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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014

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K'NAAN was powerful, and soulful, on July 6 at Summerfest.
K'NAAN was powerful, and soulful, on July 6 at Summerfest. (Photo: David Bernacchi)
K'NAAN brought energy to Summerfest.
K'NAAN brought energy to Summerfest. (Photo: David Bernacchi)

K'NAAN moves the Summerfest crowd

In December of last year, K’NAAN wrote an op-ed in The New York Times essentially to apologize for his third studio release "Country, God or the Girl," which had been released in October. In the letter, he admitted he bent to the wishes of the label, of wanting to become more popular in America, saying "I had made an album in which a few genuine songs are all but drowned out by the loud siren of ambition."

Since then, the Somali-born Canadian rapper has been largely absent from the performing scene, making his headlining appearance on the Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard stage on Saturday night at Summerfest an interesting choice by the promoters.

K’NAAN rose to more widespread prominence with his 2009 release of "Troubadour," which featured "Bang, Bang" with Maroon 5 front man Adam Levine and a re-working of "If Rap Gets Jealous" with Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. That led to "Country, God or the Girl," which featured a variety of producers and guest appearances by Nelly Furtado, Bono and Nas. His stage shows had become a bit more produced, as well.

But, based on that letter to The New York Times, I expected a stripped down show and wondered how many new songs he would play.

Sure enough, he appeared with his five-member band on the keyboard, drums, bongo, bass and electric guitar, with no elaborate lighting or theatrics. It was K’NAAN, the mic, and his own drum up front, and he did not disappoint a small but enthusiastic gathering with a nearly 90-minute set.

And as one could probably expect, he only played one song off of his newest record, introducing "70 Excuses" with "The album is OK, but there are some songs I really like. Like this one…"

K’NAAN seemed incredulous that the crowd would know anything off his first studio-release, 2005’s "Dusty Foot Philosopher," and his joy was evident when the crowd sang, or rapped back, lyrics to "Soobax" and "Strugglin’" as well as the tremendous response to a medley of "Smile" and "What’s Hardcore?"

He mentioned on several occasions how no one knew who he was, and laughed after covering Bruno Mars’ "The Lazy Song" that "America, it’s fucked up, all the songs I write for other people are far more popular than my shit."

Perhaps because it was a festival he expected more passerby or people who knew only a couple of songs, but the crowd on hand were dedicated K’NAAN fans – making his own songs like "Hurt Me Tomorrow," "T.I.A." and "Soobax" jump as hard as his duet with Levine.

I’ve been coming to Summerfest shows for seven years, and have been fortunate to see a lot of great performances and special, singular moments within a set.

But when the rapper told the crowd that he learned of his grandmother’s passing while waiting for his luggage prior to arriving at Summerfest, performing on Saturday night was the furthest thing from his mind, or his heart. But when he dedicated "Take A Minute" to her, and the opening beats were laid, the crowd immediately responded to his pain, lifting him.

"I wanna hear you. I got to feel you," he said. He closed his eyes for a moment, then instructed his band to quiet. "I want to hear them."

The song was powerfully performed, and K’NAAN exhausted himself during a nearly manic dance during an instrumental, kicking his feet and punching the air, before finally falling to a knee at the feet of his guitar player. After the song, he stepped back from the mic and clasped his hands together and said "Thank you so much."

He closed with his first international hit, "Wavin’ Flag," off of "Troubadour" before coming out to a three-song encore which included a cover of Neil Young’s "Heart of Gold" and a moving rendition of "Fatima," a song dedicated to a young friend of his who was killed while they were both in Somalia.

He led the crowd into an acapella chorus to close the song,

Fatima, what did the young man say, before he stole you away?
On that fateful day Fatima
Fatima, did he know your name or the plans we made?
To go to New York City, Fatima

During these few minutes, K’NAAN only raised the mic to his mouth to say "I’m going to remember this" – and the sound eventually made him step back, slide his hands into his pockets and smile. He then put his hand on his heart and walked off with his hands raised, waving.

Set list:
In The Beginning
The Seed
Soobax
Bang, Bang
The Lazy Song (Bruno Mars cover)
Hurt Me Tomorrow
Simple
70 Excuses
Strugglin’
Smile/What’s Hardcore/TV In The Radio (medley)
T.I.A.
Take A Minute (dedication to his grandmother)
Wavin’ Flag
Encore: Until The Lion Learns To Speak
Heart of Gold (Neil Young cover)
Fatima

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