I’m a K’naan fan. His best work is up there with Bob’s Dylan and Marley. It is sincerely spiritual and welcoming like Marley’s, as politically stark as Marley’s or a young Dylan’s, and is carried off with the kind of wisdom and grace needed to deliver harsh truths. He can also carry a melody like Marley and cut a rhyme like Dylan.At least he did in his first two albums. Dusty Foot Philosopher and Troubadour work through K’naan’s difficult past, as a child when Somalia fell into chaos and as a refugee in North American. His craft expressed that struggle, but never sugarcoated his stories or drained them of hope. “Voices in My Head” pounds out anxiety and PTSD like Poe; “Strugglin’” puts us in a circle of desperate men forced to kill; “Fatima” is the sunlight on the day one of those men kill the love of a life.
But as he revealed in an Op-Ed in the New York Times recently, he changed direction for Country, God or the Girl. With the success of “Waving Flag” – which he censored to make it Coke-commercial friendly – he now had too many “15 year old American girl” fans, and they don’t want to hear about tanks and pirates. In Troubadour’s “Somalia,” the chorus ends “when I try an’ sleep, I see coffins closing.” K’naan writes that for the new album he had to “change the walk” of his songs to fit his new fans. So, you mean lowering Coffee lids, right K’Naan?
He admits as much in the Op-Ed. His third album is watered-down, overproduced and awkward. There are germs of a good album here, but this is a noticeable drop off from the previous material. The Times piece is essentially an apology. K’Naan also promises to recommit, to get his “old walk back.” That means singing about himself, even though he knows “a musician’s songs are not just his own; he shares them with an audience.”
Eminem has a similar connection to his fans, this constant acknowledgement of the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience. “The Real Slim Shady” ends with the acknowledgement that “in every single person there’s a Slim Shady lurkin.’” Slim Shady is the ultimate individualist, the one without any need to follow the rules of the collective, yet Eminem sees in this an opportunity for connection. Maybe that’s not worth the things Slim Shady says, but there’s something very important there about the way we connect when we all demand individual liberty.
So perhaps the galvanizing artist must sing for the people, but in a way that acknowledges a longing to be considered alone. Eccentricities become tools in the universalizing effort. This balance has been attempted before by Dylan, Patty Smith, Lauren Hill in her brief limelight, Tupac, etc. These very public poets’ greatest works are still flocked to not because they mastered the lowest common denominator and spread their thin tent wide, but because they built the house they saw in their mind.
K’Naan’s done that before. And give him credit for trying the mass market and for realizing when to stop. Nas once rapped of mass appeal: “I got in them shoes, wore them, tried them,/ wasn’t a perfect fit, so I couldn’t sport ‘em.” Nas got his walk back, and now that K’Naan’s given up on mass appeal, he’s got his chance to regain his.
He sounds worried, but my gut tells me the Dusty Foot Philosopher shall stride again. The world certainly hasn’t lost hard truths to mull over.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and essays (on hockey, baseball, poetry and music). He is a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan Magazine and lives in Toronto. Learn more at firstname.lastname@example.org.