Being hardcore is more than just flashing double jointed hand gestures to people as you drive your Escalade to a guest appearance on MTV's Cribs. It's more than being too high to avoid strutting into a torrent of bullets or slouching against a wall in that oh-so-gangsta-vogue way. Hardcore is achieved through struggle and coming out of it intact. Canadian hip-hop emcee K'Naan has got hardcore in spades.
Born in Somalia, his childhood memories, nestled in the smoke of AK-47s, consist of escapes from live grenades and kidnappings. It's a life most gangsta rappers couldn't even conceive of.
"It's always been tough, but since the war has taken over the whole country, it's quite possibly one of the most dangerous [places] in the world," says K'Naan. "I would love to go back in some way, something to do with trying to change things. I don't think anyone can imagine the condition and mentality--this is a place where they kidnap an 80 year-old woman for ransom. There is no more connection to kindness. They will kill you over nothing."
At the age of 13, K'Naan left Somalia on the last commercial flight out before the country fell into absolute anarchy. Since then, the emcee has called Toronto his home and used it as a launch pad for his hip-hop career. In K'Naan's music, you hear a righteous fire and dignity missing from hip-hop since the days of Public Enemy and KRS-One. The raucous single "Soobax" is a percussion heavy protest song; propulsive and demanding attention, it encapsulates the compassion and call-to-arms embedded in K'Naan's music.
"My music is quite specific and personal. It is rooted in a struggle that's very personal to me, so therefore I feel a certain responsibility in connection to the world and justice. This comes from having to justify my moments in existence, because, in the sense of statistics, it [the situation in Somalia] shouldn't have gone this long. I think hip-hop is a gift to our struggle. It was born out of a certain need to express for a kind of oppressed people. It's the talking blues, you know? You find it has a rhythm, a poetic element to it, but also it's coming from a place of pain; a place of occupation, a place of struggle."
The underground emcee is making the most of his borrowed time. Unlike most musicians, K'Naan doesn't just play for "the music," but fights and rhymes a message of awareness and political culpability for the situation in Somalia. He received a standing ovation from the UN and Youssou N'Dour when he performed at the 50th Anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees, joined other Canadian artist on the benefit track "Keep the Beat" and performed in Live 8. Whether his message is getting across or if people will just grind to the bass remains to be seen, but the politically conscious rapper has hope.
"I don't know what we expected it to do," says K'Naan about Live 8. "It was basically some concerts around the world, but it was trying to create a rally behind the political change in the west; so there could start to be economic balance in the world."
Still, even with the success of Live 8, K'Naan will not stop his unique brand of hip-hop. The Dusty Foot Philosopher, his new album is out in stores now and he will keep fighting the good fight at the Calgary Folk Fest this year. But that doesn't mean he's any less hardcore.
"You'd probably hear more hardcore rawness from my music than many of the mainstream records going on right now," says K'Naan. "But it is the kind of violence and the way you articulate it, that is the difference. In my neighbourhood, young kids had guns and you grew up learning to shoot, but often, what we called cool were the kids that never had to touch one. We envied them; they strutted around the neighbourhood like they were cooler than anybody else. 50 [Cent] is not painting the hood in a way that if I had never been to it, I would see it."