I’m struck by the recent op-ed by rapper-poet-pop star K’naan in the NY Times, “Censoring Myself for Success,” found here. It made me sad – but wasn’t surprising – to read how music industry executives wanted him to water down his message and fascinating life story growing up in war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, so that his now huge fans base – lots of 15 year-old American girls – can relate and thus purchase his songs. He shared his feelings about this in the eloquent Op-Ed, which also made me that much more interested in his work and his person. (He also had come to my attention for performing in the fall’s Global Citizen Festival on Central Park with Neil Young, the Black Keys and others, to raise awareness on global poverty.) As he related:
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.
My take-away from his piece: if teen-age consumers were better versed on diverse conditions in the world, then the best of artists from all over, even unexpected placed like Somalia, could be better appreciated, and thus enhance every listening and artistic experience – especially for those of us who have never been to that country or don’t know its culture and ways. Classrooms can serve as laboratories for mining the gems of culture, history, literature and psychology embedded in popular and ancient artistic expression. Names like Fatima, as well as Mary, would grace songs on the radio in Arkansas and Nevada, and global citizens as consumers would demand that artists share their authentic voices, not some dumbed-down version of their true – and better – selves. The market place is powerful. Parents and teachers are powerful. Let’s educate our children to use their power for a better, richer, global marketplace and community.
Postscript: K’Naan’s piece also may have struck a chord as I’ve been thinking so much about Pandit Ravi Shankar’s passing yesterday. He didn’t seem to water down his culture, and for that generations of Westerners can thank him for introducing the mystical music of India. Citizens of the planet are so much richer for his masterful, soul-stirring music. I was honored to meet him and his daughter Anoushka after a concert, where his humble majesty was felt by all in the room.