The sentiments in K’naan‘s recent op-ed for the New York Times will come as little surprise to fans that saw him perform at the Highline Ballroom last month. Somewhere between his rendition of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and official World Cup song “Wave Your Flag,” K’naan described the music industry as a “tapeworm” and cited disillusionment as his reason for cancelling “99% of the US tour.”

On Sunday, the dusty foot philosopher told the Times readership that he was washing his hands of Country, God, or the Girl, an album which was the product of pressure to write for his US audience. He has taken the wrong path, but vows to return to his “old walk,” in other words, the less commercially-viable route. Fans have taken to his facebook page in thousands to celebrate his prodigal return to true artistry.

The whole thing is a bit weird: if K’naan’s accusing himself of ‘selling out’ then he might have done so back in 2010. But it’s not often that artists are candid about the commercialisation of their music, and some important questions are smuggled between the cloying fable that bookends the piece. Can we do away with the idea you have to be able to “relate to” other people’s stories? Is there space for artists whose stories are rooted in non-Western places and experiences? How long will African artists enter the mainstream as novelties whose difference is hungrily consumed and then discarded?

But the stark choice between the unsullied integrity of his first two albums and the commercial hollowness of his third is troubling. Why should K’naan’s voice only ring true in songs about Somalia? O’ Canada has it’s fair share of oppressions (Stephen Harper, anyone?). If an artist’s politics travel with him then shouldn’t K’naan be willing and able to engage with North American issues beyond mundane treatises against drug use? Africa is not the only place where politics happens.

Diaspora identities are messy and difficult, but with this romantic notion of a “true voice” K’naan threatens to box himself into the role of “refugee rapper”, a role which is its own sort of commodity (mainstream media – including the NYT – love it). If he finds a way to engage with North America (beyond telling us that Somalia and Nigeria are worse), then maybe he’ll get closer to the creative integrity he’s looking for.



6 Replies to "Dear K’naan, Africa Is Not The Only Place Where ‘Politics Happens’"
Mecha says:
December 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Are you justifying censorship? If K’Naan as an artist cannot authentically sing about American stories as he does about Somalian stories, would you see it as a weakness or a unwillingness? I guess K’Naan clearly indicates that he just does not feel comfortable in a position he cannot live HIS own-defined artistry, call it “refugee rapper)”. How can we judge him? He himself should be responsible for his artistic process.

Your article actually suggests that as consumers we have the right to tell artists what they should talk about. Immigrants have to speak about the country they are living in. Why?

“Right now, the pressures of the music industry encourage me to change the walk of my songs. When I write from the deepest part of my heart, my advisers say, I remind people too much of Somalia, which I escaped as a boy. My audience is in America, so my songs should reflect the land where I have chosen to live and work.

They have a point. A musician’s songs are not just his own; he shares them with an audience. Still, Somalia is where my life and poetry began. It is my walk. And I don’t want to lose it. Or stifle it. Or censor it in the name of marketing.”

    Tendai says:
    December 12, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    Please these self righteous guy claimed that he only made honest music and those were all his choice now want to recant cause the strategy failed. Nigga Please!

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  • Neem says:
    December 17, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Sure, the last album has tracks that I skipped (the Furtado joint and, believe it or not, “Nothing to Lose”). However, my disappointment was mostly with the production rather than Knaan’s lyricism. It may not have been as intricate as his past work, but to call the album “hollow” is unfair and even inaccurate, in my opinion.

    I applaud Knaan for his courage and it shouldn’t surprise any one of us; that is in his DNA as an artist and a human being. I do think he may have damaged his relationship with the people he worked with and as a fan that troubles me because the backlash he may get from his collaborators and backers may be a hindrance…

    I love what you said here though, “Can we do away with the idea you have to be able to “relate to” other people’s stories? Is there space for artists whose stories are rooted in non-Western places and experiences? How long will African artists enter the mainstream as novelties whose difference is hungrily consumed and then discarded?”

    Excellent questions!

    Angolo says:
    December 18, 2012 at 6:31 am

    I honestly applaud K’naan for being honest.
    As a fan and hip hop fiend I feel K’naan simply expressed what he as an artist felt out of his last record.
    The whole project did not resonate with me entirely but I still love his music. For me the true definition of an Artist is ‘Pure expression’ and if K’naan felt his expression was constricted by label pressure then he should be free to express that.

    One more point that K’naan wanted to express is that he felt like he had abandoned his Home country by making his latest project, the fact that he couldn’t write about Fatuma and Ahmed’s struggles so that the mainstream market could relate is sad for him, and i feel its very right for him to express this because its not that his latest release failed in terms of making sales but he feels his message was not put across as he originally intended to.

    Monco says:
    December 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Does every artist need to announce when they are (or aren’t) taking back their integrity? Lesson learned and move on to the next record….seems like good fodder for a few tracks.

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