Live: K’Naan at the Kennedy Center

Photos by Lady Glock Photography


Even though K’Naan might not be a household name, you would never know it by the enormous crowd that gathered in the Kennedy Center last night. Millennium Stage, the free concert series that usually puts on cultural events for small crowds was not ready for this. And to be honest, I don’t think America is ready for this dude’s impact either.

knaan-concert03    Millennium Stage, the free daily concert series put on by the center was transformed into a summer festival, the massive crowds reminding me of an indoor version of Virgin Fest or Lollapalooza. The first sign that this was going to be a huge event was when my friend sent me a text saying that at 4:45 (an hour before showtime) there were already 100 people in front of him. The second sign? The quarter of a block line just for the Kennedy Center shuttle. The third sign, watching high from my perch watching a sea of people (by my count maybe 1500, possibly more) groove along with the Somali/Canadian rapper.  

Let me get this out of the way first: I have problems with K’Naan. I find his sort of “holier than thou” attitude about his struggles in Somalia to be disconcerting. The beginning of his song is peppered with references to how more “gangsta” he is for growing up in a war-torn nation. Even though I agree that “gangstaism” in rap is cliche, I still don’t like being talked down to, and having his situation beat across my head at every verse. Add to that the fact that, even though he is classified as a hip-hop artist, he’s far from it. I think I have more rhymes in my left foot than this dude does.

But seeing him on stage, rocking the crowd, I realized that 1.) Even though he drops a “nigga” or three in his albums, he’s not targeting the hip-hop crowd and 2.) Like M.I.A. (whom he will inevitably will get compared to), he is moving beyond what is hip-hop and infusing his culture into American hip-hop. In that second regard, he is seamless in that regard.


The setlist pulled mainly from his latest album, Troubadour, which dropped last Tuesday. Even though he got the crowd started with his hit “Soobax,” but his Chubb Rock infused track “ABCs,” really got the crowd moving. Again, it surprises me how music gets distributed in this new media landscape–this song has barely been out for a month and people are going crazy over it like its an instant classic. 

The concert as a whole was an interesting combination of hip-hop, African rhythms, and spoken word. K’Naan’s reputation for being a griot was in full effect, especially during the latter half of the set, with the Somali’s in the audience (several carrying flags) and the shared struggle was the focus of his spoken word. By the end of the set, he turned the cavernous crowd (which by then streatched from one end of Kennedy’s great hall to the other) into an intimate coffee house poetry slam.

The crowd, which consisted of everyone from frat boy douchebags (they seem to be at EVERYTHING) to Somali ex-pats got their (FREE) money’s worth and then some. People who were longtime fans and those who came to Foggy Bottom out of curiosity all seem to be impressed by the Somali sensation. Even yours truly will give him a second look. Can K’Naan carry the torch of third-world hip-hop in North America? After Friday night, it’s quite possible.