In the upcoming July/August issue of The Walrus, I scribbled many words about K’naan, the Somali-born music star who emigrated to Canada (by way of Harlem) as a boy in the early ’90s. Seven years ago, he became one of this country’s favourite urban acts upon the release of his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher. The project went on to win the first of his four Juno Awards, and led him to sign a serious deal with A&M/Octone, a heavy-hitting record label based in Manhattan.
During the last World Cup, K’naan’s fame spread nearly planetwide, when Coca-Cola turned his song “Wavin’ Flag” into a multinational anthem. The exception was America, the music business’s premier market. This summer, he’ll attempt another cross-border invasion with a new album, Country, God or the Girl, that’s been deliberately designed for mass US appeal.
In the spring, K’naan and I met in Toronto to talk about his music and more. Below, some of that conversation, dancing around the parts you can read in the magazine.*
Matthew McKinnon: I have a pet theory about the American music industry: that it’s adopted the blockbuster model that has driven Hollywood for years. Lately, big labels only want artists who can move really big numbers; most of their money gets spent on the relative few who already are or may yet become superstars. There’s less cash and concern left over for smaller artists, smaller projects.
K’naan: Oh, it’s true. You have the chosen very few who [get to experience] that kind of platform. In America, the king is still Top 40 radio. Either you’re getting played on every city’s Top 40 station or you’re getting played on another kind of station, and the difference across the country is something like 60 million people a week. It’s a very significant awareness factor. To be honest, that world is what my new music is entering into. I’m not shy about reaching people. I’ve never been… Whether it’s the right audience for my work is yet to be seen.
Matthew McKinnon: You have a lot of fans, particularly Canadian fans, who have followed you since The Dusty Foot Philosopher. The music you made then is different than the music you make now, and at least some of that crowd seems unhappy about that. You’re on Twitter. You can read what people think about old versus new.
K’naan: Listen, I’m the least affected person by those kinds of things. It’s not that I don’t see it; it’s not that I don’t hear it or think about it. But I don’t live within the context of other people’s expectations. (more…)