K'Naan raps to redeem Somalia

His hood makes the home turf of most rappers look like a playground. K'Naan grew up in the mean streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in a section of town dubbed the River of Blood. Targeted by the government as a rebel stronghold, the streets were a war zone, with rocket-powered grenades and automatic weapon-fire whistling by on a daily basis. K'Naan escaped with his mother and older brother in 1991 when he was 12, and now resides in Toronto.

On his new release, Troubadour, he relives those days. "They only teach us the things that guns do," he spits on "ABCs," revealing how he was schooled in the streets. One childhood pastime involved wrapping barbed wire around discarded bike tires, setting them on fire, then rolling them down the hill blazing. "That was our version of mountain bike racin'," he raps on "Somalia." He juxtaposes his original melodic arrangements with lyrics that bite. As a children's choir coos a chorus to a string-sweetened track, K'Naan informs other MCs how rapping about who's the hardest misses the point: "Lot of mainstream niggas is yappin' about yappin,'/lot of underground niggas is rappin' 'bout rappin'/I just want to tell you what's really crack-a-lackin'."

What's crack-a-lackin' in K'Naan's world is often misinterpreted in international news, says the MC, whose song "Somalia" also addresses the maritime piracy rampant in the coastal waters of his homeland. "Pirates started, basically, because Somali people are trying to defend the coast from illegal mass fishing and illegal nuclear toxic waste dumping," he says. He believes the problems from illegal waste dumping have already impacted Somalis, causing them to contract diseases. That, he says, is a bigger problem than a few pirates hurting the trade route.

Although he calls himself a troubadour, K'Naan's outspokeness on behalf of Somalia makes him a hip-hop activist as well. "We are trying to get through all kinds of foreign meddling and local suppression," he says. "It's a different world."