Hip-hop artist K’NAAN

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Somali-born hip-hop artist shares the story of his life — from war-torn Somalia to his international hit ‘Wavin’ Flag.’

Somali-born hip-hop artist K'NAAN rose to mainstream popularity in '08 in his first appearance on American TV. He's gone on to have an international hit with the single "Wavin' Flag," which was chosen as the 2010 World Cup's anthem. He spent his early years listening to hip-hop. After relocating with his family to Canada—on the last commercial flight to leave Somalia—he learned English and began rapping. His politically charged spoken word performance at the U.N.'s 50th anniversary concert eventually led to the release of his critically acclaimed debut '05 CD.


Tavis: K’Naan was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, who as a teenager was able to flee his war-torn homeland and start a new life in Harlem and Toronto. He has, of course, gone on to a very successful career in music, including this year’s hit, “Wavin’ Flag.” If you watched any of the World Cup this year you no doubt heard the song. It’s part of Coke’s World Cup campaign. From the CD, “Troubadour,” here is some of the video for the hit single, “Wavin’ Flag.”
Tavis: There’s a fascinating story here about how this song became a hit on the world stage thanks to the World Cup. We’ll get to that in a second. Let me start by asking, though, the inspiration behind the song – the song is about what, “Wavin’ Flag?”
K’Naan: Hard to say. Nobody really knows what a song is about, but I know that it comes from the journey from darkness to light, from destitute to hope – these things. I think that’s the sentience that probably created the song. I can’t quite say what it’s about.
Tavis: The song comes out originally in 2008 and 2010 it gets re-packaged. Coca-Cola picks it up, makes it the centerpiece, the epicenter of their World Cup campaign. How did all that happen?
K’Naan: I was on tour when I received the phone call from my manager, who said, “This is what Coke is looking for. They’re looking for some piece of music that would represent their biggest marketing campaign in their history. They like you. They like your spirit and your music.”
I said, “Well, have they heard my music? Because my music isn’t really glossy pop songs. But it turns out that they were actually looking at a lot of other artists as well, and everyone was sending songs that they felt were right in that campaign.
But I sent kind of a stubborn song, about freedom and about hope and despair and these things. So I sent it in and I think people were overtaken by the emotion of the song, the emotional pull, and they said that that was where they wanted to go.
So we created a sort of friendlier version of the song, and that’s what ended up becoming the World Cup campaign.
Tavis: Take me inside the studio. A friendlier version of the song means what, exactly?
K’Naan: It kind of means sort of like creating a tempo difference, a change in tempo. Because this one – the tempo it’s in now is a very melancholy tempo. It’s hard to be very happy in that tempo, very dancey; so we created kind of an enormous amount of drums we recorded one day, playing with a couple of my friends. So the tempo goes up, and then some of the – I kept the chorus the way it was, because I feel like that’s the essence of the song, “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me Freedom.”
I never wanted to lose that, because then you lose the song. But I wanted to create even more melodic parts in the verses, and so we did, and that’s where (singing) “Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher” comes from.
I felt like it was – the difference between two versions is one begins in darkness and eventually gets to light. One begins in light.
Tavis: What happens when you have a song that a major international brand like Coca-Cola connects to, co-brands with, and puts it out there? The music, I assume, just goes and goes and goes all around the world as a result of that.
K’Naan: Yes. Yes, the song went to number one in 19 countries around the world and it went to the number one song on the Hot Billboard 100 in Europe and over Gaga and all of that, which is remarkable for a song that’s essentially about an African child coming out of Somalia.
Tavis: You mentioned your friends, it made me think about you and your friends in Somalia, in that field, on the particular day when you had an encounter with the police force. Take me back to that field and tell me what happened that day and why you think that when your friends were killed, you’re still here.
K’Naan: Well, I’ve struggled with that for a long time. I think that you want to have a purposeful life; you want to justify your existence as a human being. You don’t want to be someone just taking up space. But it’s hard to do that when the space has been so vividly fought for, when next to you there were other people who were just as special as you thought you were, who could have done amazing things in life, and they didn’t make it and I did.
So it took me a long time to actually even accept it. I think they call it survival guilt or something, but I call it life in Somalia. We all have to deal with that in some ways. We all have lost family and friends and I just happened to lose some of the closest ones in the same day, and I feel grateful and fortunate for my life and for all I’m trying to do with it. But it still creeps into my head sometimes as to the whys and all of that.
Tavis: Do you recall what happened that day, or you deliberately have tried to put it out of your mind?
K’Naan: It’s not so much that I deliberately tried to put it out of my mind, but with issues of extreme violence, what happens is life gives you – or I don’t know what it is. Your spirit or your imagination gives you some kind of a protective layer over things that you’ve been close to that are very difficult.
They were – I know that I was there and that someone turned and machine gunned towards me and a couple of my friends playing in a courtyard area, and they were – we were all shot at and they were shot near me, and I just made it out of the thing. I don’t quite know why it didn’t hit me.
But I think whenever I’ve been in a circumstance like that, it’s not the only time I’ve been in those kinds of situations. But whenever I’ve been close to something explosive like that, something in my memory, in fact, makes it like – gives it a color of a – a cinematic color, almost a distance from the reality. It helps to kind of protect you, I think.
Tavis: How, then, did you and your family escape the country? How did you get to Harlem and Toronto out of the fields of Somalia?
K’Naan: We were there during the first explosions of the war, and my mother was – it’s really thanks to her, because she had this sort of unexplainable audacity about her where she would say, “I want to get my kids out of -” and we lived in a very tough neighborhood, even for Mogadishu standards. People around our neighborhood wouldn’t even come into this area.
They said, “Well, you’re from this neighborhood, you have what we have, and why do you think your kids are so special that you’re going to save them and everyone else is going to die here?”
She used to walk through a firefight during the war around our neighborhood to get to the American embassy and try to get a visa, and she would be denied day after day. I think she made an effort over a year to keep going there. We’d always just kind of pray and think that maybe she won’t return.
Well, one day she returned with a visa to America, and it was one of the most amazing days of my life, seeing her return with that. I think it was also because they were packing out. The embassy was ordered out and they just kind of felt like, I can’t get fired now; I’ll just stamp this thing.
Tavis: Yeah. How through all of this did music, has music, become your outlet, your expression?
K’Naan: Well, I’ve always been musical, although I’ve tried to avoid that. I thought it would be a cliché, mainly because my family are made up of a lot of Somalia’s elite music creators and poets and so on. So I thought if I, too, was a musician, what a cliché that would be.
But it kind of just found me in a very rough time. I was maybe 16 and I got diagnosed with what’s called post-traumatic stress disorder, and my mother wasn’t a big fan of the concept of sedation and Western medication, where I would just numb my problems. She said to me, “These are issues of the memory and the spirit, and these are the things that you, I know, are capable of sorting out.”
So I went to words and melodies then and started writing the first songs of mine in the English language, which later on became an album that found some success.
Tavis: Well, that’s an understatement, “some success.” (Laughter) Whole lot of success these days. We should all be so fortunate to just sit and write our troubles out on paper and have them become songs that Coca-Cola falls in love with and puts on the international stage and makes it a number one hit in countries all across the country – around the world, I should say.
It’s a great story. A wonderful artist named K’Naan. K’Naan, good to have you on the program and all the best in the future, sir.
K’Naan: Thank you so much. Big fan, thank you for having me.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you on.
K’Naan: All right.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm