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It must occur to K'Naan, in idle moments of daydreaming chutzpah, that he could be the next Bob Marley or John Lennon. The Somali rapper recorded some of his bright new album, Troubadour, in Marley's home studio in Jamaica, and quotes Lennon over a rushed, crooked beat on "Dreamer"—as in "but I'm not the only one." Rasher claims have been made by aspiring hip-hop stars, and Kanaan Warsame of Mogadishu shows every intention of speaking to the world, and for the world, without suggesting that we're culpable in the hell he's escaped.
But neither Marley nor Lennon was an immigrant, at least not at first, and the displacement K'Naan must feel should be multiplied by hip hop, where place counts. So why does he sound so at home? K'Naan learned English phonetically from Rakim songs before leaving Mogadishu on the last commercial flight out. Based in Toronto now, he has lived in New York and Minneapolis: At his First Avenue show last year, backed by a live band, he shouted-out a dead homie, a friend killed in the startling rash of local murders of Somalis (see "Minneapolis Somali Community Facing Dark Web of Murders"). So he is East African enough to assume reggae as part of his funk musical DNA, yet American enough to rhyme like Eminem in Lil' Wayne's alien voice. And he gives himself the vaguely ridiculous task of claiming the worst neighborhood in the worst city on earth in order to suggest that yours might not be so tough.
On K'Naan's debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (released in the U.S. last year by IM Culture), he pleaded for warlord peace in the rolling Rs of his native Somali before turning to the hip-hop thesis topic "What's Hardcore?" On Troubadour, the question is academic: The more commercial he sounds, the more he turns to the everyday experiences of people fleeing traumatic violence. "Fifteen Minutes Away" turns the Western Union cash-transfer rite of all immigrants into the most Fergielicious of pop, while "If Rap Gets Jealous," beefed up here on a version with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, jokes that the money saved on not buying Kanye beats goes straight back to his family in Mogadishu. This is the kind of iconic redemption singer who finds more than one opportunity to rhyme the word "anus," something I'm pretty sure Bob Marley avoided.
So we have a mainstream voice on a budget, with Slug's self-deprecation and children as backup singers, a guy who insists that it doesn't matter where you're from, on club tracks ("Does It Really Matter"), except that it does, on deep ones ("Somalia"). He could be a slum hero to a vibrant new generation of not-quite-Americans or African Americans, Somalis growing up in Minnesota with little memory of the war-ravaged homeland that K'Naan still loves. Because his concert at the Varsity on Wednesday is all-ages, this might be their first glimpse of him.
But K'Naan is also a unique voice for peace, and it's hard to imagine where his audience will end. Something more than a rap career is at stake, in other words, even as K'Naan makes the charming suggestion that there's nothing more important on his mind.
K'NAAN plays with Muja Messiah and M.anifest on WEDNESDSAY, FEBRUARY 11, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222