Born in Somalia, K'naan spent his childhood in Mogadishu and lived there until the start of the Somali Civil War, which began in 1991. His aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia's most famous singers. K'naan's grandfather, Haji Mohammad, was a poet. K'naan is Muslim, and his name, Keynaan, means "traveller" in the Somali language. He spent the early years of his life listening to the hip-hop records sent to him from America by his father, who had left Somalia earlier. When he was 13, K'naan, his mother, and his three siblings, older brother, Liban, and Sagal left their homeland and joined relatives in New York City, where they stayed briefly before moving to Canada, to the Rexdale neighbourhood of Toronto, which has a large Somali community. His family still resides there. There, K'naan began learning English, partly by listening to hip hop albums by artists like Nas and Rakim. Despite the fact that he could not yet speak the language, the young K'naan taught himself hip-hop and rap diction, copying the lyrics and style phonetically. He then also began rapping. While growing up in Rexdale, K'naan lost many friends to murder, suicide, prison and deportation.
K'naan married Deqa, a pharmacy technician, with whom he has two sons, born in 2005 and 2007. They divorced before he started touring for the 2010 FIFA World Cup with Coca-Cola.
K'naan became a friend and associate of Canadian promoter Sol Guy, who helped him secure a speaking engagement before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, where K'naan performed a spoken word piece criticizing the UN for its failed aid missions to Somalia. One of the audience members, Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, was so impressed by the young MC's performance and courage that he invited him to contribute to his 2001 album Building Bridges, a project through which K'naan was able to tour the world.
K'naan rose to mainstream popularity by participating in the 2008 BET Awards Cypher. This was his first appearance on American television. His second studio album, Troubadour, was released on 24 February 2009 on A&M/Octone Records, and distributed through Universal Music Group worldwide. The album's first single, "ABC's", was released in late 2008. K'naan's music has featured in several video games such as Madden NFL 09 (with his song "ABC's") and FIFA 06 (with his song "Soobax"). The song "If Rap Gets Jealous", a re-recording of a track of the same name – with different verses – from The Dusty Foot Philosopher, features Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. K'naan was also the first featured artist on X3, a collaborative project between CBC Radio 3, Exclaim! magazine and aux.tv to promote new Canadian music. In July 2010, he performed a cover of U2's "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" for iheartradio. In 24 January 2012, K'naan released a 5 song EP under the title More Beautiful Than Silence including songs such as "Nothing to Lose", "Better", "Is Anybody Out There?". The songs also include collaborations with Nas and Nelly Furtado.
K'naan's 2012 album, Country, God or the Girl, was met with little of the critical acclaim and success that Troubadour had received. Unlike Troubadour, which was produced almost entirely by production team Track and Field, Country, God or the Girl featured a wide range of different producers, many of whom work on more mainstream projects. After the release of the album, K'naan published an article in the New York Times explaining and apologizing for the change in his sound. "My lyrics should change, my label’s executives said; radio programmers avoid subjects too far from fun and self-absorption," recounts K'naan. "So I began to say yes. Yes to trying out songs with A-list producers. Yes to moving production from Kingston to Los Angeles." In the end, K'naan states "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."
In 2012, K'naan published a children's book, When I Get Older: The Story Behind Wavin' Flag.
Jim Welte has said K'naan has "a sound that fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip-hop, and brilliant protest poetry." His voice and style has been compared to Eminem, but his subject matter is very different; according to K'naan, he makes "urgent music with a message", talking about the situation in his homeland of Somalia and calling for an end to violence and bloodshed. He specifically tries to avoid gangsta rap clichés and posturing, saying:
All Somalis know that gangsterism isn't to brag about. The kids that I was growing up with [in Rexdale] would wear baggy [track] suit pants, and a little jacket from Zellers or something, and they'd walk into school, and all the cool kids would be like, 'Ah, man, look at these Somalis. Yo, you're a punk!' And the other kid won't say nothing, but that kid, probably, has killed fifteen people.
This statement was made to explain his position on the world of difference which exists between where he grew up, and the ghettos of the first world. Nonetheless, K'naan denies that he is overtly political, instead explaining that he "[shows] the state of the world [and] if you call it like it is you're being political." His own opinion of his music is that it's a "mix of tradition and [a] kind of articulation of my own life and [..] my past experiences."
Prior to the release of Troubadour, K'naan performed with a small acoustic band, consisting of Rayzak (back-up vocals), Kierscey Rand (acoustic guitar) and UDOGG-The Funky Drummer (djembe and drums). This style was an essential element of what set K'naan apart from most hip-hop acts. More than that, it reflected K'naan's value of meaningful lyrics over shallow theatrics. One of the last performances of this band was on 16 March 2009 when K'naan rendered four songs from the newly launched album for CBC's program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, although Rayzak continued to join his subsequent shows and Kierscey Rand made occasional appearances, such as his World Cup Trophy Tour.
Since Troubadour, K'naan has toured almost exclusively with a larger electric ensemble – consisting of drums, bass, electric guitar, and keyboards – and his performances now also feature elaborate lighting. This change in showmanship, along with his collaborations with such high profile artists as Adam Levine and Mos Def, has helped to shift K'naan more into the mainstream flow of the music industry and has helped him gain exposure to a wider audience.
In 2009, K'naan, along with 800 other artists from the Arab world, participated in the Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.. The three-week gathering, which took five years and $10 million to organize, is the largest showcase of Arab art ever held in the United States. The festival featured music, dance, theater and many art and cultural exhibitions, with artists carefully selected according to the quality of their artistic performance. Arabesque also provided a platform from which artists from the Arab world could correct prevailing and often negative misconceptions regarding their identity, and offered an opportunity for the participating artists to reclaim their right to self-definition. K'naan put on a free live show during the festival’s opening weekend, attracting many fans toward his message of reframing the limited perception of Arab cultures in North America.
A remixed version of K'naan's single, "Wavin' Flag," was chosen as Coca-Cola's anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was also used in the commercials for the pre-game, which was held in South Africa. Additionally, the track is in the soundtrack for the official EA Sports2010 FIFA World Cup video game. In December 2009, K'naan performed the song live during the sponsor's FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour, which took him to 86 countries around the world. His performance of "Wavin' Flag" was featured in the Top 10 hits in 11 different countries across the world. This also included number one hits in Mexico, Austria, China, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. In order to appeal to different people around the world, K'naan has also recorded the song with various local artists such as David Bisbal, Jacky Cheung, Jane Zhang, Nancy Ajram and Tattoo Colour.
On 21 September 2010 K’naan was scheduled as the headlining act of a student organised concert for World Peace Day which was to benefit girls’ education in rural Ghana. At 11pm the singer cancelled, for reasons that have been reported as relating to finances. His manager stated that, "this is the first time in K’naan’s seven-year career that he has pulled out of a performance for such a reason". K'naan announced on his Twitter following the concert "amazing how human beings need a bogeyman. It’s even better when they can turn their heroes to foes. SFU, check your own back yard for faults."
On 15 October 2011 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, K'naan was one of eight performers at the "Decade of Difference" concert. The concert celebrated former US President Bill Clinton's 65th birthday and the 10-year anniversary of the Clinton Foundation. K'naan was the third performer of the evening, following sets by Stevie Wonder and Kenny Chesney and preceding sets by Juanes, Usher, Lady Gaga, and The Edge and Bono of U2. K'naan performed three songs — "Bulletproof Pride," "America," and "Wavin' Flag." Toward the end of "Bulletproof Pride," K'naan surprised the audience by bringing Bono onstage for a duet. K'naan also spoke about his childhood in Somalia and how President Clinton's efforts overseas positively impacted his youth.
In 2009, he collaborated with British rock band Keane on two songs from their EP Night Train including the single "Stop for a Minute", and "Looking Back".
In 2009, he also collabrated with American rapper Wale on the song "Um'Ricka" from the mixtape Back to the Feature, and on the song "TV in the Radio" from Wale's debut album Attention Deficit.
In September 2009, K'naan teamed up with J.Period, an L.A.-born DJ/producer, and released The Messengers, a three volume remix project. Each volume pays tribute to one music icon: Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. It was released and is hosted online for free at Jperiod.com/knaan.
K'naan also toured with Jason Mraz during the summer of 2009 for Mraz's Gratitude Cafe Tour. He is currently on tour with Lenny Kravitz on the LLR tour.
In 2010, during the Vancouver Olympics, 50 other Canadian musicians and artists came together with K'naan under the collaboration name of Young Artists for Haiti at the Bryan Adams Vancouver studios to produce a charity version of his song "Wavin' Flag". The music video was released 1 March 2010. String students from Lord Byng Secondary and Magee Secondary joined together momentarily and formed an orchestra which accompanied the song. It was released for digital download on 12 March 2010.
In 2010, K'naan featured on the first unofficial single, "Mask on My Face", from Chin Injeti's album, D'tach.
In 2010, a remixed bilingual English/Spanish version of "Wavin' Flag" was made under the title "Wavin' Flag (Coca Cola Spanish Celebration Mix)" with Spanish pop artist David Bisbal after the song was chosen as the Coca-Cola anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to be held in South Africa. K'naan sings the English lyrics and Bisbal the Spanish lyrics. He also featured Banky W. and M.I in the Nigerian version of the song "Wavin' Flag", Nancy Ajram for the Arabic version of the song, féfé for the French version, Skank for the Brazilian version & will.i.am and David Guetta for the English version of the song. He also featured Ai (singer) in the Japanese version of the song under the title "Wavin' Flag (Coca Cola Japanese Celebration Mix)". He also featured Jacky Cheung and Jane Zhang in the Chinese version of the song, entitled "旗開得勝".
In 2010, he collaborated with Damian Marley and Nas on the album Distant Relatives, appearing on the songs "Tribes at War" and "Africa Must Wake Up". He also helped come up with the "sound" of certain songs such as As We Enter. The album was released on 18 May 2010.
In addition to his artistic career, K’naan has engaged in social activism. In 2011, he became a co-spokesman with Bono to raise awareness of the 2011 Eastern Africa drought. Also teaming up with close associate Sol Guy, K'naan performed various concerts for the cause.
K’naan has also been active in promoting the Canadian Bill C-393 to help increase medical assistance to countries in Africa. He teamed up with James Orbinski, a Canadian humanitarian physician and co-founder of Dignitas International.
In 2005, the Canadian music scene featured a low-key feud between K'naan and Yonis k-os, one of the most prominent Canadian hip-hop artists. Following the release of the music video for the song Soobax, which was shot by K'naan and a film crew in Kenya, k-os released a track B-Boy Stance attacking K'naan: "They took cameras to Africa for pictures to rhyme / Over; Oh, yes, the great pretenders [...] Religious entertainers who want to be life savers." Though the feud never became high-profile, with K'naan expressing confusion at the attack and respect for k-os, he nonetheless responded with the mixtape Revolutionary Avocado which argued "You the all-knowing with a beer bottle / Wishing you was Plato and me Aristotle? / ...Suburban negro turned hip-hop hero / Is there a reason he really hates me, though?" — a rebuttal CBC's Matthew McKinnon called "cold-cocking the champ".
It has no basis, no roots, and I'm not talking about, when I say basis – it's not the same as justifications [...] but how there came to be pirates, I think that is probably the most undiscussed thing in major media today – it's as if they just sprung from nowhere. But Somalis have long known about the issues.
^ abJim, Welte (7 August 2006). "MP3.com Live: K'Naan breaks out". Mp3.com. CNET.com. Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 10 June 2010. "With a sound that fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip-hop, and brilliant protest poetry, the Somalian MC was the most promising artist at the 2006 Reggae on the River festival."