He might have written it, but K'NAAN Warsame is the first to tell you that Wavin' Flaglong ago ceased to be his song. Selected as the official anthem of the 2010 World Cup of Soccer in South Africa, the catchy hip-hop tune has galvanized audiences around the world, transforming stadium crowds into massive choirs. A recent version recorded by 50 Canadian artists to raise money for Haiti instantly shot to No. 1 on iTunes in Canada. The song has drawn international attention to the 31-year-old Somali-Canadian, whose seductive melodies and politically charged lyrics (along with the wrenching story of his family's flight from war-torn Mogadishu to Rexdale, Ont., via New York City) set him apart from the self-styled gangsters of RAP. He spoke to Maclean's from Paris, where he is headlining the World Cup trophy tour.
Q: What is it about Wavin' Flag that has allowed it to travel so far and wide?
A: No one knows the answer to that. If we did, we would all make songs like that all the time. I think [producer] Bob Ezrin described it best when he said there's something about it that is childlike, like a lullaby. So there's something about it that speaks to the child in us, while also speaking to grander aspects of life. But really, I'm guessing just as much as anyone else.
Q: What came to you first - the melody, the lyrics?
A: I was walking around the old Sony studios in Manhattan a few years ago and I was just singing the melody and a few of the words, you know, something like [sings]: "Just like a wavin' flag la-la-la, just like a wavin' flag." I imagined looking out of a window, feeling claustrophobic yet being in this kind of moment of seeing a flag raised high. All of this was in my head - the idea that we have arrived, of a personal victory. I went back to the studio where I'd been working on another song called America. I stopped that session so I could start on this song.
Q: The original lyrics aren't just celebratory, though. They're about how a lot of the world's people are still waiting on the dream of freedom and how that dream has to be sublimated, pressed down. There's an undercurrent of frustration, if I'm not mistaken.
A: There's definitely anger, the demand of more from the world, a demand for justice. There's no other way I can perform the vocals than the way you hear them. It's not just the words, it's what is being felt.
Q: Did you have any hesitation about adapting the song for something as exultant as the World Cup?
A: No. I don't have a protective kind of relationship with the song. Years ago, I would leave the stage and I would be in the dressing room and I'd still hear people singing it. I understood that there was something about this song that gave it transferable ownership. Having realized that, I wanted to give it as many lives as it wanted to take on, one of which is this World Cup thing. It was a challenge to see if I could take it from the melancholy nature of the original, which is about emerging from darkness, to one that considered what would happen if we actually acquired that freedom. Then it becomes a celebration.
Q: Do you see yourself as a link between deeply troubled places like Somalia and rich, stable places like Canada?
A: Yeah. I do think that some of my songs, like Take a Minute, are like the train between the two worlds. It starts out with the question of "how did Gandhi ever withstand the hunger strikes and all / he didn't do it to gain power or money as I recall," and its sweep reaches all the way to this part of the world. I think maybe I'm a translator, because I lived in both worlds and truly understand them. I understand the discontent that comes from not having. But I also understand the anxiety that comes from wealth and convenience.
Q: I read somewhere that your first exposure to hip hop was a few notes coming out of a car radio in Somalia one day.
A: Yeah, there was a pop song from the '80s, I think, and there was a rap verse in the song. I don't remember the title but it went like: "I need you, na-na-na-na, you're what I want." I asked the guy driving the car what it was, and he told me the title. I said, "No, no, the part where the guy's speaking, it's almost like rhythmic poetry." He said, "Oh, that's called rap." I asked my father, who lived in New York, what rap was, and he said he'd send me something - it was Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full, a classic hip-hop album, yeah.
Q: You were 13 when you left Mogadishu. Did leaving at that impressionable age influence your world view and your music?
A: Hugely. I mean, those years don't necessarily play in my head more than others, but the memories registered more vividly. Maybe it was what Somalia was going through at the time. But on a personal level, I just remember those years being filled with disparity. I remember just thinking, "Oh, man, what if we get a visa to get out of the country during this war?" Then I'd look around and wonder, "Why you? Why would you get the chance to get out? I mean, why not him? Or him? That family's better off, why not them?"
Q: One of the most affecting songs that came out of that period in your life is Fatima. Can you tell me the story behind it?
A: Fatima was this beautiful girl whose grandmother lived next door to us in Mogadishu, and who would come to visit. I lived for those visits, you know, just to see her, and I think she started to as well. So we became really close and talked all the time. Eventually, my family got the visa to get out to New York. On the goodbye day, when the whole neighbourhood came out, she and I had a private moment where she gave me a letter, which she wrote in English, saying that it would encourage me to learn the language. I remember thinking, "Oh, man, why can't you just say what it is that you're going to say now?" So I took the letter, and I was sure that I'd return and see her again someday. But three days after we left, we got the news that she'd been shot and killed. For years, I tried to not think about it. But I kept the letter, and when I [recorded] Troubadour, I felt like I could visit those feelings. I wanted to tell a story paying tribute to that friendship.
Q: In December, without any fanfare, you went back to Somalia for the first time. Was that a missing piece in your life?
A: I wanted to experience the dreams I had of the place and see them in reality. I never wanted to be the kind of artist who was thought of as good only because my songs emerge from tragedy. My experience in Somalia has always been something in the back of my head, and I wanted to find closure and freedom from those feelings. Going back was the only way I could do that.
Q: The World Cup trophy tour took a pass on Somalia. Did that play into it at all?
A: Yeah, I was hugely disappointed. Nobody understands how much I had done to try to get the [tour] to Somalia. I was in touch with the highest of high as far as, you know, FIFA goes, and [tour sponsor] Coca-Cola. I was talking to the FBI about security. I talked to the Somaliland government. I talked to the Somalia government that's trying to install itself. I was on the phone for hours and hours, over many weeks, trying to find a safe place for the cup to land. When Coke and FIFA decided they couldn't do it, I was so disappointed I actually considered not going on the trophy tour at all.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: I realized that I'd only be denying myself. What I was doing on the trophy tour was a great thing - exploring different parts of the world, getting to know my continent that I was born in. But, literally the day after the African portion of the trophy tour ended, I took the plane back home and I decided to go to Somalia myself.
Q: Here in Canada, we spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back for being a welcoming environment. But Rexdale, where you grew up, is not exactly Banff Springs. What does Canada mean to you?
A: Canada generally has been a great host, and I don't mean just personally, to me. I mean to my community, Somali people. We can never belittle what that means. But it had its difficulties, all of which contributed to my art and my music. There were times when you didn't really feel like a Canadian at all, when you were reminded that you were different. So for me, Canada has played both the saviour and the villain, especially at the beginning, during the time of integration and assimilation.
Q: You've disparaged the gangster-worship aspect of American hip-hop culture, and you write in your songs about not needing street cred. Why not?
A: In Somalia, street cred was something that was forced upon us. It was part of going through our day-to-day lives and just surviving. I could not understand why people whose parents had big homes in Brampton, Ont., would actively seek to be a tough guy or a gangster, to carry guns or something, you know? I remember my old neighbourhood in Somalia, where it was a status symbol not to have a weapon. You'd see little kids carrying pistols or rifles, but the kids with the nice haircuts and clothes, their whole things was, "We don't need to carry guns, man, we just talk to girls." They were really the cool kids.
Q: That credibility you had forced on you in Mogadishu is an important aspect of who you are to your fans. Now you're at the front of the World Cup parade, plugging an event attended by the global elite, and sponsored by Coca-Cola, that great emblem of economic imperialism. Doesn't that compromise your message?
A: No. I know how I got to where I am, and I've never had to adapt to become something else. I write my songs, I play them and I'm very honest about my stage presence. Sometimes there'll be 100,000 people in a World Cup tour crowd, and the people who work backstage think I should come on like a very glossy professional - have explosions and do big songs. But I might pull out an acoustic guitar and sing something [quiet]. I don't care that it's a big party. It's my party.
Q: A couple of weeks back, 50 Canadian musicians joined your party in a big way. What was it like to hear those musicians shape Wavin' Flag in their own ways?
A: It was an incredible experience, and I remember not even being able to register that it was a song that I wrote. The Somalis have a great tradition in music where when you write and release a great song, everyone in the Somali artist community makes a rendition of it and sings it back to you. No one ever owns publishing on any Somali song, because an artist knows it no longer belongs to him. So a part of me feels like a guest of this song, like it's this rare find, and I'm just fortunate to be the artist that first sang it.
Q: I heard somebody saying that they'd received the song online as a gift. The person who gave it to him asked him to buy it for some friends, which he did, and the song was spreading out like the branches of a tree.
A: Wow! Man, that's so amazing. I feel so very lucky. It's all an incredible dream in motion.
Maclean's April 12, 2010