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Keep a Good Head and Carry a Lightbulb: K’naan Gets the Message from Bob, Bob and Fela

Somali-Canadian rapper/ singer K’naan performs his stirring anthem “Wavin’ Flag” with such quiet dignity and righteous power that it seems like the sort of song Bono would trade half the gross domestic product of Ireland to have thought of first. With its loping tempo and big chorus, K’naan’s signature song seems simple the way that “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Get Up, Stand Up” are, distilling the restless search for freedom to words so basic your children will sing them after a couple of listens. And they will (“when I get older, I will be stronger…”).

The Marley connection is far from coincidental. If you heard that K’naan was a good friend of Damian (Junior Gong) Marley and had recorded much of his last album at the Dreadest One’s old home and studio, you might wonder whether K’naan is just latest one-anthem wonder to trade on the Marley legend. Duet versions of a soccerized version of “Wavin’ Flag” have been released in Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic for a World Cup preview tour, and Canadian all-stars rerecorded the song for Haiti earthquake relief (leading to the strange spectacle of K’naan’s words coming from the likes of Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber). And as the surest sign that K’naan is here to stay, “Wavin’ Flag” has already been recorded by a false version of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

But anyone who would marginalize K’naan as the latest world-music flavor of the month is going to miss out on the widely varied work of a complicated man from a complicated place. Synonymous here with anarchy and misery, Somalia has been known for centuries as a nation of poets, where rhythm and rhyme are central features of language and communication. The nephew of a famous Somalian singer and the grandson of a revered poet, Keinan Warsame narrowly survived the mean streets of Mogadishu, emigrating to Toronto as a teenager when civil order imploded in the nineties. He honed his English skills listening to hip-hop lyrics from Rakim and Nas, finding a pathway from home in conscious and reflective street poetry.

He can come on harder than a hand grenade (literally, as he picked one up by accident in grammar school), sweeter than Smokey Robinson at a candy factory, and clever enough to carry around a seriously tricked-out bag of fantastic rhymes in his second language. Seamlessly merging hip-hop with roots, funk and soul, last year’s Troubador album, his second, mixes booming old-school hard-knock raps than make most American gangstas sound like spoiled suburbanites (“T.I.A,” “I Come Prepared”) politically charged character sketches (“Somalia,” “People Like Me”), and tongue-twisting wordplay more fun than a bowl of Eminems (“”Dreamer,” “Bang Bang”). He even enlists Kirk Hammett to help him slay the heinous rap-rock beast. My favorite is probably the gorgeous, funny, heartbreaking “Fatima,” which tells the real-life story of a childhood friend with a cruel fate.

Perhaps even better, last fall K’naan released The Messengers, three stunning mixtapes paying homage to his musical and spiritual mentors, which you can download for free on the website of his Brooklyn-based D.J. collaborator, J. Period. Part documentary collage, part musical tribute, part mashup with K’naan’s own work, these are clearly a labor of love and like nothing else I’ve heard. Not surprisingly, two of the “messengers” featured are Bob Marley (naturally) and Nigeria’s legendary Afrobeat pioneer and Broadway musical inspiration, Fela Kuti.

The Marley and Fela tributes are as incendiary and thoughtful and you would hope, but the real stunner of the group is the mixtape for the third messenger, Bob Dylan. I wouldn’t have guessed it before, but the troubador from Mogadishu actually seems to “get” Dylan better than a whole conference room of professional Dylanologists who worship the water he walks on. K’naan’s call-and-response in “Hard Rain” adds to the song’s sense of foreboding, and his “Fire in Freetown” fits so tightly into “4th Time Around” that you’d swear it was always in the song. And the revision of “Don’t Think Twice” made me think twice for the first time in years about why I loved that curmudgeonly song-and-dance man in the first place. The “message” from Dylan that begins the remix nails the mood: “Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb. I plugged mine into the socket and the house exploded.”

K’naan, “Wavin’ Flag”

K’naan, “Fatima”

J. Period/ K’naan, Fela/ Africa (Messengers Remix)

J. Period/ K’naan, Dylan/ Don’t Think Twice (Messengers Remix)

From → Heavy Rotation

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