Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, K'naan spent his childhood in the district of Wardhiigleey ("The River of Blood") 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, is a poet. K'naan is also a Muslim.
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—and for K'naan, 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.
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 Rexdale, Ontario, where there was a large Somali Canadian community,. His family still lives there. In his new country, K'naan began learning English and also began to start rapping. He dropped out of school in grade ten to travel for a time, rapping at open mic events, and eventually returned to Toronto, Ontario.
This project lead to his work at other UN events, as well as the Montreal Jazz Festival. It also helped him meet Canadian producer Jarvis Church and his Track & Field team in 2002, who produced his debut album The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. In 2006, it won the Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year, and was nominated for the inaugural Polaris Music Prize. It also won the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in the newcomer category for 2007.. The Dusty Foot Philosopher will be re-released and re-packaged as a "Deluxe Edition" featuring new mixes and a bonus DVD in the United States (and various international territories) by the emerging media company and record label iM (Interdependent Media, Inc.) in 2008.
Since then, he has been on tour promoting his album and working on a follow-up. He has also been working with artists like Nelly Furtado, Mos Def, The Roots, Dead Prez, and Pharoahe Monch on tours such as Live 8 and Breedlove Odyssey. He also collaborated with Damian Marley on the "Welcome to Jamrock" touring session.
In 2005, the Canadian music scene featured a low-key feud between K'naan and 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 (a Muslim): "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". He recently released The Dusty Foot on the Road, a collection of recording made during his recent world tour on Wrasse Records.
Critics have said K'naan has "a sound that fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip hop, and brilliant protest poetry." His voice and style have 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."