K'naan and Bono in conversation with Globe editor-in-chief John Stackhouse
On Sept. 10, The Globe and Mail hosts a discussion on the response to the famine in the Horn of Africa. Follow our liveblog of the conversation by clicking here, beginning at 5 p.m. ET.
It’s difficult for the Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist K’naan to precisely express his ambivalence about charity and need, and so, after struggling with his thoughts, he tells this story instead. When he was a boy in Mogadishu, the beautiful capital overlooking the sea, his mother sent him to fetch his grandfather for lunch. The path took him up a long, steep hill on a blisteringly hot day. He was thirsty, but he knew he wasn’t allowed to stop at a neighbour’s for a glass of water. His mother would have been furious. “We’re more proud than that,” she had told him, over and over. “We drink our own water.”
So he kept walking. He got to his grandfather’s house, but his grandfather wasn’t there. He turned around, throat burning, and began the long walk back to his house; back to his own water.
At the time he was still Keinan Abdi Warsame, a regular, if somewhat cocky and word-drunk kid. His transformation to K’naan, award-winning rapper and idol of Somalis, lay two decades in the future. Mogadishu’s descent into war and famine would come much sooner.
Charity, K’naan is trying to say, is a very delicate issue for Somalis, even as they face the worst famine in 60 years. “External aid …” he pauses, sensing that what he’s about to say is perhaps heresy. “It’s not something that everyone in Somalia believes in. It’s a necessity at the moment, but it’s not part of the culture.”
The rapper, who grew up in Toronto after his family fled Mogadishu when he was 13, is sitting in a recording studio in New York, putting the finishing touches on his third record. As his slim fingers play with knobs and dials, it is clear that his mind is thousands of miles away, in East Africa. He has just returned from a week in Mogadishu and on the Kenyan border – where he visited hospitals and refugee camps to witness the effects of the famine and see how he might leverage his celebrity to help the country he left behind.
But he came back without clear answers, and with maddeningly paradoxical images swirling around in his head.
At hospitals and refugee camps, he saw families, some of whom had walked for weeks to reach shelter, caring for malnourished and dying children. But he also witnessed something completely unexpected. War-torn Mogadishu, the world’s most dangerous city, the last worst place on Earth, was, like a boxer on his knees, struggling to fight back. Shops were open; restaurants offered fresh fish pulled from the ocean. Even as the worst famine in 60 years devastates the southern regions of Somalia, affecting four million people and threatening to kill almost three-quarters of a million, everywhere K’naan went he met people who were oddly eager to reassure him, as if he was the one who needed solace. Don’t worry, they said. We’ll be all right.
“I thought I was going to go there and be sad, be overwhelmed by the tragedy and instead I was empowered because these people have no sense of their own defeat.” He laughs, but it’s not the kind of laughter that comes at the end of a funny joke. “I came back energized, to be honest, and more proud than I’ve ever been.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t let anybody know you were coming,” the deputy mayor told K’naan at the airport in Mogadishu, “or they would have overrun the airport.” This was the last thing the rapper wanted; to be the focus of attention. And yet, every time his little armed convoy stopped – he had brought along two friends, a photographer, his manager and the head of his record label – kids ran up to him in the dusty streets. They held up cellphones to show him the cover of his Juno-winning second album, Troubadour, which contains the song Somalia.
The kids wouldn’t have understood the English lyrics. But then his own father, who decades earlier had fled to New York and found work as a cab driver, used to send rap records to K’naan in Mogadishu; that’s how he began speaking English. Perhaps these kids were doing the same.
He had left as a child, and returned as a survivor (with all the guilt that entails) but also as an African superstar. His celebrity, on this mission, was both a door and a trap. He had wanted to go back to see if his fame could be of some use in raising awareness about the famine. He is the most famous Somali of the diaspora, the guy whose hit single Wavin’ Flag became the anthem of African solidarity when it was chosen as the official song of last year’s World Cup. When he brought the Somali flag on stage with him in Johannesburg, the whole country went crazy. Now he was back to see, but he was the one on view. The centre of attention. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
Out the window of their bodyguard-protected SUVs, K’naan saw, amid the towers of garbage and the ruins of shelled buildings, signs of enterprise: Shops and restaurants open, people on cellphones, people sweeping.
The hospital was another matter. At Banadir Hospital, where he was born in 1978, rooms and corridors were filled with malnourished rural dwellers who had made the long trek to the city. A doctor, run off his feet and trying to rustle up scant supplies, stopped, took K’naan’s hand and gave him a message to take back to the deep pockets of the West: “If anybody can be of help, then thank them, thank them very much.”
Even though he had seen three childhood friends murdered in this city, what K’naan witnessed at Banadir was worse, the worst thing he had ever seen. A father, cradling the fragile, shrunken head of his dying daughter, gazing deep into her eyes. This seemed an obscene breach of the most basic vow a parent makes to a child: to protect her, with his own life if necessary. K’naan is a father of two young sons himself.
On the way back to the plane, the disconnect again. On the streets where, when he was eight, his uncle had let him shoot an AK-47, the once-beautiful villas were destroyed, but people were busy at work; some families had adopted refugee kin and were providing them with food and shelter. At a restaurant, K’naan’s crew ate a delicious fish dinner.
They flew to the Kenyan border to visit the Internally Displaced Person camps. The famine stretches across the Horn of Africa, with the United Nations estimating that 12 million people are threatened in Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia. But the situation is worst in Somalia, where the relief supply chain has been broken by Al-Shabaab Islamist rebels, who have prohibited charities from bringing aid into the regions they control.
Fighting between the multi-army force supporting Somalia’s shaky transitional government and the rebels has taken a natural calamity, added violence, and turned it into a man-made catastrophe. Relief shipments are regularly looted or held hostage. In southern Somalia alone, one in six children is severely malnourished.
The stories filtering from the camps are terrible: Mothers forced to choose which dying child to leave behind on their endless journey, grandmothers making unbearable decisions: Light the fire and scare away hyenas, or light the fire and draw bandits?
K’naan told one of the camp doctors, a bit sheepishly, that he was making a new record and that the subject was not Somalia – the great engine of his artistic impulse to this point – but something much more trivial: heartbreak. Against this backdrop, his romantic disappointments seemed a bit silly. “Look,” the doctor said, and told him about a camp for Rwandan refugees where he had worked during the genocide there. All day long people streamed into the camp, exhausted and traumatized. At night, when the young men and women got together, “do you know what they talked about?” the doctor asked. “They didn’t talk about what they’d been through. They talked about who was breaking whose heart.”
In a refugee camp at Dadaab on the Kenyan border, K’naan met a young mother who had walked from her farm carrying her frail six-month-old twins; the boys were slowly recovering. Improbably, in the desert edge of nowhere, the woman knew his music: “You are a very good artist,” she said. When he mumbled something in embarrassment, she said: “We will be out of this in no time. My kids will be better. I’ll be back on my farm. But the sad thing for me is how we are seen by the world.”
Citizen of the world
Back in New York, K’naan has been thinking about the woman’s words. “I don’t know what we can do to keep famine from abducting a people’s pride,” he says. And then, quietly, shaking his head: “There is just something about Somalis that repels pity.”
He looks exhausted. He has been surviving on two or three hours of sleep, and the fact that Keith Richards dropped by the studio the other night didn’t help. He is a narrow streak of brown – brown pork-pie hat, brown sweater, brown trousers, narrow brown shoes. Only the whimsy of green argyle socks interrupts the flow. He has a cool cat’s goatee but the soft-spoken politeness of a mother’s well-raised son.
It was the frantic efforts of his mother that ensured the family got out of Mogadishu in 1991, on one of the last commercial flights to leave. The country was in the early stages of a 20-year war. The humiliating deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen in 1993 and the torture killing of a Somali youth by the Canadian Airborne Regiment left a toxic legacy, the West unwilling to reach out again for many years.
What he had left behind was a country once fiercely proud of its reputation for fighting and talking. His great-grandfather was a famous poet, his aunt an even more famous singer. As a child, he was the star of the family for reciting verse for hours on end. “The land of poets,” he says, not without irony.
After leaving Mogadishu, they lived for a while in New York, which had existed, for years, as a kind of El Dorado in his imagination. (In Fatima, a song about a murdered Somali friend, he sings about the gunman who killed her, “Did he know your name/or the plans we made to go to New York City?”) Shortly after, the family moved to the Toronto suburb of Rexdale, where K’naan fell in with a thuggish crowd, got on the wrong side of the police, and started rapping. Canada has provided him with Juno awards and the launch pad for a soaring career. Toronto is where his sons, 4 and 6, live with their mother, but it is no longer home for him. The apartment he recently moved into in New York is intended to bring him closer to the boys. Before that, a rootless citizen of the world, he lived in L.A.
K’naan will be back in Toronto on Sept. 10 to talk about Somalia with Bono, who is presenting the U2 documentary From the Sky Down at the Toronto International Film Festival, and John Stackhouse, The Globe and Mail’s editor-in-chief. It’ll be a wide-ranging conversation, covering K’naan’s recent trip, Bono’s long involvement in African development and, of course, the thorniest, stickiest issue of all, aid. How to solicit it, how to distribute it, its effectiveness, targets, models, measures.
Pride and charity
This brings us back to the subject of giving, and pride, and how the two might be reconciled. Doesn’t the Koran, which K’naan has studied, encourage charity?
“Giving charity is part of the tradition.” he says. “Asking for it is not. Asking is out of the question; you never ask. If you’re meant to have something, it will happen.”
He feels he can ask for donations for the East Africa famine, however, because he’s doing it on behalf of others.
About $1.4-billion has been donated worldwide to relieving the East Africa famine, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but a further $1-billion is needed to keep millions of people alive. On Midwestern street corners and Calgary stages, bake sales and benefits, concerts and car washes are being held for Somalia. But it’s not enough.
It’s probably best not to suggest to this former resident of Mogadishu that the wealthy of the West are too jaded, or too recession-battered, to give. “I don’t even believe that donor fatigue really exists,” K’naan says, and his soft voice barely rises but gains some steel. “That’s like saying, I’ve loved before, I can’t love again. I’ve given before, I can’t give again. We all do good things over and over.”
Heartbreak and freedom
The sound of a song from the new record fills the studio. It’s called Gold in Timbuktu, a funky lullaby. In one way, K’naan is glad that this record isn’t about Somalia, his muse and torment. For years he worried that Somalia was the only reason he was an artist, the only subject he could write about. Perversely, the girl who left him earlier this year has set him free. Heartbreak has given him new freedom.
But only for a while. Since he returned home, he’s tried to pluck some of the whirling images out of his head and pin them on the page. He found himself thinking about Mogadishu’s formerly elegant buildings, now bombed, which stand half-ruined but refuse to collapse. He took out his notebook and wrote: “It’s a paradise of paradox/everything still stands lopsided, proudly.” And then he realized it wasn’t the buildings he was writing about at all.
Elizabeth Renzetti is a columnist and a member of The Globe and Mail’s European bureau.