In the upcoming July/August issue of The Walrus, I scribbled many words about K’naan, the Somali-born music star who emigrated to Canada (by way of Harlem) as a boy in the early ’90s. Seven years ago, he became one of this country’s favourite urban acts upon the release of his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher. The project went on to win the first of his four Juno Awards, and led him to sign a serious deal with A&M/Octone, a heavy-hitting record label based in Manhattan.
During the last World Cup, K’naan’s fame spread nearly planetwide, when Coca-Cola turned his song “Wavin’ Flag” into a multinational anthem. The exception was America, the music business’s premier market. This summer, he’ll attempt another cross-border invasion with a new album, Country, God or the Girl, that’s been deliberately designed for mass US appeal.
In the spring, K’naan and I met in Toronto to talk about his music and more. Below, some of that conversation, dancing around the parts you can read in the magazine.*
Matthew McKinnon: I have a pet theory about the American music industry: that it’s adopted the blockbuster model that has driven Hollywood for years. Lately, big labels only want artists who can move really big numbers; most of their money gets spent on the relative few who already are or may yet become superstars. There’s less cash and concern left over for smaller artists, smaller projects.
K’naan: Oh, it’s true. You have the chosen very few who [get to experience] that kind of platform. In America, the king is still Top 40 radio. Either you’re getting played on every city’s Top 40 station or you’re getting played on another kind of station, and the difference across the country is something like 60 million people a week. It’s a very significant awareness factor. To be honest, that world is what my new music is entering into. I’m not shy about reaching people. I’ve never been… Whether it’s the right audience for my work is yet to be seen.
Matthew McKinnon: You have a lot of fans, particularly Canadian fans, who have followed you since The Dusty Foot Philosopher. The music you made then is different than the music you make now, and at least some of that crowd seems unhappy about that. You’re on Twitter. You can read what people think about old versus new.
K’naan: Listen, I’m the least affected person by those kinds of things. It’s not that I don’t see it; it’s not that I don’t hear it or think about it. But I don’t live within the context of other people’s expectations.
I see Twitter messages about me or to me. The people are saying, “You don’t know how good it makes me feel to hear K’naan on the radio,” and, “Finally. This is what you need to be listening to. He’s our guy.” That’s more what I get.
But then you have the few who are not really fans of me. I’ll be honest, they’re fans of cool culture. They’re fans of exclusivity. They like for other people not to know about what they know. And if the kids who listen to the major networks and radio stations start listening to the thing that they thought was the cool thing, then that thing makes them like those kids — and they don’t want to be those kids. So they’re all about, “I liked K’naan when he was just The Dusty Foot Philosopher.”
Some might genuinely enjoy The Dusty Foot Philosopher more. It might be more gritty, it might be more — less money was invested into it; you feel that in the work. I can see why that would be romantic. But more often than not, it’s about owning something, and it being yours. Other people knowing about it makes you a little uncomfortable. Because that’s what’s cool, is exclusivity.
But I’m so light-hearted about those things, man. I enjoy it all. It’s easy for me. Nobody is going to stop me from growing. Age and wisdom, they don’t take permission from anybody. They just happen.
Matthew McKinnon: Between Dusty Foot and your second album, Troubadour, you signed a 360º contract with A&M/Octone. That means the label gets a piece of everything you do, but the label helps you accomplish everything you do. The concept was still fairly new when you signed, although it seems common now. What encouraged you go in that direction instead of another?
K’naan: Well, I don’t know what’s the upside of a 360. What I do know is what’s fair about a 360. It’s hard to make money from record sales these days — for anybody. For labels, even if they’re not a creative bunch, they do wake up every day and work your music; they put their wealth behind spreading that which you care for. It becomes a bit disadvantaged when all that work goes in and then record sales don’t happen, and in other [revenue] streams, nobody benefits but you.
Matthew McKinnon: I recently listened to an episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast called “Katy Perry’s Perfect Year.” It’s about how much money she made in 2011. The hosts talked about how the music industry’s old model for generating revenue went in this order, from highest to lowest: record sales, publishing, touring, and merchandise. The new model is completely backward: merchandise generates the most money; record sales the least.
K’naan: That’s very true. A lot of these artists who are so big, often times they’re not songwriters. They may participate in a song, in a split, but it’s not really them writing those songs. And I write these songs. When a song of mine has success, a good part of that comes to me as a songwriter. It doesn’t make you wealthy — it hasn’t made me wealthy thus far. But I don’t know: does everybody want to be wealthy? Have we all decided that that’s what we want to do? I have different ambitions.
There’s a lot of pressure on artists to be smart in that way. To be smart means to have more, to get your business in order so that you win. Secure more finances for yourself. Otherwise you seem like a simple person not to have made the most out of your opportunities to make money. But I don’t think that’s a fair pressure to put on people and artists, because who said we all want the same thing?
My pressures to be rich come more from poor people than from anybody else. They’re like, “You are one of us. You have the chance to do it. You better do it. And we better see it. You better look like it.” And I don’t look like it. My mom lives in Rexdale. Often times I get criticism from the Somali community: “Why does your mom live in the ghetto?” Because she wants to. She can live somewhere else because she’s my mother, but she likes being there. And there’s this incredible pressure. “But you wrote ‘Wavin’ Flag.’ Surely, you can afford more.” Just because you can afford more doesn’t mean you want more.
Matthew McKinnon: It’s more than your music that’s changed since Dusty Foot. Your life is quite different now than it was before. Has your songwriting remained the same?
K’naan: I’m interested now in songwriting that reveals the artist more than it conceals the artist. I’ve been very interested in revealing more; getting rid of my insecurity to conceal something. I’ve been made nervous by the idea that people have of me because of my previous records. I think I, without meaning to, gave away some kind of aura of sainthood — like a very saintly persona.
Matthew McKinnon: I know what you mean, because I’ve seen that aura. But I’m not sure it’s your fault. I think others — fans, media — put it on you.
K’naan: Yeah, maybe. Or maybe I’m at fault — but what did I do, I don’t know? The music I made seemed very much like the truth. “Voices in My Head” was one of my songs in which I talked about the darkness within, but everybody ignored that. Instead they said, “He said, ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark!’ He must be a saint.” It feels very uncomfortable to be in the public and to be seen as somebody who’s a saint, and you know you’re not. So I wrote a few [new] songs that reveal a bit of that. I tried anyway.
And also I had a heartbreak, which I had never had before. It’s quicksand, love. You know? It’s not like falling. In falling, you can feel your weight land on something, so you exist. A broken heart is, in a way, a quicksand. It swallows you. In all my years of participating in this world, running around and writing songs, I had never experienced that feeling. And I have, in the last year, for the first time. That’ll do something to songwriting.
Matthew McKinnon: Songwriting heals?
K’naan: In the very least, it’s the way to get even. It’s very helpful tool, music. No matter what, you’re writing. By that act alone, you have changed something in the hurt. You have remarked on the hurt. So that’s what’s been happening. I’ve been writing songs with the vulnerability of someone who’s been hurt.
Matthew McKinnon: Last thing, because if you had told me when we met seven years ago that this would come to pass, I don’t know if I could have believed you: Bono will be a guest on your new album. Hows does that work?
K’naan: Excellent. It works excellently. Yeah, man. The song that he fell in love with, [“Bulletproof Pride,”] he came in and did some beautiful vocals on it. It’s such a strange thing to have done something with one of the biggest stars in the world. But in the time we were working on the song, I didn’t see him in that way. Because the truth is that we were both servants of the song, so there’s no time to be fans. We’re both holding up the song to its best potential. We did that, and then I was like, “Oh my God, there’s Bono on my song!”