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Somali rapper K'naan makes songs in the key of love

From Isha Sesay and Jessica Elils, CNN
updated 11:51 AM EDT, Tue April 24, 2012
K'naan is a superstar from Somalia and a global hip-hop sensation. Critics have compared him to both Bob Marley and Eminem. K'naan is a superstar from Somalia and a global hip-hop sensation. Critics have compared him to both Bob Marley and Eminem.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • K'naan is a rap star who's achieved fame around the world with his Africa-influenced songs
  • He escaped war-torn Somalia as a teenager to eventually settle in Canada
  • K'naan, whose name means 'traveler' learned English by listening to rap records
  • His song "Wavin' Flag" was chosen as the official anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup

(CNN) -- His name means "traveler" and Somali-born poet, rapper and musician K'naan has certainly come a long way.

The hip-hop sensation, who's been compared by critics to both reggae hero Bob Marley and rap star Eminem, fled war-torn Somalia as a teenager to eventually settle down with his family in Canada.

Strongly influenced by his native country, his socially conscious lyrics stem from life as a refugee and memories of civil war. Yet, the talented rhymesmith says today that he is more interested in emotional journeys, penning songs about the battles of the heart instead of street ones.

"In some ways, love can be harder than war -- it's a very difficult thing when human beings acknowledge their vulnerability," he says.

K'Naan: Somalia's hip-hop sensation

"War has a way of making life painfully factual and love has a way of making life completely painfully dreamy, and I wanted to try to be honest about where I'm at in life," adds K'naan, whose latest album, "Country, God or the Girl" is expected to be released early next month.

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K'Naan: From refugee to global fame

Blessed with an uncanny lyrical gift, K'naan fuses a wide array of styles and rhythms to deliver his African-influenced rap.

K'Naan's journey for poetic justice

In 2010, his upbeat tune "Wavin' Flag" became a global hit after it was chosen as the official Coca-Cola anthem for the 2010 South Africa World Cup, the first time that football's biggest tournament was held on African soil.

For K'naan, the selection of his song was a "surreal" and "magic" moment.

"That perspective is not lost on me, you know that I was someone who was raised and born in that continent," he says. "That moment of the continent's recognition and glory, that my music is the soundtrack for that, is a pretty huge privilege and that something to this day I'm still trying to kind of get a hold of."

With two full length albums already under his belt, his impressive roster of collaborations features a wide array of high-profile names, including rapper Nas and Mos Def, singer Nelly Furtado and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett.

In his latest offering, he also joins forces with Rolling Stones legend Keith Richards and rapper Will.i.am.

It's a long journey from where K'naan imagined he would be when he and his family boarded one of the last commercial flights to leave Somalia in 1991, at a time when the East African country was descending into chaos, mired in the grip of a long civil war.

"I think I felt quiet a bit of guilt," he recalls. "Leaving was both a privilege and a burden because you saw the people around you who also deserved the chance to leave but weren't going to get that chance and you were getting that chance."

War has a way of making life painfully factual and love has a way of making life completely painfully dreamy.
K'naan, rapper

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K'naan first spent some time in New York before relocating to Toronto. Without speaking a word of English, he turned to music to learn how to express himself in his new environment.

"I picked up rap records because rappers seemed to me like they ... could be great orators, so I would listen to them," he says. "Luckily I did come upon people who were great poets like Naz and Rakim and people who use similes, imagery, metaphors, things that could teach me something."

In the end, he says he learned the new language very quickly "because it was like a survivor's manual -- it wasn't a leisurely activity for me, it was what I needed to live because language is so important in my culture."

K'naan released his first full-length album -- dubbed "Dusty Foot Philosopher" -- in 2005 to critical acclaim. Yet, his first outing to a truly global stage came a few years earlier, in front of a rather unusual audience for hip-hop standards.

A relatively unknown artist, K'naan was invited in early 2000s to perform at a United Nations' event marking the 50th anniversary of the organization's refugee agency.

Standing in front of some of the world's most powerful men, K'naan stopped his performance to recite a politically-charged poem, blasting the U.N. for its failed relief mission in Somalia.

"At this time I said what do I have to do, I have no career, nobody cares, I can't live with myself if I don't say something now that I have the opportunity to address all these people of stature and political clout.

"It was like honest in the moment. It was something that was about what's happened over there and how it was treated how it was ignored, how it was undervalued by leadership and all of that."

Read more: Blind music pioneer fires up Nigeria's modern sound

The crowd's initial silence quickly gave its place to a standing ovation, prompting Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour to storm up on stage and congratulate him.

Passionate about the country he was born, K'naan says Somalia is a country with an incredible amount of potential.

"If you're ever around Somali people you know how enterprising they can be, how sophisticated and intelligent they can be and you have only circumstances which enhance the negativity of such wealthy people," he says. "So I would say that while all this is happening the truth about it is that Somalia is untapped in its potential. And so, as long as there is potential, there is hope."

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