10 December 2012

K'Naan's Struggle to Reclaim his Voice

Musician K'naan penned a revealing and honest OpEd in the New York Times over the weekend where he argued that he was convinced to believe that he had to censor himself and his views in order to reach a larger audience in the United States.
A war was going on, I was told, and some songs had meanings the government did not want deciphered. Those “anti songs” were different from love songs, or folk songs. You had to take care in dressing the words. In love songs, words could preen in bright colors; in anti songs, they attacked in camouflage. And from that, I got a hint of the power of lyrics — to encapsulate magic, or to spread alarm.
K'naan explains the personal development of his music and lyrics over the development of his first two albums. His third album, released this past September, was the follow up to the worldwide success that he achieved after his track 'Wavin Flag' became the anthem of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
On my second album, I had sung about my mother’s having to leave my cousin behind in Somalia’s war — “How bitter when she had to choose who to take with her...” Now I was left, in “Is Anybody Out There?” — a very American song about the evils of drugs — with only “His name was Adam, when his mom had ’im.” 
The first felt to me like a soul with a paintbrush; the other a body with no soul at all. 
So I had not made my Marley or my Dylan, or even my K’naan; I had made an album in which a few genuine songs are all but drowned out by the loud siren of ambition. Fatima had become Mary, and Mohamed, Adam.

A conversation I had with K'naan in August, just ahead of the release of his new album and the Global Citizen Festival, was steered away from his political history and personal lyrics towards his music. I published an article in the Huffington Post with the title 'The Reluctant Advocate' that seems all the more apt given the recent revelations.
"I don't want to be a part of a group of people that can employ music that can do a certain task or political goal. It is wiser than us, smarter than us, more beautiful than us." 
The challenges faced by his family, friends and compatriots in Somalia are still important to K'naan, but remain separate from his music. "You don't have to burden your fans with all your causes," he argues. That is why he chooses to contribute a percentage of his concert sales to a charity or cause of his choosing, but does not talk about it during the concert.
The timing of the conversation was in the midst of a musician struggling to transition in a way that his record label was pushing. A musician who told his story through song took a mid-60's Bob Dylan-esque turn by downplaying any politics in his music. He told me that he was concerned with turning people off through politics and performance and felt that the two should be separated from each other.

"My worry is that political engagement will discredit music. People who have legitimately have worked in these areas are great. Music made for people," he told me. The conversation included his influences, which included protest singers like Dylan, and the way that he hopes that music will stir people and create connections.

When performing Wavin Flag at the Global Citizen Festival, K'naan said that he wanted to reclaim the song for himself. He included an opening verse that talked about leaving Somalia, the challenges of growing up as a refugee and run-ins with immigration services. I was struck by the personal tone at the time, but thought twice since K'naan went out of his way to assure me that he was not using his music politically only a few weeks earlier.

In reading his NYT piece, re-reading my notes and re-listening to K'naan's Global Citizen Festival performance the arc of his internal struggle emerges. He concludes his NYT piece saying that he continues towards reclaiming his original voice, "What I am is a fox who wanted to walk like a prophet and now is trying to rediscover its own stride. I may never find my old walk again, but I hope someday to see beauty in the graceless limp back toward it."