On K’Naan, Self-Censorship, and Mainstream Success

knaan1 On KNaan, Self Censorship, and Mainstream Success

“Right now, the pressures of the music industry encourage me to change the walk of my songs. When I write from the deepest part of my heart, my advisers say, I remind people too much of Somalia, which I escaped as a boy. My audience is in America, so my songs should reflect the land where I have chosen to live and work”

-K’Naan

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Last Sunday, rapper K’Naan penned a compelling, tragic opinion piece in the New York Times about his experience in the American major label system. In it, he discusses his rise to prominence and the painful difficulties that accompanied changing his music for a wider American audience. He speaks of a conversation with label executives which took place before the recording of his third album:

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.

And for the first time, I felt the affliction of success. When I walked away from the table, there were bruises on the unheard lyrics of my yet-to-be-born songs. A question had raised its hand in the quiet of my soul: What do you do after success? What must you do to keep it?

If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind — one I had to do to myself. The label wasn’t telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information, about my audience — 15-year-old American girls, mostly, who knew little of Somalia. How much better to sing them songs about Americans.”

Record labels asking artists to change their style, sound, and substance is no new story; scores of artists before K’Naan have confronted the label beast and been dashed against the rocks when the either refused to compromise or came up lacking in their delivery. K’Naan’s story takes on an added dimension of tragedy for the rapper’s noble ambitions.

I could reach more people, it told me. Was it right to spit in the face of fortune, to not walk in rhythm with my new audience? Didn’t all good medicine need a little sugar before it could be swallowed?

So I began to say yes. Yes to trying out songs with A-list producers. Yes to moving production from Kingston to Los Angeles. Yes to giving the characters in my songs names like Mary.

So some songs became far more Top 40 friendly, but infinitely cheaper.

On my second album, I had sung about my mother’s having to leave my cousin behind in Somalia’s war — ‘How bitter when she had to choose who to take with her…’ Now I was left, in ‘Is Anybody Out There?’ — a very American song about the evils of drugs — with only ‘His name was Adam, when his mom had ’im.’

The first felt to me like a soul with a paintbrush; the other a body with no soul at all.

SO I had not made my Marley or my Dylan, or even my K’naan; I had made an album in which a few genuine songs are all but drowned out by the loud siren of ambition. Fatima had become Mary, and Mohamed, Adam.

Though it is easy to criticize the labels for the forced blunting of pointed political commentary, it is important to see the entire picture–one in which K’Naan is also partly complicit. In a 2010 Billboard story regarding K’Naan’s “Waving Flag,” the anthem of the most recent World Cup, the rapper discussed altering his original vision for the sake of reaching a wider audience:

“The crucial moment in the discussion came when K’Naan said, ‘I can take that song, refashion some of the lyrics and give you an exclusive version,’ ” Diener says. “That’s an attempt on K’Naan’s part to revitalize the song in the spirit of the World Cup.”

“I saw it as an opportunity to reach more people,” K’Naan says. “I don’t work for Coke or anything; what I do is my music. This was a really great opportunity for them to use my song, without compromising my integrity as a musician. This is what I write, these are the songs I make. I’m happy about it.”

The balancing act between personal aims and the desires of the public–whether perceived or real–is almost impossible, particularly when the demand is for more hits and the mandate is to play it safe. While tremendous opportunity exists for an artist like K’Naan to pass his stories and his message on to a larger audience with the help of a major label, his story does raise the question of whether or not conscious artists (to perhaps be a bit too reductive) should even attempt to scale the major label mountain in 2012.

These questions are interesting to consider in the context of the recent discussion sparked by Hot 97 programming director Ebro Darden’s recents comments about some artists being “major league” and others being “minor,” and that difference being what separated those on Hot 97 from those left out of rotation.

Last week, Ebro spoke with Combat Jack (which you can listen to below), continuing the debate and shedding light on his admittedly inflammatory remarks.

In the course of the fascinating hour and a half conversation, Ebro notes that he would consider artists like Sean Price and Tech N9ne minor in the context of mainstream music and media, but notes that such independently minded emcees don’t care about radio and, furthermore, don’t need radio to establish and sustain successful careers. He says when upstart emcees ask tell him they want radio exposure, he asks them: “Why?”

Aspects of Ebro’s argument are certainly susceptible to debate, but he does raise an important point about the current music business landscape. While some artists like Kendrick Lamar can become large scale successes by staying true to themselves, more often than not an artist like Kendrick is better off cultivating a fervent audience, avoiding the major label system, and catering directly to that audience–particularly given the tools now open to all artists.

While K’Naan ultimately may have reached a wider audience than he could have before making the jump to the mainstream, the experience seems to have sadly left both man and his music rudderless, a cautionary tale for both aspiring artists and ascendant ones alike. The end of his piece paints a raw portrait of confusion and loss:

“I come with all the baggage of Somalia — of my grandfather’s poetry, of pounding rhythms, of the war, of being an immigrant, of being an artist, of needing to explain a few things. Even in the friendliest of melodies, something in my voice stirs up a well of history — of dark history, of loss’s victory.

So I am not the easiest sell to Top 40 radio. What I am is a fox who wanted to walk like a prophet and now is trying to rediscover its own stride.

I may never find my old walk again, but I hope someday to see beauty in the graceless limp back toward it.”

(New York Times)