K’naan’s brief stint as an underground curiosity was catapulted to the top of the charts when “Wavin’ Flag” took over in 2009, but in a lengthy op-ed for the New York Times, the Somalian born MC talks about how self-censorship was part of the process of making it big.
“Right now, the pressures of the music industry encourage me to change the walk of my songs,” he writes, later adding that “My audience is in America, so my songs should reflect the land where I have chosen to live and work.”
He’s of course talking about Somalia, and how much of his early music reflected his heritage and rough upbringing. He talks about recording his third album and about getting a phone call from his label before the songs were written.
“Over breakfast in SoHo, we talked about how to keep my new American audience growing. My lyrics should change, my label’s executives said; radio programmers avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption,” he writes. “And for the first time, I felt the affliction of success.”
He says that’s when it all started. The label didn’t censor his songs because they weren’t yet written, but they did ask him to take them down a notch. And he did.
“No, it was just giving me choices and information, about my audience — 15-year-old American girls, mostly, who knew little of Somalia.”
That compromise is when he says he started to say yes to working with A-list producers and at bigger studios; when he started using names like “Mary” instead of “Fatima” in his songs. One thing he forgets to mention is his Canadian roots: throughout the article he refers to his American audience, seemingly neglecting to mention that he first identified as a Somali-Canadian artist at the outset of his career.
“I now suspect that packaging me as an idolized star to the pop market in America cannot work,” he says in closing. “I may never find my old walk again, but I hope someday to see beauty in the graceless limp back toward it.”
Though candid and well written, the piece tiptoes around the selling out process and instead seems to grovel for forgiveness. It doesn’t seem like anyone really twisted his arm here, and the only way he’ll make it back to his “old walk” isn’t to “gracelessly limp” towards it. In short: do it.
Read the entire piece here.