Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, K’naan spent his childhood in the district of Wardhiigleey (“The River of Blood”) and lived there during the Somali Civil War, which began in 1991. His aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia’s most famous singers. K’naan’s grandfather, Haji Mohamed, was a poet. K’naan is also a Muslim. His name, K’naan, means “traveller” in the Somali language.
K’naan’s father, Abdi, left the country, along with many other intellectuals to settle in New York City and work as a cab driver. He mailed money home to his family (As mentioned in “If Rap Gets Jealous). As the civil war continued and the situation in Somalia continued to deteriorate, K’naan’s mother, Marian Mohamed, petitioned the United States embassy for an exit visa. In 1991, on the last day the US embassy remained open as the government of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed their visa was approved, and they boarded the last commercial flight out of the country.
They joined relatives in Harlem, New York City, before moving to the Toronto, Ontario neighbourhood of Rexdale, where there was a large Somali Canadian community. His family still lives there. In his new country, K’naan began learning English, some through hip hop albums by artists like Nas and Rakim. Despite speaking no English, the young K’naan taught himself hip hop and rap diction, copying the lyrics and style phonetically. He then also began rapping. He dropped out of school in grade ten to travel for a time, rapping at open mic events, and eventually returned to Toronto.