Print Story Longer music review: Why K'Naan is the best thing since sliced bread
By aphrael (Wed Apr 22, 2009 at 03:23:45 PM EST) (all tags)
I saw K'Naan under less than ideal circumstances. I was exhausted; I'd slept maybe 3.5 hours that night, and no more than five hours a night for the preceding two nights. I was hungry; it was late afternoon and i'd not eaten yet that day, and had eaten only one meal the previous day, before dancing for five hours. It was 100 degrees in the shade, and in the tent where K'Naan was playing, the heat of the crowd must have added another ten degrees. I'd just come from one of the worst live performances I'd ever had the misfortune of attending. Were I not still riding the high from the previous two nights, I would have been a grumpy sumbitch; instead I was just a zombie.

And yet, as I walked by the crowd listening to him - an artist I had absolutely no intention of seeing - I found myself mesmerized and drawn in, and the next forty-five minutes caused me to fall in love with a new musician.

Update [2009-4-22 22:43:52 by aphrael]: links added.

Live music is my favorite form of entertainment. I've got nothing against movies, or books, or video games, or board games; they can all be fantastic experiences, and there's nothing like curling up with a book in front of a fire or in a hot bathtub. But live music trumps them all.

One of the best things about good live music is the way that an emotional connection can develop between the perform and the crowd. Often this is just a result of the crowd's love of the music flowing out and uniting it, and the performer responding to it; sometimes it is the result of the performer being emotionally vulnerable and communicating that to the crowd, which responds in kind. Either way, it's an awesome feeling; it may be fleeting, but that makes it no less real.

Of course, live music isn't always like that. Some bands phone in their performances, either because they're so fucked up that they aren't aware of where they are or because they just don't care anymore. Some bands sell exquisitely packaged performances with perfect music and slick choreography that doesn't allow for the presence of emotion in either the crowd or the artist; they present beautiful, soaring music in soulless packaging. Such concerts can still be fun, but they are only an echo of what they could be.

This is a particular problem in the hip-hop world. Hip-hop, especially mainstream hip-hop, is full of performers who favor flash and bang over heart and soul; of performers who play the game to show off how big their ego is, who tell lies to put up this front of being manlier-than-thou. Everyone pays lip service to 'keeping it real', but few actually do ... and even among those who do, emotional vulnerability is a rare, precious commodity.

K'Naan is the antithesis of mainstream hip-hop.

He's a first-generation immigrant from Somalia, who grew up in a city he quite reasonably describes as having been the worst place in the world. (According to Wikipedia, his family got out on the last commercial flight out of Mogadishu. He sings, honestly, about his life. It's raw stuff, and some of it is hard to listen to. Some of it, in fact, is heartbreaking.

Fatima, Fatima I'm in America
I make rhymes and I make them delicate
You would have liked the parks in Connecticut
You would have said I'm working too hard again.

Damn you shooter, Damn you the building
Whose walls hid the blood she was spilling
Damn you Country so good at killing
Damn you feeling, for persevering

Is it true when they say all you need is just love,
Is it true?
What about those who have loved
Only to find that it's taken away?
And why do they say that the children have rights to be free?
To be free?
What about those who I've known
Whose memory still lives inside of me?

What did the gunman say
before he took you away on that fateful day
Did he know your name, or the plans we made
To go to New York City

It would be easy to have responded with bitterness, and anger; K'Naan could be a purveyor of hard, biting music about how awful life is, how hard it is to live in the streets; he could have been the angry Somali equivalent of the angry American gangster rapper. But he isn't. What shines through in his music is not just the awfulness of life in Somalia, but the triumph of the human spirit; the ability of man to find joy in the most terrible of situations, because joy is part of life, just as tragedy is.

And any man who knows a thing knows, he knows not a damn, damn thing at all,
And everytime I felt the hurt and I felt the givin' gettin' me up off the wall,
I'm just gonna take a minute and let it ride,
I'm just gonna take a minute and let it breeze,
I'm just gonna take a minute and let it ride,
I'm just gonna take a minute and let it breeze.

His music transcends genre; it's hip-hop, but it mixes in reggae and rock and african folk, blending it as if the boundaries we have constructed in our minds to group music into different categories are just irrelevant. It's uplifting in a way that very little else is; it resonates with the joy of a survivor.

And the boys from the hood are always hard
Let alone in Mogadishu, it's a masterd art
If you bring the world hoods to a seminar
We from the only place worse than Kandahar
Well, that's kinda hard

But we still like to party and party hard
Something good happens, we say 'Masahallah',
Something bad happens, we say 'Que Sera Sera',
I close my eyes and all I can see is you dancing with me.

It starts with bleakness and yet signs with hope and inspiration:

So we struggling, fighting to eat
And wondering when we'll be free
So we patiently wait for that fateful day
It's not far away, but for now we say

When I get older I will be stronger
They'll call me freedom, just like a waving flag

I can only hope that I could have as much hope and love of the world if I had come from that life; I have a hard time maintaining that emotional space as it is. And so I can only respond to this music in one way: with awe.

< Pretty Mary K | The lazy tourist >
Longer music review: Why K'Naan is the best thing since sliced bread | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Based on this review... by toxicfur (2.00 / 0) #1 Wed Apr 22, 2009 at 07:15:47 PM EST
I've checked his stuff out on youtube. Really compelling, though it's not the sort of music I usually listen to. I think I'll be adding to my iPod... Thanks. 

Also, I can't believe you didn't see Amanda Palmer and Zoe Keating while you were there! I was wishing I could be there for them and Leonard Cohen. :) Definitely sounds like an excellent experience for you, though.
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
Amanda Palmer by aphrael (2.00 / 0) #2 Wed Apr 22, 2009 at 07:21:57 PM EST
overlapped with Michael Franti, whom I have wanted to see for several years and not managed to until now.

Zoe Keating i've never heard of.

I'm glad the review got you to check it out and that you like it. :)

I've gone a couple times before ... but this year was way better than the previous years. I've got some theories as to why that is, but i'm still processing it.

If television is a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up.

[ Parent ]
Zoe Keating by toxicfur (2.00 / 0) #3 Wed Apr 22, 2009 at 07:50:21 PM EST
A cellist, who's played with Rasputina. Her solo stuff is what I love, though -- she makes loops and makes incredible ambient-classical-something music. See here
The amount of suck that you can put up with can be mind-boggling, but it only really hits you when it then ceases to suck. -- Kellnerin
[ Parent ]
Longer music review: Why K'Naan is the best thing since sliced bread | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback