The last time Morning Edition spoke with K'naan, he had just gone back to his native Somalia for the first time in 20 years to highlight the effects of the famine there.
The Somali-Canadian rapper was introduced to the world as The Dusty Foot Philosopher with his first album in 2005; then he returned with Troubadour in 2009. Just last month, he came out with an EP, More Beautiful Than Silence. A new full-length album, Country, God, or the Girl, comes out in May.
K'naan has said the stories in his songs have actually happened, including a tale he tells in "Coming to America" about how he accidentally blew up his school with a hand grenade in eighth grade.
"My mom took me in her arms and cried at the possibility that I could've been killed," K'naan tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. "Then she started going on a tangent: 'What kind of person would leave a grenade in the playground of a school?' "
Somalia has a long history of oral poetry, and K'naan's grandfather is a major proponent of this history: According to one story, he once stopped a war with his words.
K'naan says he isn't sure whether rap could ever reach those heights of influence.
"The problem is that rap is so often a caricature of its own image," he says. "Nobody comes to the table with the seriousness of the effect that it can have; nobody is prepared for that. The poetry I grew up on is really an intense form of poetry; it's so pure and powerful."
K'naan describes the title track of his new EP as "a self-criticism, a moment in which I'm also recognizing those things. I have moments of darkness, of anger, and moments of rage. They do creep up at the most inopportune times. Not to recognize that in my music would give people a sense of sainthood that I don't necessarily have or even want to have. Because I don't accept the title of the all-great kid who came out of Mogadishu completely unfazed, unscathed, and has written music of just hope and joy. It can be partly true, but it isn't all true."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At the height of the famine in Somalia last summer, we spoke with that country's most famous musician. The rapper K'naan had visited a refugee camp 20 years after his family fled Somalia, when he was just 13. Much of K'naan's music, beginning with his first album "Dusty Foot Philosopher, flows from those days. He's joined us again to talk about his next album, featuring collaborations with the likes of Nas and Bono
K'naan tried to write less about Somalia, but...
K'NAAN: It's kind of in most of my melodic structure. There is a song I have called "Bulletproof Pride," and the chorus comes on. And the chorus...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BULLETPROOF PRIDE")
K'NAAN: (Singing) I've been waiting for you to come your senses, holding up your heavy heart down there in the trenches.
That melody alone, that...
(Singing) Da-na-na-na-na-na, la-na-la-na-la-na...
...is a very Somali feeling.
MONTAGNE: American rappers singing about the streets have nothing on K'naan, given his childhood in a Somalia that was violently breaking down. And in one new song, "Coming to America," K'naan offers his take on the 1980s comedy, where Eddy Murphy stars as the Prince of Zamunda who comes to America in search of a wife and gets a cultural shock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMING TO AMERICA")
K'NAAN: (Rapping) I'll shoot you not being afraid. Life gave me a rock and lemonade, blew up my school in the 8th grade while playing catch with a hand grenade, yup, that's a true story. Just ain't Hollywood glory. I ain't the Prince of Zamunda, dog, my life is too gory.
CHORUS: I'm tired of always going through barriers. I just want to live a good life. So I'm coming, coming to America. I hope we going to...
MONTAGNE: There's a couple of things in this song. You rhyme Hollywood glory with gory. You also say that used a hand grenade when you were in the 8th grade. Did you really do that?
K'NAAN: Yes, that's the story.
MONTAGNE: Did you really blow up your school with a hand grenade?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
K'NAAN: Yeah. Yeah, by accident. You know, we used what's called looh, which is a wooden slate in which you like write real ink. So every day, at the end of the day, the teacher chooses three students that wash the ink from the wood. And so, at one point we emptied some dirty water onto the ground and it revealed this hand grenade. But, you know, at first instinct we didn't know what it was. And one of us unpinned it and I ended up having to throw it just in time that it blew up the school. Luckily, it was after school.
MONTAGNE: That is a real Mogadishu story.
K'NAAN: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It was the kind of thing that when I came to consciousness, the dust is over me and I'm kind of looking for my friends and my ears are ringing. And I'm thinking I hope everyone is OK and everyone is alive. And the second thing, I really hope mom doesn't find out about this - you know, I'm going to be in big trouble. And...
MONTAGNE: Did you? Were you?
K'NAAN: No, my mom was - even took me in her arms and cried at the possibility that I could have been killed. Then she started going on a tangent that was: what kind of a person would leave grenade in the playground of a school?
MONTAGNE: Yeah. There's a story, I gather, of your grandfather, who was your mother's father. And he was a renowned poet. Somalia has a long history of oral poetry. And the story is that he stopped a war with his words.
K'NAAN: Yeah. Yeah. That's the story. And they say that those two sub-clans have never fought again. The poetry I grew up on is really pure and powerful.
MONTAGNE: Is there even a line or two that you could recite for us in the language?
K'NAAN: Oh, well, there's another poem that my grandfather has. It's called "The 12-Year-old." It starts with (Foreign language spoken). I can't find the end of that sentence the way he did. (Foreign language spoken). This is the kind of time when one should just call their mother on the phone. He's saying: If a boy has reached the age of 12 and cannot settle at traveling community, cannot shelter them and feed them, he has lost his opportunity for his manhood. And that's at 12, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
K'NAAN: The years are a little different for us, I think.
MONTAGNE: Where do you think you'd be now if you had not left Mogadishu when you were a boy?
K'NAAN: Well, the examples aren't very good of the friends and family that I left behind because the options are very limited. I mean, you joined the militia or some religious group. Or you went to where the pirates are or something there. For young men my age now there aren't really a lot of options in Somalia. And I'm particularly like a hot-blooded character. I mean I don't know that I would have been wise enough to have survived all these years.
MONTAGNE: Well, you do speak about a certain duality contained within yourself in the track "More Beautiful Than Silence." You say: I know you think I'm righteous but I'm also into rifles.
May be surprising, even stunning from a musician like yourself who's - you've been an activist. You've visited refugee camps. You know how dark the world of weapons can be.
K'NAAN: Yeah. You know, that was a self-criticism, a moment in which I'm also recognizing those things; that I have moments of darkness and moments of anger and moments of rage. And they do creep up at the most inopportune times. And not to recognize that in my music would give people a sense of sainthood that I don't necessarily have or even want to have.
Because I don't accept the title of the all-great, you know, kid who came out of Mogadishu completely unfazed, unscathed, and has written music of just hope and joy. It can be partly true, but it isn't all true.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
K'NAAN: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: The rapper K'naan, his newest album, "County, God or the Girl," comes out this spring.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN SILENCE")
K'NAAN: (Singing) Could be more beautiful than silence. Yeah. Silence. OK, ain't it funny how the talk is always talking? Never firing, but always shining cocking. When they're cocky until they end in parking lots, suddenly they got Parkinson's, they can hardly talk...
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.