Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Culture: Rap Gets Bad Rap

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The World Cup visited Toronto today as part of its 83-nation tour leading up to the next football (that's soccer on this continent) championship in South Africa later this year. Probably most significant to local culture, the World Cup tour also brought the artist K'naan back to his second home of Toronto.

K'naan has achieved worldwide fame after the selection of his song "Wavin' Flag" as the anthem for the World Cup. Undoubtedly, the song was chosen for its own merits--the catchy melody and lyrics quite appropriate to a worldwide tournament--but quite possibly the more important selection was of K'naan the artist, K'naan the human being. Could a life story of growing up through the civil war in Somalia and then immigrating to Canada and using the spoken word and music to tell the story not be a more potent symbol for the hope of international sport, indeed the hope of the world?

Far from the gangsterism and misogyny that normally dominates rap, K'naan's lyrics can be amazingly poignant and mature. Take the chorus from the song "Take a Minute":
And any man who knows a thing knows
He knows not a damn, damn thing at all
And every time I felt the hurt
And I felt the givin' gettin' me up off the wall
His life story permeates his work; the lyrics to "Fatima" might seem a bit strange until it is realized that he is telling the story of his girlfriend murdered in Mogadishu, and then they become bone-chilling:
What did the Young Man say
Before he stole you away
On that fateful day Fatima
Did he know your name
Or the plans we made,
To go to New York City, Fatima
Some artists have talent and showmanship that contribute to the world, but have private lives that fall far short of their public image. K'naan is not one of those artists. When looking back to their coverage of ethnic tension in schools of Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood, the CBC found footage of a younger K'naan trying to mediate between groups. This guy is the genuine article, and it shows in almost every interview. He'll admit to not being fully comfortable with the dance interpretation of "Wavin' Flag" used in Latin America, or that he will need to reflect when the World Cup tour is over. (Could a World Cup tour be any more appropriate for a man whose given name, Keinan, means "traveler"?)

K'naan himself may have unsurprisingly best summarized what he does, in "Take a Minute":
And that's the reason why, I could never play for me
Tell 'em the truth is what my dead homies told me
Ooh yeah, I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations
Creating medication out of my own tribulations
If all rap were like that done by K'naan, the genre would have a completely different reputation. Hopefully, it doesn't take the chaos of Somalia to create an artist like K'naan, because the world could use more of them.

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