I sat down with him during a stop in Baltimore on his recent tour. We talked about a number of topics, including the global power of soccer, Africa's moment, Fela Kuti, his participation in the World Cup trophy tour and his first trip back to Somalia in 18 years. Here is our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: The World Cup is being hosted by South Africa, but in many ways it's viewed as a big moment for the entire continent. What do you want people to learn about Africa as a result of this World Cup?
K'Naan: In the western world we have always only known Africa in one way, and it hasn't been positive. So I think it's going to be beneficial for the world to finally get to experience Africa as a backdrop to a positive world event. That does the world a good service, to finally see something about this continent that we have long known.
SI.com: You grew up in Somalia during an extremely turbulent time. Was it possible for you to have fun watching a World Cup on TV in, say, 1990?
K'Naan: No. At that time a lot of our focus was just on survival -- and the worry and tension wouldn't allow for us to be a part of world events at the time. But obviously soccer happens like life does. And so in the streets we'd play whenever we could, contradicting the violence whenever we could. That was a form of our own kind of freedom. We'd play whenever we got a little moment of silence from the guns. Somalia at that time in 1990 and '91 got way too unstable to focus on the outside world at all. It was all internal, all about: How do we live?
SI.com: When you did play a game of soccer, how did you do it? Did you have a ball made out of something?
K'Naan: In our neighborhood, certain people would have soccer balls. Some of us would stuff things in a sock and make a soccer ball out of that. I remember once we found a really shiny ball, like a professional soccer ball, and that was a big deal on my corner. We came back and played. Me and my brother got in a fight over it. It was a big event, finding a soccer ball.
SI.com: One thing I love about soccer, because it's so global and universal, is that it tends to pop up even in some places where things are really hard. Yet the sport somehow survives.
K'Naan: It has a pretty strong unifying element to it. It's very communal, soccer. And it's also very gritty, whereas in other sports you have to be clean and look the part. Soccer is about feet on the ground and mud and touch.
SI.com: Did you have a favorite soccer team growing up?
K'Naan: No, I wasn't very loyal to anybody. For me it was more about stars, about the one player that everybody was talking about, like Maradona. I also was attracted to teams that had a percussive element to their moves. It was kind of like they were dancers, more stylish, more musical. So the Latin American teams often are very musical with their movements. The English team might kick really hard, but the Argentines and the Brazilians would just style it out. That was what I watched for.
SI.com:Wavin' Flag is going to get a lot of exposure this year as the [unofficial] anthem of the World Cup. What sort of message do you want it to send when millions of people around the world are hearing it?
K'Naan: This song isn't a traditional pop song. Often songs that get that kind of a shot in the world are songs about nothing. This is a song about something. It's reaching the world and has something to leave. It's a message of hope and freedom and overcoming obstacles. We all go through these things. It's the moment when you emerge from darkness and the light appears. I hope it gives that feeling to people.
SI.com: You performed in 13 African cities as part of the World Cup trophy tour through Africa. Did you have a favorite moment during that process?
K'Naan: In Uganda, when we got on stage there were 10,000 people there singing Wavin' Flag. I've seen that happen in Mexico now and in different places where a large crowd knows the song. But in Uganda, all you saw was from the beginning to the end African faces chanting along. That has a particular reward to it.
SI.com: The World Cup trophy tour was scheduled to take the trophy to every country in Africa, and I noticed that included Somalia. I'll be honest: I wondered how that was going to work out.
K'Naan: It didn't. It's the only country that it didn't get to go to. It was sad. I was the one marching that one. I really tried. You could make a documentary on the days leading up to that and how much I did. I was on the phone with the Somali government in Mogadishu and with the president on the north side of the country. I was talking to the FBI security people, Coke, FIFA, and stressing staying up night after night trying to make this work. Eventually I got the e-mail: It's not gonna happen. It was so sad that I almost stopped going on the rest of the tour. But I tried to look up. I went to Somalia on my own after that in December.
SI.com: I've always been interested in Somalia. How hard is it to even get in there if you want to go?
K'Naan: It's not really difficult because Somalis are incredibly resourceful and innovative. You have flights that go from Dubai to Djibouti and Djibouti into Hergeysa. Hergeysa flies into Mogadishu. There are these Somali-run and Somali-owned planes that make those trips. It's just not safe to go at all. No one can really safely be secured in Somalia. Everybody is armed.
SI.com: So you were back in December?
K'Naan: For three weeks.
SI.com: What was your sense of things back there?
K'Naan: I got to go to the peaceful side of it.
SI.com: The north?
K'Naan: Yeah. Landing in Mogadishu alone is dangerous. Even the guys that are flying the plane, they told me because I was interested in going to Mogadishu. They said for normal people it's crazy; for you it's impossible. They just land, off-load and fly. They can't even stay there. But Hergeysa is pretty amazing in Somaliland. Really peaceful. You could go there and enjoy it. I've seen Irish people there hanging out. But the Irish are crazy (laughs).
I know this sounds insane, but it was like a return home. People were lined up by the sides of the streets. I didn't expect it. I went to try and be as private as possible, so my trip was secret. Only my family knew. I landed and someone snapped a photo at the airport and it got published in the three major newspapers the next day. And everybody knew I was there. I would be with some security and walking the street and there would be people lining up to shake my hand and say thank you for what you do. It was powerful.
SI.com: How many other globally famous people are there from Somalia?
K'Naan: Not many. There's Iman, the famous model. That's basically it. There's an important writer named Nuruddin Farah. Iman is famous as a model, but my fame in Somalia is different. I got fame by being Somali, by writing from the Somali experience and being an artist who embraces that and all its complications. That to them is more real than any other kind of thing. I faced it head-on and was them.
SI.com: Had you been back to Somalia since you left the country?
K'Naan: No. That was my first time in 18 years. There was family, friends, people I grew up with. Everybody came. It was amazing.
SI.com: I find it interesting that an African musical giant like Fela Kuti has gotten more mainstream popularity in America this year as the result of the musical Fela in New York City.
K'Naan: It's awesome. You've gotta see it.
SI.com: I saw it last month.
K'Naan: I want to see it again. I was at the opening. It's so great.
SI.com: What do you think of Fela going more mainstream in America?
K'Naan: I think it's good for America anytime people get to discuss something outside of their culture or what they're used to, and discover brilliance and genius. It's like me discovering [Bob] Dylan. You know that's going to be good for me. Discovering Fela for you is like me discovering Dylan.
SI.com: We're here in Baltimore, which is known as one of the toughest cities in America. But from listening to some of your music, including tracks like TIA (This is Africa), you'd like to take some of the tough-acting rappers from America to see how they'd fare in Mogadishu. How would you compare and contrast Mogadishu to, say, West Baltimore?
K'Naan: I lived in D.C. in the mid- to late-90s when it was tough in Anacostia, in the Southeast. The two years that I spent there in low-income housing and all the murders that are happening and the friends that I had, I got to experience America in that way. The thing is, struggle is struggle, and hard circumstances are hard circumstances everywhere. But there're just degrees of difficulty, of toughness, of hurt that cannot possibly exist in America. It's unfathomable to imagine Mogadishu in America. You just cannot. You can have all the West Baltimores in the world, but it can never amount to what one street in Mogadishu is.
It's everybody with a gun. It's five-year-old boys standing in front of your car with an AK47 pointed at you. It's a woman carrying a child and over back hangs a machine gun. That's a different kind of life. And we're used to that. We live in that, where we walk out of a home and the house next to us explodes and we move with no reaction to that. When you get to that point of desensitized violence, the American culture of violence becomes a little more comfortable for you.
SI.com: So you're probably one of the few people who would go and live where you did in D.C. and say ...
K'Naan: ... that you're still in a safe zone. Me and my brother came from Mogadishu and we first flew into New York. Harlem was our first home. This was '91-92. That time was tough there. One night we're having some food, and my uncle's sitting with us there, and me and my brother are not yet talking about Somalia. We haven't been interviewed yet by my uncle and my father. They're waiting to give us some room. And a gunshot comes from the window very near where we were sitting. Me and my brother were having pasta, and there was no change for us. My uncle ducks and says, 'See! I told you! Be careful here!' And my brother says, 'I heard that. That's a 9 mm. That's called popcorn in Mogadishu. We don't consider that to be a real gun.'
SI.com: South Africa is spending more than $6 billion on the World Cup for stadiums, airports, roads and other projects. It's going to be a great event. There's still a tremendous amount of poverty in South Africa, whether it's in townships like Soweto and Khayelitsha or other places. Are you comfortable with that much South African money going toward a sporting event?
K'Naan: The interesting thing is, it's not really going to a sporting event. It's going into the country's construction. My philosophy is it is always better to light a candle than to curse the dark. For me, if it wasn't for this world event South Africa would not spend that money on the country. And they would not spend it on Soweto or the townships at all. There would be zero money spent on anything. Right now there is $6 billion being spent on the country. I love that. It's by no means a solution or a great change for what the people need. But I think it's better than yesterday, and we always need to do one step better than yesterday.
There are also things that are happening. There are foreigners who are coming from all over the world who are interested in seeing what townships are. At first I didn't know how I felt about this, because now they're organizing bus tours to visit these places, and people are inviting foreigners into their homes. But now I see that as a positive. It's showing the world what is up with this place, but it's also showing the world to persevere beyond all of this. It's teaching the world something. It's positive on so many levels: some economic empowerment for the people who live there, but also emotional empowerment for the people who don't.
SI.com: Are you planning to be at the World Cup?
K'Naan: I will be. I'll be playing concerts. There's a big opening concert. And I have tickets to the final. I have a house I'll be in the whole time there. They're taking care of me.