Splish, Splash. Splish, Splash. The splish, hypnotic sound of water splashing, in rhythmic trance, as if a woman splish, in Mogadishu is making, beats Kanye-style out of splash, the daily chore of doing laundry by hand. The splish, reminds us of a brown baby two stepping splash, in a puddle the day after a monsoon. The repetition of the splish splash woosh beat that opens the song “Wash It Down” is magnetic and spellbinding, like a silhouetted image mesmerizingly washed-out by the glare of emergent rays in a sunshower. What follows after 20 seconds of this aqua-trance is less soothing. Enter the nasal-y hyperbole of rapper/poet/musician K’naan whose lyrics attempt to ride the wave of his flowing water rhythm like a rushing stream curling around rocks, logs, pebbles and fish. K’naan's tonals on his album The Dusty Foot Philosopher are reminiscent of the Beastie Boys heyday, or a strained Wyclef, and feel as if they could be from those similar time periods.
Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in 1978, K’naan spent his formative years in the heart of the Somalian Civil War before relocating to Toronto via Harlem in 1991. Like so many immigrants to the west, much of K’naan’s linguistic lessons of English were presented and consumed through the wisdom of hip hop. Reportedly teaching himself the diction of rap and the stylistic phonetics of hip-hop lyricism, K’naan took his self-education to the Toronto stages, and eventually all the way to the United Nations, where world-famous African artist Youssou N’Dour took an influential note of his talent.
While the uniqueness of a Somalian-Canadian rapper who has reached mainstream may be noteworthy, so is the packaging and marketing of such an artist, particularly when mediocre production leaves us with little else to focus on. Innovative in identity alone, something about The Dusty Foot Philosopher album feels too poppy and plastic-y to be rendered authentic. This is not to say that “authentic” has to simulate downtrodden and morose moods, like some automatic or inherent expression of the continual plight of Africans, as many would assume. Indeed, the beauty of so many African artists of all genres is their capacity to take difficult and depressing content and deliver knowledge-reigns-supreme in the most appealing and enjoyable fashion. Throughout the ages, Black folks all over have been able to turn our quandaries into, well, entertainment. And sometimes for a price. Hence the sounds of The Dusty Foot Philosopher more favor credit card swaps by dusty foot college students, and less the sexy melding of East Africans sounds and hip-hop.
Fortunately, K’naan’s other album’s My Life is a Movie, and Troubador bring the pain in a much more agreeable manner. In My Life is a Movie the eclecticism of K’naan’s artistry is demonstrated by everything from guitar riffs to acoustic chants, to the spoken word riffs that first brought him in front of audiences at the United Nations.
The vastly improved production value of his 2009 album, Troubador is much more convincing as a real stand-alone hip-hop album, even without the “ethnic” sticker. With a flow similar to Eminem, K’naan’s lower octaves decrease his pop-ish sound of his previous album and increase his “street cred”. Streets of Brownsville? Maybe not. But urban streets in a broader, global sense. Sure. Quoting lyrics from Bob Marley to the Fugees to Pharcyde and referencing all in between, K’naan sounds more like Mos Def, Talib Kwali, Junior Gong – all of whom happen to make guest appearances on Troubador – even when he sings. The heavy beats of Troubadour make the album more aggressive and unapologetic, like those infamous Somali pirates, commanding the listener’s attention, the same way pirates heroically commanded global attention and thus making the listening experience so much more enjoyable. Whether marketed, self-described, or self-denied as a “political artist”, K’naan’s positioning in the music scene reminds us of the power of music from the Diaspora, across boarders, across generations and across time.