PARK CITY—Somalian-Canadian rapper/singer K’Naan has recorded with everyone from Mary J. Blige and Keane to Maroon5’s Adam Levine and Nas and Damian Marley. Although he’s a star in Canada, where he won artist and songwriter of the year at the 2010 Juno Awards, he remains best known in the U.S. for “Wavin’ Flag,” the Coca-Cola anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, that was a massive hit around the world.
Though some of the attendees at the ASCAP Cafe at Sundance here may not have known of K’Naan before his electrifying performances Jan. 22 and 23, there was no doubt they were fans after experiencing his spellbinding, riveting show.
K’Naan’s songs are glorious exclamations about life in all its often wretched beauty. He may start a song, such as “Take A Minute,” crooning as beautifully as Otis Redding, before the tune becomes breathtaking spoken-word poetry that ties in Mandela and other political inspirations. “Somalia,” about his home country that he left as a boy, details the horrors wrought on his native land from war, starvation and drugs and how the world largely turned a blind eye.
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Hitfix talked with K’Naan after his Jan. 23 performance, where he revealed a few details about his follow-up to 2009’s “Troubaour.” He’s working with The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard. Though they’ve just started, we can only imagine the beautiful music they will make together.
You said from stage that you have learned more in your last few days here at Sundance than you’d learned in the last five years. How so?
Someone that I’m very close to, a young lady who has films premiering here, and I were talking and I discovered how little I know about love (laughs) and that’s an amazing lesson for me. To know that I am so new, yeah, so that’s what I was talking about...I know very little about its inner workings and the effect is has on people and on people who are closed and how many things it clarifies. I think it’s quite amazing.
I find that shocking given how your message is about love, and hope and possibility in your songs. You’ve really made a point of saying that’s the message you’re spreading.
But it is because that is who I am. I write me in songs. I am one of those people that’s never been really cynical about life, you know. I faced quite a few challenging times and in front of those, I was more positive than some people not facing those conditions. I’m actually of the belief now that it is that struggle that offers you that open-hearted hope.
“Wavin’ Flag” was the 2010 FIFA World Cup song heard by billions of people. How did its success help in terms of spreading knowledge of you as an artist and spreading the message?
It spreads my message far and wide. I know that often times a lot of people who work in music, whether they be labels and so on or even artists, want personal recognition. We want to be recognized for something, for what we did. I’d rather my song be recognized for what it’s doing and that’s important. It’s not so important how many people know me. I’d just like for them to know those messages.
In South Africa, they were calling it The People’s Anthem and that’s a big thing. Kids in Soweto are singing it. Kids in Brazil in the favelas are singing it. Mothers and children. It’s just one of those moments that you come upon as an artist and you’re very fortunate to fall in humility in front of the song. It’s bigger than you. Brazil really loves the song. When it came out there were a million downloads in a couple of days in Brazil. It just spread like wildfire. I think there’s something about those kinds of songs that it just kind of shakes us out of our rough skin and says, “You know, you’re really a human being.” If we all are really cynical about the world, no one would do anything.
You are outspoken about politics and blog about world issues on your website. Do you feel you’ve paid a price?
I don’t know because I can’t feel it in that I only do what I feel. I don’t do anything with the concept that I might pay a price. I do what I feel is the truth. Because of that, if the truth was going to take something away from me, like limit my access or something, it’s access I don’t need.
You’ve recorded with so many other popular artists, whether it’s Maroon5’s Adam Levine, Keane , Mary J. Blige or others, but the mainstream in the U.S. hasn’t caught up to you yet. Why do you think that is?
Artists are usually ahead of the crowd. I don’t know, maybe I’m not pretty enough, who knows (laughs). That helps!
How long since you’ve been back to Somalia?
I went to Somalia in December last year. It was my first time back in like, 15 years...It was amazing. It kind of gave affirmation of my sound.
You’ve moved to LA, even though your home is still in Toronto. What are you working on now?
Recording new music, writing a lot. Feeling good, feeling like I’m in the right zone. You have to let the world speak to you and then you speak, you know, so I’m in that moment now where I’m finding the world’s voice.
I’m very close to a great Irish singer Glen Hansard and we talk a lot. We hang out almost daily. We’re making music together....We’re doing some stuff together. Some stuff is his, some stuff is me. Who knows. It’s ours and we’re doing music.
There are so many influences in your music. Is there a particular region that you’re drawing inspiration from now?
No, not particularly. No. I just made this song and I asked the entire group in the studio to describe what it was and no one could and then one guy took a shot who’s very clever. he said it’s like if a country song from Nashville was made in Africa.
One of the songs you played today, “Fatima, is about a dear friend of yours who was murdered when she was 13. But it sounds like you feel her spirit with you.
I feel the spirit of all those people that left too early, but they didn’t quite leave, you know. They left something in us, so we kind of have a bit of them with us all the time. It took me a long time to get to a place where i’m safe enough to write a song like that because sometimes if you face the thing that’s happening to you just then, sometimes it can endanger you and you may need a healing space from it and so I wrote it very recently although this happened many years ago.
You also sing in one of your songs about how there are a lot of “mainstream rappers yapping about yapping.” Not too fond of some of your contemporaries?
Well, I think we’re all different people. Sometimes I’m entertained by all of that and I enjoy it like other people do. Sometimes I’m frustrated by it, like other people do. I just write what I feel.