Somali-born rapper and musician K'naan became a success based, at least in part, on gritty stories from his childhood in war-torn Mogadishu. But on his most recent album, Country, God, Or the Girl, the edginess of past songs has been replaced with a polished pop sound and lyrics directed to a young American audience.
In a piece in The New York Times, K'naan writes that the shift was one of the compromises he made to gain more popularity.
"I think that's the conundrum," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "You want to reach people, but you also want to reach them in the most authentic way. You now have a mass market and an audience that's listening, but they're in love with a song that means absolutely nothing to you."
K'naan says he shared his truest voice on his first two albums. In the single "What's Hardcore," from 2005's The Dusty Foot Philosopher, he sang about the killing ground of Somalia. In 2009's "Fatima," from Troubadour, he shared his personal angst in an attempt to educate the world about the plight of his country.
"I'm writing from a place of — a center of authenticity, somewhere that only I know how to write from," K'naan says. "[It's] very hard for a song like that to be on the radio here, especially competing against music that's about going out and having fun and buying things and being in a club."
He says that as he prepared to record his third album, his record label encouraged him to change his lyrics to court a wider American audience. Though he says the label didn't at all require him to make the changes, K'naan says he got curious, and that the allure of fame led him to make changes and censor his material.
"You begin to see a larger audience," he says. "You begin to start to get into the job of protecting the audience and protecting them from your message so that they stay in your household — so that you're not too jarring and too difficult and too burdensome."
He moved production from Kingston, Jamaica, to Los Angeles and gave the characters in his songs names like Mary and Adam.
K'naan says it worked in the sense that his recent singles got more play on Top 40 radio. Though he says he doesn't think the songs are bad, he ultimately feels that his work and his message were cheapened.
"That's the catch which ... all of us have to kind of be careful about," he says. "To reach your goal authentically is probably, in the end, going to mean much more to you than having reached it in a false way."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Many of the songs that made Somali-born rapper and musician K'naan a success relate gritty stories from his childhood in war-torn Mogadishu. But his most recent release comes with a more polished pop sound and lyrics that address his audience, primarily American teenage girls unfamiliar with Somalia. In a New York Times op-ed published this past Sunday, K'naan wrote about the compromises that he made along the way. He described them as self-censorship.
If you're an artist or a musician, have you censored yourself in order to be heard or to be read? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. K'naan joins us now from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for being with us today.
K'NAAN: Hey, it's good to be here.
CONAN: And you wrote in your opinion piece, this is the first time you felt pressure to self-censor your music. How did it happen?
K'NAAN: Well, it happened in a very nuanced way, like a lot of life, you know? Like a relationship. You know, when things start to change and become what it wasn't, it's hard to take note of that exact moment. But I do know that I've had many conversations with, you know, well-intentioned, you know, record people who are business people essentially who want to find a way to break the music, as they say.
And it's, you know, increasingly difficult to break music like mine in Top 40 really mainstream commercial radio in America because my subjects often are so foreign and so jarring and difficult, you know, for the listener to have to stop and think about another place and another life and all of that drama. And so that was, I think, the beginning of the consideration for me to self-censor.
CONAN: Break, the terminology in the record business, in the way you're using it means get it to be very popular, get it to be very big.
K'NAAN: That's right, that's right.
CONAN: There's another meaning for break too, and I fear that that's what you figure out happened to your music?
K'NAAN: Well, I think what happened in my music is that it kind of got stuck in this place where the audience that it was meant for, I mean - and that's - and the way that, you know, the business has courted my music towards a certain audience and the audience that it wanted has a problem connecting to my music because I think that - like I explained in the piece, that there is a spiritual dimension which comes with work, which comes with art and poetry and sound.
And I think that they, in some way - I can't prove this, but I think that they figured that out, that the dimensions tell them that there is something else being hidden, that here there is a personality being cleaned of its soul and of its story.
K'NAAN: That's right. And, you know, the songs aren't bad, to be honest. I mean they stand of their - as, you know, as they have been on the radios, you know, among the really well-written pop music that's out there. But that doesn't mean anything, you know, because you're still hiding some kind of a baggage that the audience feels, in their spirit, discomforted by.
CONAN: I want to give people a bit of an idea of what we're talking about. These are two tunes that you reference in in your piece at The New York Times. This is a track from your 2009 album "Troubadour," which features a song called "Fatima," which is a story of lost love and the dangers of growing up in Somalia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FATIMA")
K'NAAN: (Singing) If beauty was in the eyes of beholder, how come everyone hushed when she walked by? How come girls would look just to scold her? How come the angel wanted to hold her? Fatima, Fatima, I'm in America. I make rhymes and I make them delicate. You would have liked the parks in Connecticut. You would have said I'm working too hard again. Damn you shooter. Damn you the building. Whose walls hid the blood she was spilling? Damn you country, so good at killing. Damn you feeling for persevering. Is it true when they say all you need is just love? Is it true? What about those who have loved, only to find that it's taken away? And why do they say that the children have rights to be free?
CONAN: And after "Fatima," this is a clip from your latest album entitled "Country, God or the Girl." The single "Is Anybody Out There?" with Nelly Furtado.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?")
K'NAAN: (Singing) His name was Adam when his mom had him. Dad was a phantom never took a look at him. Grew up mad and antisocial. Hated outdoors, always into playing "Madden." Adam was lonely. Drugs were the only way out of his own life. Now he's slowly losing his fire, close to retire. With one last hope he puts his arms up higher. I can see him crying out, yeah. Is anybody out there? He's really counting on your love, still struggling uphill, but you act like you don't care. Right now he could really use a shoulder, hanging onto the edge until it's over. He's crying for your love tonight. Loneliest heart to survive, he said.
NELLY FURTADO: (Singing) I don't want to be left in this war tonight.
CONAN: And there's certainly a message in that song.
CONAN: But I wonder when you grew up, did you know anybody named Diana?
K'NAAN: No. And so I think the two major differences in those songs, you know, are "Fatima," being a very personal story, is about something that I knew, that I grew up with. And so I'm writing from a place of - a center of authenticity, somewhere that only I know how to write from, you know? Everyone has their own particular story and their own authentic life experience and they write from that.
And so this one is the one that's particular to me. And because of that, I write with a certain fervor and certain deep sense of understanding all of the layers and colors of that world. And it's about a very tough subject because the girl is lost love, but lost love in that she died in the war. And so that - those two combinations of things make it very hard for a song like that to be on the radio here, especially competing against music that's about going out and having fun and buying things and being in a club. The other song, even then I couldn't really bring myself to writing that kind of music, and the other song tries to be about something important also. However, that thing that is important isn't the thing that I know best. You know, it's not from my own authentic experience.
CONAN: And did it work?
K'NAAN: To a degree, actually, it worked in that it got on, you know, the radio. It was one of the top - it was one of the most added songs on Top 40 radio in America. And then it kind of just faded away in a bit, you know, because it was like - I think at first you can be easily fooled by the song, you know, all its shiny package. And you can hear it in the radio, and you say certainly, these teenage, you know, young Americans who listen to Top 40, they love this because this just makes so much sense. And it sounds like it's their kind of a song. But time goes by and they're like, there's something else about that, you know? It's not - it's, you know, there's something about it that isn't quite, I think, true.
CONAN: And it's interesting to read about you and read your piece. Obviously, one of your heroes was Bob Marley.
CONAN: And he, it seems to me, stayed true to that thing that he knew.
K'NAAN: Yes. He did. He did. I mean not without challenges though.
K'NAAN: He's had his own challenges and he's felt certainly compromised sometimes by his record label; he - or by the business around him. He'd felt, you know, I can't speak for the man, but from what I have learned and, you know, that at times and from being close to his family, that at times he felt himself that he didn't - he wanted to give an authentic experience and an authentic message and that that sometimes was disturbed by the concept of marketing him to an audience.
CONAN: We're talking with K'naan, the Somali-born hip-hop artist about his piece that appeared in The New York Times over the weekend. There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We also want to hear from those artists and writers in the audience who may have had to compromise their message or their package to be heard or to be read. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And Jonathan is on the line with us from Charlotte.
JONATHAN: Hey. How are you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
JONATHAN: Yeah. First of all, K'naan, huge fan, man, love your music.
K'NAAN: Thank you.
JONATHAN: Yeah. A while back, I was actually doing some hip-hop. I do mostly hip-hop beats now, and I'm in a band. But when I was writing lyrics, one of the first things we ran into is, you know, not just so much changing the message, have a lot of like strong viewpoints on religion and politics, but also framing the message to where you're actually achieving the desired result. A lot of this thing to come out kind of angry. As I don't necessarily want to make people angry, I want to make people think, I want to make people aware of these things.
And I was told at the time, you know, sometimes the way I put things actually pushes people away. It's almost too strong. If they don't immediately agree, they don't want to keep listening and they kind of lose a very valid point you might be making because you alienate them by the way with strong language. So trying to find a way to get what I'm trying to say to people in a way that's actually going to achieve the result.
CONAN: And reach people. And, K'naan, that's something you wrote about, I thought, quite eloquently in your piece. You're trying to reach people. And what's wrong with making a message that reaches a lot of people?
K'NAAN: Yeah. No, I think that's the conundrum, is that you want to reach people, but you also want to reach them in the most authentic way that you can reach them as well because there's no sense in reaching the - one of the goals, which is that you've now have - you now have a mass market and an audience that's listening, but they're in love with a song that means absolutely nothing to you. And so that's the catch which you have to - which all of us have to kind of be careful about, is to reach your goal authentically is probably, in the end, going to mean much more to you than having reached it in a false way.
CONAN: Jonathan, you working on that?
JONATHAN: Oh, absolutely. And, in fact, with the newer projects now - I'm in a band, and that helps out a little bit because I'm not, you know, in the lyrics side of it. But with having the whole band, it allows us when the lyrics are maybe a little strong, you know, the music can kind of help smooth out the strong lyrics. I think - you mentioned Bob Marley. I think he did an amazing job with that.
If you listen to the music, it's very feel good. And if you listen to the lyrics, there's a lot of important messages that aren't always, you know, about good things. And I think that with a band, the music can really help to still say what you want to say, but the music can be that lubrication that kind of allows people to deal with listening to it and think about it in a not so, you know, negative way.
K'NAAN: Yeah. And I agree, Jonathan. And I think that, you know, my past records have done that fairly well also, like songs that were about difficult topics were ingested easily because of the melodic elements that surrounded the songs and also the way in which a story is told. You know, I never came from a place of, like, judgment or my lyrics have never really harsh towards anybody. It was just recounting, a story that's being told. And that way, the audience feels - they don't feel oppressed by your message.
They feel like they're watching somebody tell their story. And from that, they get a sense of inspiration. And I think that that's the best way to work. You know, you don't want anyone ever telling you what to do. But still, even in that context, you know, you still suffer from - the moments that the ambition starts to creep up inside you and you begin to see an audience and you begin to see a larger audience, you begin to start to get into the job of protecting the audience and protecting them from your message so that they stay in your household, so that you're not too jarring and too difficult and too burdensome. So that's the - that's why I felt compelled to write the piece.
CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much. Good luck with the band.
JONATHAN: Thanks a lot. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: We're talking with K'naan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is Donovan. Donovan with us from Moore Beach in - or Moore, South Carolina, excuse me.
DONOVAN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
DONOVAN: I would like to say, first, K'naan, I really appreciate your music. And as a musician and schoolteacher, there's a not a class since I've seen your Tiny Desk Concert that I haven't had watched and have a discussion about censorship and what it means to have those responsibilities of authorship to the art itself and to whatever potential audience would listen to it. So I really appreciate that Tiny Desk Concert. It's been a great conversation starter for students.
In 2010, I released an album. And knowing that there would be students that would listen to it and as a teacher as well, there were aspect of that where I self-censored and had to decide what would be appropriate for the potential audience and what would not be, and changed some lyrics to certain verses. And it turns out - went back and had a great producer working with (unintelligible) and made some of those changes back to the original lyrics. Thought it was a little too watered down and had pulled some punches.
But what surprised me the most is the backlash on aspects I had not even considered. An old song I've written about a guy who comes home and finds his love in bed with another man, and really, the repercussions of that emotional action and he ends up in prison - it's kind of a first-person-storyteller type of song. But very few people, I have found, in retrospect, listen to the story aspect and they misinterpret it as a song about criminal domestic violence...
CONAN: I see.
DONOVAN: ...which has been - a lot of conversations I've had - you know I understand (unintelligible) song to take a second and look at it...
CONAN: So in other words, people were hearing a message that wasn't there.
DONOVAN: Yes. It was not there. And I would like to ask, you know, K'naan if he's ever experience that with any of his songs. I...
CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, but we wanted to get an answer. We just have a few seconds left.
K'NAAN: Yeah, I think that that does often happen. I think that there's two messages that happen in a song, two informations that the person can receive: one in their ear, which is what you're hearing and the words you're processing, and another in their soul, which is the other information of the music, the spirit of the sound, the moment that you recorded it, the magic that you encapsuled(ph), that you didn't know was there. That's another information that they're getting.
And so sometimes people respond to, you know, to different things you may not know. I learned a lot from my audience when I put out a song that, you know, what they think or the conversation that's taking place about my songs sometimes intrigues me because it's not what I meant to talk about.
CONAN: Donovan, thanks very much. Good luck. And, K'naan, thank you so much for being with us today.
K'NAAN: It's a pleasure.
CONAN: K'naan joined us from your studio in New York, at our bureau there. Tomorrow, one of the books we missed this year, Tom Ricks' "The Generals." Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.