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Posted: Wednesday May 5, 2010 12:05PM; Updated: Sunday May 16, 2010 4:29PM
Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl>INSIDE SOCCER

Q&A with K'Naan (cont.)

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K'Naan
K'naan won the 2010 Juno Awards for Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year.
George Pimentel/Getty Images

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.

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