It’s appropriate that K’naan‘s album, Country, God, or the Girl, drops this week, since it hits at the same time that S. Africa’s Die Antwoord drop their newest video. Die Antwoord’s video to “Fatty Boom Boom” is a keen satire on the hipster fetishism of urban African music and ultimately on the mainstream American love of African ghetto music. In the video, a Lady Gaga look-alike trolls the streets of an un-named African urban setting, while a cliched African tour guide points out the eccentric street characters. With typical African street art on the walls, and the shabby-chic of run-down storefronts, it’s all fun for Gaga until the van gets jumped by guys in ski masks with guns. But before this (and before the shudderiffic trip to the African gynecologist), the van stops at a trio of musicians on the street. “Oh my God, look at their freaky fashion. I should have them open for me…” says the Gaga character. The musicians are decked out in the kind of witchcraft-and-dayglo aesthetic that’s been lately expounded by artists like Baloji and Spoek Mathambo. Of course, the trio turn out to be Die Antwoord themselves, and the rest of the video is pretty explosive.
I mention the Die Antwoord video because it shows the limits for how African musicians today are connected to Western indie outlets. If you’re not rapping in front of quaint African barbershops, or performing with some strange blend of traditional and electronic, there’s not too much room in the blogosphere. I think with his new album, K’naan may be hitting these limits himself.
Born in Somalia and raised in Canada, K’naan cut a name for himself by rapping about the violence of Mogadishu’s streets, at one point saying he would make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit (from the song “What’s Hardcore” on his debut album). He also made a name from his cultural heritage: the rich poetic traditions of Somalia. Listen to “My Old Home” from his debut album to hear this. On his second album, he folded Somali music into American hip-hop, bringing old samples together with new beats. Both albums were critically acclaimed, in no small part due to K’naan’s tremendous presence on the mic and to the fact that he was speaking for a nation who’s voice goes totally unheard on the world stage. I’d never heard about the mostly noble origins of the Somali pirates until this video came out. In 2010, his single “Wavin’ Flag” blew up worldwide as the anthem to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was held in South Africa. Coca-Cola chose the song, along with these poorly chosen words: “inspired by the joyous dance celebrations familiar to Africa.” The song thrust K’naan into the global music mainstream, and propelled him to huge fame. It also signified a move away from the hard-hitting political and poetic side of his music in favor of arena pop anthems.
I’ve been getting emails from K’naan’s press team about the new album for a while now, and was kind of dreading its release. One of the singles for the album that were released early was such bland pop pablum that I thought K’naan had fallen off. Breakup song “You Can Hurt Me Tomorrow” had none of the lyrical depth we were used to and was soaked in perfumed pop vocal gloss (plus the video looks like it could be a commercial for Target). Now that the album’s dropped in full, it seems to be a bit of both. His sound has changed considerably, with pop anthems spread throughout the album, but of course his lyrical talents still remain and there are some beautiful stand-out tracks. Country, God, or the Girl is an excellent example of the kind of artistic struggle that Die Antwoord are satirizing. At what point can an artist move beyond their own story? When will it stop mattering that K’naan’s Somalian? When can he stop rapping about growing up in the slums of Mogadishu? It’s not a question anyone can answer, and honestly kudos to K’naan for following his own path with this album. There are some beautiful moments, from the soft acoustic poetry of “70 Excuses” to the opening verse on aging in “Gold in Timbuktu,” or the fun boom-bap of “Waiting is a Drug” or even the sizzurp-slow drawl of “Nothing to Lose” with Nas. Sure, it’s softer than any of his other work (SO much softer!!), but he’s always been a huge softie at heart. If I’m bummed that he’s not as hard or edgy as he used to be, maybe I should look instead to why I need that familiar frisson us white folks get from listening to music from war-torn African (or American) streets. That could be the real problem here.