If growing up in a tough hood makes you "real" in the hip-hop world, then K'naan has cornered the market on credibility. The MC was raised in Somalia's most dangerous region: Wardhiigleey, "the River of Blood." "The government targeted this neighborhood, tried to destroy it, because the rebels always came out of this zone," says K'naan (born Kaynaan Warsame). "But we were just children running around, trying to survive."
It was while dodging the soldiers' bullets that killed his friends that he discovered hip-hop. His father, who fled to New York when K'naan was seven, sent him rap albums -- notably, Eric B. & Rakim's. "It was what my countrymen had done for thousands of years, but in this urban, new form," he says. The music taught him English and planted the seeds for his own style: a fusion of traditional African folk music and socially conscious, street-hardened hip-hop. In 1991, as the Somali government collapsed, K'naan's mother secured a travel visa. After a year in Harlem, they moved to Toronto, where K'naan released his first album, Dusty Foot Philosopher, in 2005.
With this month's major-label follow-up, Troubadour (Octone/A&M), K'naan, 30, is set to invigorate a scene burned out on braggadocio posturing. Featuring Mos Def, Maroon 5's Adam Levine, and Damian Marley, the album interweaves traditional Somali chanting and samples from decades-old Ethiopian jazz with club-friendly beats. While his rhyme style draws comparisons to Eminem's, K'naan's lyrics have more in common with Bob Marley's. At the behest of friends Damian and Stephen Marley, K'naan recorded most of Troubadour at the legendary Tuff Gong studios and the Marley family home.
Being there reminded K'naan of something crucial: Write what you know. "I was with Damian, having tea, and this older man with long dreadlocks rides by on a bicycle. Damian looks at me and says, 'You know who that is? You know the song "No Woman, No Cry," when Bob says, "And Georgie would make the fire light"? That's Georgie!' " Bob was right: In this great future, you can't forget your past.