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By Jim Welte -
August 7, 2006 at 10:39:00 AM | more stories by this author

With a sound that fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip-hop, and brilliant protest poetry, the Somalian MC was the most promising artist at the 2006 Reggae on the River festival.

As with any reggae festival the world over, the spirit of Bob Marley hung thickly over last weekend's Reggae on the River in Northern California. Scores of artists covered Marley songs during their sets, and both Stephen and Ziggy Marley performed at the event, as did longtime Marley collaborator Bunny Wailer. But despite the event's obvious lineage to the legendary reggae icon, one emerging artist embodied Marley's spirit more than any other.

K'Naan K'Naan

K'Naan, a 28-year-old Somalian MC who now lives in Toronto, put on the break-out performance of the weekend, showing off a style that was equal parts Bob Marley and Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, spliced with the sound of conscious American hip-hop.

The rapper took the stage in the middle of the day Saturday, with a sparse crowd looking curious but surrounded by an abundance of distractions: a beautiful sunny day, the pristine Eel River nearby, a slew of food and merchandising vendors and, of course, buzz enhancements.

But midway through the first song of the set, the bouncy resistance anthem "Smile," the size of the crowd began to grow rapidly, with K'Naan belting out the chorus, "never let 'em see you smiling while you're bleeding!" The set was dominated by tunes that combined hip-hop rhythms with Africa percussion but allowed enough room for the main dish: a brilliant array of thought-provoking, articulate, rhythmic poetry that gave the crowd plenty of cause for pause.

Much of K'Naan's lyrical ire is directed at the establishment, whether it's the horrendous conditions of his native and war-torn Somalia or the US-led war on terror, about which he asks in "Hoobaale," "how can they go to war to terror when it's war that's terrorizing?" K'Naan caused a stir in 2001 when he used his performance at the 50th anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees to rail against the UN's failure to bring relief to his homeland, which has seen the violence between warlords and the military escalate in recent weeks.

But less worldly issues weren't immune Saturday, as the MC took on the hip-hop landscape on "What's Hardcore," a diatribe against the gangster posturing of many rappers.

"It's just a different perspective," he told about the song after his performance. "When you come from a place of real struggle, you tend to kind of gravitate towards survivalists more than those who posture."

K'Naan isn't opining about hip-hop from afar, however. His music is steeped in the culture, and while his music draws on the aforementioned influences, he said that listening to the likes of Nas and Rakim helped him both learn English and the ability to rhyme about the world around you. Hip-hop also helped him learn English when he arrived in North America with his family at the age of 13.

"It helped me to learn words, but it also helped me to learn the culture," he said. "Like when Nas rhymes, 'I want all my daughters to be like Maxine Waters,' I was able to find out who she was, and that lead me to Toni Morrison."

K'Naan's profile in the hip-hop world has been growing in the past year, having been sought out by Mos Def for a US tour last fall and by Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley for his swing through Europe in March. He's also featured on "'Til We Get There," the first single off Dead Prez rapper M1's solo album Confidential.

Since diatribes against phony gangsterism and the war on terror aren't likely to land him much radio airplay, K'Naan said that he plans to continue touring to reach as many people as he can directly.

"We've been all over the world in seven months," said K'Naan, whose name means "traveler" in Somali. "I wanted to play for the people first and foremost and worry about everything else after that."

He said that his foundation as a poet--he called Somalia a land where poetry is a primary form of communication--has put him in a great place as a vocalist.

"In my country, your relevance isn't ever separated from your language," he said. "There was a moment in my transition to sound from just thinking and writing my thoughts where I actually turned them into sounds immediately. My frown became words and those words became sound."

K'Naan's skill in turning that frown into sound was never more apparent than on "Soobax," the scorchingly percussive track with which he closed out his 45-minute set Saturday. Meaning "come out" in Somali, "Soobax" is a direct call to the warlords who have ruled Somalia since the civil wars of the early 1990s. The song was reminiscent of so many of Bob Marley's best protest songs, but fueled by an anger that can only come by seeing your homeland ripped apart from the insides by war.

By the end of K'Naan's set, the distractions were an afterthought for many of the festival's 15,000 attendees, and a stirring, raucous ovation capped off a performance that might one day be seen as a star's coming out party.

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