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)

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.