‘Beat’ poet K’Naan brings the craft back to his home turf — the streets of Somalia

African-born hip-hop poet K’Naan, the opening act selected by Mos Def to open his current tour with Talib Kweli, pounds mercilessly on the drum hanging from his wispy frame. “You cripple me, you shackle me/You shatter my whole future in front of me,” he raps over the bongo, addressing the warlords currently terrorizing his hometown of Mogadishu, Somalia. A remarkable live performer, K’Naan uses this strength to make a difference: at a United Nations-sponsored concert, he called the organization out on its faulty Mogadishu intervention and received a standing ovation. He displays a steady and knowing wisdom, even through the most intense moments of his performance. This veils a childhood of dodging flames, bullets and hand grenades (some of his friends weren’t so lucky) in a neighborhood of the city known locally as “The River of Blood.” It is described by K’Naan as “the most dangerous city in this universe.” When the last commercial flight out of Somalia departed in 1991, he and his family were lucky enough to be onboard.

But Africa has stayed with K’Naan, who knows where the roots of the beat comes from. “Hip-hop is a poet rhyming over a drum,” he humbly schooled the audience. Though his earliest, most prominent musical and poetical influences were from his homeland, sparks flew when K’Naan first tasted the infectious charm of American hip-hop in a Somali friend’s car: “I was like whatever that guy’s doing, that’s what I want to hear more of,” he said. “And so I talked to my father, who was living in Harlem as a cab driver, and I described it as ‘the talking blues.’” K’Naan’s father sent him Eric B. and Rakim on vinyl, and the boy quickly memorized Rakim’s verses despite his inability to speak English.

Now, at 28, K’Naan has released The Dusty Foot Philosopher, a unique and overwhelmingly beautiful blend of ethnic instrumentation and hard-hitting, quick-witted raps. Though soft-spoken and serene in person, he channels years of fierce and potent pain through the mic. “Soobax,” for which K’Naan shot a music video in Kenya (he avoided Somalia because his presence would “endanger a lot of people’s lives”), is probably the first song about warlords you won’t be able to get out of your head.

Like most rappers today, K’Naan rhymes about gangsters; however, his are gangsters from the most desperate of circumstances. “They need to be portrayed so that people know the gangster that is often loud is not really a gangster,” he said. “And they are making a mockery of this world.”

When it comes to the competitive nature of popular culture, K’Naan holds his own: “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive/ I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit,” he raps on “What’s Hardcore.” He says the reference is not meant as a diss but “an actual portrait of my life. It would make him look like that. Mogadishu makes anybody look like that. And [that] is exactly what hip-hop is, to say the truth, to represent things entirely.”

K’Naan’s accessible sound and his urgent message are a powerful and refreshingly relevant musical force in today’s hip-hop landscape.