Rarely do I hear a song whose lyrics are quite as moving as “Fatima,” from K’naan’s second and most recent album Troubadour. K’naan is a Somali refugee whom I first heard on the FIFA soccer video games around 2005 or 2006. The song was Soobax, which featured a pretty sweet video of K’naan traveling around his homeland. That first album release, Dusty Foot Philosopher, certainly ranks among the strongest recent hip hop releases in my mind, and it was quite a surprise to hear a sophomore effort that lived up to a strong billing. “Fatima” is even a gem among the several hot tracks on Troubadour, which include Dreamer, Wavin’ the Flag, ABCs, and I Come Prepared. Actually, nearly the entire album is hot: it’s definitely worthwhile to pick up.
I had actually dismissed this song in favor of some of the other tracks, because in a sense this song is a ballad. But on a run today, I listened carefully to the lyrics, and I gotta say, it almost drew me to tears. Of course, K’naan tells us not to, so there it is.
It starts with an upbeat tempo and instrumentation, and when he starts, it sounds like he’s telling a good story slowly. The guitar enters lightly, and it’s a love song from the opening: “I fell in love with my neighbor’s daughter.” At the chorus, “Is it true when they say all you need is just love / What about those who have loved / Only to find that it’s taken away,” one wonders if this is just another story of a love come and gone, lost perhaps to the fickleness of youth.
The piano that’s playing the melody already has some kind of finality of the story inherent in it, but K’naan continues playfully through the verses, talking about the love they shared with lines like, “I asked God to slow down the seconds” and the poignant, “you so bright you shine like my TV,” which sounds beautiful only when one realizes that the poverty in Somalia may make owning an operating television a far more rare event than we might understand. It’s a simple image for a fairly simple, beautiful song.
When the chorus enters the second time, one still thinks it’s just love lost, and the line, “before he stole you away on that fateful day” gives the sense this is a love song gone wrong instead of something more tragic. At the end of the choruses, the horns double over the name Fatima, and then the horns repeat the same bar, sounding like they are saying “Fatima,” triumphantly. This is a song of celebration for Fatima.
In his last verse of praise of this girl, he speaks of her breathtaking beauty, “How come everyone hushed when she walked by … how come the angel wanted to hold her?” And then he addresses her directly, “Fatima, I’m in America,” proceeding to mention that she would have liked the “parks in Connecticut.” The use of “would have” in this verse is explained now in the next verse, immediately, “Damn you shooter, Damn you the building / Whose walls hid the blood she was spilling / Damn you Country so good at killing / Damn you feeling, for persevering. The meter of this verse mirrors the previous, sweet verses. The “Damn Yous” are even matter-of-fact. There is no hint of anger, but now you know that this is not a song of just a love lost.
The chorus that follows now means something completely different. Each identical chorus gives you a different sense of the song, a brilliant writing strategy that tells the story really effectively. In the last part of the choruses, he addresses Fatima directly and says, “Fatima, what did the young man say / Before he stole you away on that fateful day?” In this final chorus, he addresses her again, “Fatima, what did the gun man say / Before he took you away on that fateful day?”
And one gets the feeling personally that here a loved one was killed by this gunman, a beautiful life wasted, and for what? Now even the melodic piano sounds tragic, especially on a single sustained note that lingers. All of a sudden everything makes sense: “You can’t have the sweet with no sour … No chance of a probable shower … I wanted to protect and support her … I had dreams beyond our border … I better chill and count my own blessings … Then one day she never came to meet me.”
In the spoken refrain at the end of the song, the piano slightly alters the melody, going into a higher progression, a hopeful turn over the call to celebrate Fatima’s life, instead of mourn her tragic loss. I have to say that this is an incredible and difficult outlook on death, and I get the sense that K’naan or other Somalis have seen far too much of it in one life.
This is a beautiful but heartbreaking song that I think is very different from some of the more fun, dance oriented songs that he’s done. Of course he maintains his political message, which is simple in its iteration of the harsh reality in Somalia — K’naan manages to convey this message and tell a very personal tale of Fatima.