Censoring Myself For Succes

Somalian Rapper K'naan shares his story on New York Times on how he's had to deal with his writing style in America


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.They have a point. A musician’s songs are not just his own; he shares them with an audience. Still, Somalia is where my life and poetry began. It is my walk. And I don’t want to lose it. Or stifle it. Or censor it in the name of marketing.I first saw censorship as a child in Mogadishu, walking into my home’s courtyard one day and hearing a radio hushed nearly to silence. The adults hovered around, listening to a song. And I asked why one song had to be played at a whisper while another could blast through the house.A war was going on, I was told, and some songs had meanings the government did not want deciphered. Those “anti songs” were different from love songs, or folk songs. You had to take care in dressing the words. In love songs, words could preen in bright colors; in anti songs, they attacked in camouflage. And from that, I got a hint of the power of lyrics — to encapsulate magic, or to spread alarm.Now I have recorded three albums. A few days before I was to record the third, which was released in October, I received a phone call saying my record label wanted a little talk — before the songs were written. (I like to write in the moment.) For the first two albums, there were no such talks. But that was before my name was familiar. So let me start my story there.I received a phone call saying my record label wanted a little talk — before the songs were written. (I like to write in the moment.) For the first two albums, there were no such talks. But that was before my name was familiar. So let me start my story there.Which brings me to our little chat. 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. [New York Times]