did yeah.
My grandmother’s eyesight was failing and my mother and I took her to the doctor when I was about 7 years old. The man with the white gown comes out and he looks at her eyes, does that thing with the light and he says “There is nothing I can do it is just old age,” I remember saying to my mother, “If I was him and I had a white coat, I would fix grandma’s eyes. And so ever since, I wanted to be an eye doctor.
Are you happy being a musician? Do you find it fulfilling?
Yes. I am still achieving. I have done a lot and I feel lucky to be in the position I am in. But, I am… (hesitates) I have a gigantic ambition; I have always been since childhood very ambitious person. I am nowhere near, what I want to do, where I want to be.
Many people have drawn connections between your music and Bob Marley’s. How did you get to record your latest album in Kingston and stay at Bob Marley’s house?
Initially I told Damien, I just wanted to have one central place where I could record the entire album and I wanted to go there. We got a rare invitation through Stephen Marley. Stephen invited me to come to Jamaica, kind of take over Bob [Marley]’s house and record for as long as I wanted. They actually gave me the keys.
Kanye West uploaded your video on his blog. How did that make you feel?
I like Kanye. I think he is cool. But, honestly, I do not like get caught up in everything that he does and his life as a person. He approached me humbly at the MTV Video Music Awards, literally, before he did the crazy thing. If you really really like an artist, try all you cannot to meet them in person. Coz it will ruin it for you.
What is the most important thing in your life right now?
I have two baby boys. They are four and a half and two and a half. That kind of tramps everything right now.
How do you balance being a daddy and an international musician?
My boys sometimes they will come to see me or I will come to them. For example, I did not have a day between my recording schedule in LA and coming to Kenya. I forced a day to be with them for 24 hours, put them to bed… I really love them and enjoy their company.
Do you plan to have more children?
I do not really plan. But, I am an African so you know… (laughs).