Unless you willingly accept half-assed jobs, it’s impossible to review this album and not give a lengthy rundown of K’naan Warsame’s life. Most hip-hop artists use their childhood and formative teenage years as fuel for the bulk of their career’s rhymes. That part is nothing new. Gangsta rappers speak of the “hood” as something they still exist in, committing horrible atrocities against their own people no matter how long ago they moved into multi-million dollar Orange County mansions. Privileged indie rappers often use their youth to paint pictures of social injustice or the quirky happenstance that made them the characters they are. K’naan is different.
Though he counts as a Canadian in the census these days, K’naan was born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia. He lived there ‘til the tender age of 13, when the civil war became too heated. His family was lucky enough to get a visa on the last day the US Embassy was open and snag a ticket on the last commercial flight out of the country. An original import to Harlem, the Warsame family quickly relocated to Ontario and they’ve stayed there ever since. Before all that, young K’naan (which means “traveler” in his native tongue) was already honing his mic skills as he memorized Nas and Rakim verses phonetically since he spoke no English at the time. His grandfather had been one of his country’s most revered poets, so he came by the lyricist desire honestly.
With a flow often likened to a mix of a young Eminem (minus the mama done me wrong, kill my wife please bullshit) and poet of the people Bob Marley, Dusty Foot Philosopher hit the Canadian shelves in 2005. The Canuck version of the Grammys, the Juno’s gave it Best Rap Album that year and it received a nomination for the Polaris Music Prize (similar to the UK’s coveted Mercury Prize). It struck a chord with the socially conscious and resonated all the way back to Somalia, where several of the videos now included on the deluxe edition DVD were shot. Big fish K-os thought he was using the poor for commercial gain, but he really wants nothing more than to shed light on a troubled part of the world that developed countries find easy to ignore, a place that in many ways never left K’naan. That fact is evident in his words and in how he carries himself.
The opening track “Wash It Down” outlines his manifesto over a truly inspired instrumental, constructed purely out of splashing water. A disgustingly large percentage of the world does not have access to clean water and, working hand in hand with malnutrition, such contaminated supplies invariably cause a large portion of the illness in impoverished lands. Unbeknownst to most, water based diarrheal diseases actually lead to the death of around three-quarters of a million children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa and over half a million in south Asia every year. The gravity of this issue is alluded to by K’naan in stark contrast to the stress citizens of modern capitalist democracies live through, one based in bills, abusive advertising, unnecessarily overwhelming product selection, and warmongering governments.
As it fades, “Wash It Down” leads into the tribal rhythm of “Soobax” and the introduction of Track and Field’s production, a team best known for its work on the first two Nelly Furtado albums. Mixing Somali and English words, the track is a lyrical disembowelment of the gangsters who man renegade roadblocks in Africa and gun down those who refuse to pay or simply don’t live up to their fickle standards. In its own context, it’s a song of empowerment for the meek, those who are always in dire need of hope. He may not live there any more, but K’naan clearly remembers what it was like to have three of his best friends shot in a single day, he understands the hope he desired at the time, and is doing his best to deliver it to the people who still need it. He is honestly trying to give back to the tragic birthplace of his soul, not merely profit from it like Fiddy Cent.
The subject of abusing the less fortunate for personal gain is given great elucidation by “What’s Hardcore?” NWA and thousands of subsequent wannabe thugs have made careers from saying, “fuck da police.” Far from living the dream, K’naan grew up where there were no police as well as ambulance, firefighters, or any semblance of a people-run government. As a child, playing around with what he thought was a potato, K’naan blew up half of his school when the pin fell out of the odd orb he dug from the ground, it started oddly ticking, he panicked, and tossed it as far as he could. Who do you call in that situation? Scientologists? With purpose, at the ripe age of 13, his brother blew up a federal court. All of those gangsters at the roadblocks, thieves, riot provokers, and the like are practically indistinguishable from anyone else. Can you imagine what that would be like to live in? Well, it existed 15 years ago and it’s still going on today. The police may not be perfect, but once they’re gone, human nature dictates that all you can fuck is yourself. In 2008, there are pre-teens with no food, water, or basic formal education walking around with AK47s, and we’re supposed to think Curtis “P.I.M.P.” Jackson is a bad mutha because he wears a bulletproof vest while driving an armored Hummer around his gated estate in Farmington, Connecticut. As K’naan says, “If I rhyme about home and got descriptive / I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit”. Strewth.
It’s been three years since Dusty Foot Philosopher first appeared in the frozen North, and this is its proper US debut. The messages are as urgent as can be and the production—mostly provided by Brian “Field” West and Gerald “Track” Eaton (a.k.a. Jarvis Church)—is as memorable today as ever. World music fueled beats will never go out of style, though it takes a special breed to carry them off. Still, it’s sad to say, but I can’t see the album having much of an impact in the land of the sleeping giant. We live in a world where Fiddy sells millions of albums boasting about being one of the roadblock gangsters shooting his own people and the only antithesis the commercial market seems willing to embrace is a lil’ pothead whoring lollipops and a guy in a glowing jacket who jams with Daft Punk.
America has spoken loud and clear about Somalia and Darfur, just like the poor in such cities as New Orleans and Detroit. It would rather party to some chump covered in African blood diamond-encrusted gold crosses who has nothing deeper to offer than “throw your hands up” than deal with the reality that affords their illusions. You can’t blame them for not wanting to look behind the green curtain every day, it’s not the most fun way to live, but I don’t think it’s out of line to hope for more. Despite my pessimism, there are still millions of unerringly fantastic people in America today, and one person can still change the world for the better. It’s as easy as deciding to care and be aware that your actions have global repercussions. Even though the charts will likely never reflect your humanity, if all you ever do is throw away the selfish, chest-beating gangsta third-eye blindfolds and spread the good word to a few friends, the course of history will be grateful for such a small miracle. Any one of us has the ability to set in motion a domino effect of socially responsible positivism and at long last repeal the glorified lifestyle of woman-raping, drug-dealing, gay-bashing sociopaths with sideways hats. What you put out in the world comes back to you tenfold. K’naan has already done the hard work for us. All we have to do is walk a few steps in his shoes, walk away from what the corporate-strangled industry wants us to buy and towards something real. Take the path of the dusty foot philosopher.
K'naan means "traveler" in Somali. It is exactly what he has been all his life.
After living amidst a civil war in an impoverished Somalia up until the age of thirteen, K'naan began a new chapter of his life by utilizing his talents to its full capacity as he wanted to rhyme for a cause. First moving to Harlem with his mother and brother, they later relocated to Canada to begin a new life. Using his rhymes and spoken word to demonstrate the lack of response to Somalia's situation, K'naan performed for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999 and later sought after for the 2001 Building Bridges album project which exposed exiled artists from Africa. After teaming up with Jarvis Church and the Track & Field team in 2002, "The Dusty Foot Philosopher" was released in Canada in 2005 and now will be released in the U.S. as a "Deluxe Edition" featuring newly mixed tracks, a bonus track, and an accompanying DVD in late June 2008.
Compared to a mixture of Eminem and Bob Marley, K'naan delivers socially conscious hip hop while ensuring his message of a struggling Somalia are heard. His fervor and passion for his beliefs clearly run through his rhymes and messages. The message is clear throughout "The Dusty Foot Philosopher"-Somalia is in need of help. K'naan exposes his audience to a country few know about and the real life situations still occurring in Somalia. It is the truth and this is what he speaks.
With this in mind, "The Dusty Foot Philosopher" takes us on a journey about the past, present, and future of life in Somalia through the eyes of K'naan as he envelopes us in his story full of reality and hope. K'naan relives his life while living in Somalia through his spoken word and in depth lyrics while painting a picture to his prior existence he once knew so well. As he explains in the beginning of "My Old Home" that many people always ask about his life back in Somalia, K'naan addresses the wonderment by his fans and elaborates on his past. In a spoken words cadence, K'naan explains his old house, the local people, his neighborhood and as the beat breaks he unfolds the darker side the life once lived. The factualness in his lyricism about the violence and chaos that erupted in Somalia is what his "old home" once consisted of.
With rapid drums and heavy synths, K'naan's message to criticize and challenge warlords who have pillaged Somalian soil comes to fruition in "Soobax." Although there has been a great deal of controversy with this track and religious values, K'naan openly decided to shoot the video for it in Kenya as he still decided it was something that needed to be done regardless of the slack he was receiving. As it was almost impossible to shoot back in Somalia as he feared for his life, K'naan felt the heat from fellow Canadian emcees that would later attest that K'naan was trying to be a "religious entertainer who wants to be a life saver." Amidst the upheaval drawn from "Soobax," K'naan's message is clear and concise as he shows that "soobax" simply means to "come out" as he pictures directly speaking in front of gunmen. A track that his brother even says K'naan could be killed for, in a different perspective "Soobax" instills the message of courage and fearlessness that many need to hear as he says:
"Basically, I got beef, I wanna talk to you directly, I
Can't ignore, I can't escape, and that's cause, you
Affect me, you cripple me, you shackle me, you shatter
My whole future in front of me, this energy, is killing
Me, I gotta let it pour like blood, soobax:
Dadkii waa dhibtee nagala soobax:
(Translation- you have exasperated the people so come out with it.)
Dhibkii waa batee nagla soobax:
(Translation - The troubles have increased so come out with it.)
Dhiigi waad qubtee nagala soobax:
(Translation- you've spilled the blood so that it drains on the Roads, so come out with it.)
Dhulkii waad gubtee nagala soobax:
(Translation-You've burnt the root of the earth, so come out with it.)"
Heavy electric and acoustic guitars summon "Strugglin'" as the slow beat enhances the message of the earnest effort for victory in an otherwise toxic environment. K'naan defines the true struggle of living in hostile areas while coping with the unrest of his country as he says, "Strugglin, and it's troublin', in this circumstance I'm dwelling in, I find myself in the corner huddling with some angry men and I gotta settle shit again before they gotta kill again." K'naan also brings to light the fact that unfortunate incidences are only appreciated after the fact such as Hurricane Katrina, the war on terrorism, or the upheaval in Somalia in "Hoobaale." With traditional sounds of Somalian strings and drums, "Hoobaale" begins with one of the best lines from K'naan to sum up the whole album as he says, "How come they fix the bridge only after somebody has fallen?"
Although K'naan is far from being liberated from the situation in Somalia, he remains optimistic that change will once happen. "'Til We Get There" featuring emcee M-1 of group dead prez and vocals from Stori James, explains the possibility of living in a world full of equality. Despite the reality of it all that we are still not at that point, "Til We Get There" shows the impossible is in fact possible if everyone stands by one another as K'naan and M-1 play off each other's rhymes as if speaking to each other about possible freedom.
Aside from the unrest in Somalia, K'naan delivers other poignant messages throughout "The Dusty Foot Philosopher." With a fast beat and hard bass in "What's Hardcore," K'naan discusses how the meaning to the word "hardcore" has become somewhat skewed in today's hip hop and youth K'naan shows that what most envision as "hardcore" isn't even half of it as he says:
"I'm a spit these verses cause I feel annoyed
And I'm not gonna quit till I fill the void
If I rhyme about home and got descriptive
I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit
It's true, and don't make me rhyme about you
I'm from where the kids is addicted to glue
Get ready, he got a good grip on the machete
Make rappers say they do it for love like R. Kelly
It's hard, harder than Harlem and Compton intertwined
Harder than harboring Bin Laden and rewind"
The crux to "The Dusty Foot Philosopher" lies within the title track as K'naan explains what and who makes up that person. In a beautiful, poetic interpretation, K'naan unravels the mystery of "the dusty foot philosopher" who is "one that is poor, lives in poverty, but lives in a dignified manner and philosophizes about the universe" and who is represented by his old friend Mohamoud that was killed. Eloquent in his lyrics, his signature expressive nature describes a person who has "talked about things that well read people do and they've never read or they've never been on a plane, but can tell you what's beyond the clouds."
K'naan is an emcee like no other. His ideas of bringing forth an image beyond that of what is seen on television that merely depicts African and African children with dusty feet without knowledge is something he stands by strongly. In "The Dusty Foot Philosopher," his lyricism and strength to enlighten those otherwise unaware of constant upheaval existing throughout the world has opened many eyes to the reality of it all. Without hesitation or fear, he has shown the truths behind issues that were once ignored while incorporating his own life experiences to exemplify the severity of the situation. K'naan has opened doors for emcees in terms of content while showing that speaking the truth is the best type of lyricism. His unmatched articulateness and talents as an emcee only enhances the ever so changing hip hop industry while showing that self-expression is the only way to live even if it means living as a "dusty foot philosopher."