Q&A with K'Naan
Waving Flag is a song about hope, freedom and overcoming obstacles
K'Naan took a trip back to Somalia in December for the first time in 18 years
South Africa is spending $6 billion on World Cup infrastructure
If you're a soccer fan and you haven't heard the music of K'Naan, chances are about 100 percent that you will soon. A rising star who was born in war-ravaged Somalia before emigrating to Toronto as a teenager, K'Naan is the man behind "Wavin' Flag," the enormously catchy song that will be heard in World Cup stadiums and in TV ads as Coke's official 2010 World Cup anthem.
I sat down with him during a stop in Baltimore on his recent tour. We talked about a number of topics, including the global power of soccer, Africa's moment, Fela Kuti, his participation in the World Cup trophy tour and his first trip back to Somalia in 18 years. Here is our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: The World Cup is being hosted by South Africa, but in many ways it's viewed as a big moment for the entire continent. What do you want people to learn about Africa as a result of this World Cup?
K'Naan: In the western world we have always only known Africa in one way, and it hasn't been positive. So I think it's going to be beneficial for the world to finally get to experience Africa as a backdrop to a positive world event. That does the world a good service, to finally see something about this continent that we have long known.
SI.com: You grew up in Somalia during an extremely turbulent time. Was it possible for you to have fun watching a World Cup on TV in, say, 1990?
K'Naan: No. At that time a lot of our focus was just on survival -- and the worry and tension wouldn't allow for us to be a part of world events at the time. But obviously soccer happens like life does. And so in the streets we'd play whenever we could, contradicting the violence whenever we could. That was a form of our own kind of freedom. We'd play whenever we got a little moment of silence from the guns. Somalia at that time in 1990 and '91 got way too unstable to focus on the outside world at all. It was all internal, all about: How do we live?
SI.com: When you did play a game of soccer, how did you do it? Did you have a ball made out of something?
K'Naan: In our neighborhood, certain people would have soccer balls. Some of us would stuff things in a sock and make a soccer ball out of that. I remember once we found a really shiny ball, like a professional soccer ball, and that was a big deal on my corner. We came back and played. Me and my brother got in a fight over it. It was a big event, finding a soccer ball.
SI.com: One thing I love about soccer, because it's so global and universal, is that it tends to pop up even in some places where things are really hard. Yet the sport somehow survives.
K'Naan: It has a pretty strong unifying element to it. It's very communal, soccer. And it's also very gritty, whereas in other sports you have to be clean and look the part. Soccer is about feet on the ground and mud and touch.
SI.com: Did you have a favorite soccer team growing up?
K'Naan: No, I wasn't very loyal to anybody. For me it was more about stars, about the one player that everybody was talking about, like Maradona. I also was attracted to teams that had a percussive element to their moves. It was kind of like they were dancers, more stylish, more musical. So the Latin American teams often are very musical with their movements. The English team might kick really hard, but the Argentines and the Brazilians would just style it out. That was what I watched for.
SI.com: Wavin' Flag is going to get a lot of exposure this year as the [unofficial] anthem of the World Cup. What sort of message do you want it to send when millions of people around the world are hearing it?
K'Naan: This song isn't a traditional pop song. Often songs that get that kind of a shot in the world are songs about nothing. This is a song about something. It's reaching the world and has something to leave. It's a message of hope and freedom and overcoming obstacles. We all go through these things. It's the moment when you emerge from darkness and the light appears. I hope it gives that feeling to people.
SI.com: You performed in 13 African cities as part of the World Cup trophy tour through Africa. Did you have a favorite moment during that process?
K'Naan: In Uganda, when we got on stage there were 10,000 people there singing Wavin' Flag. I've seen that happen in Mexico now and in different places where a large crowd knows the song. But in Uganda, all you saw was from the beginning to the end African faces chanting along. That has a particular reward to it.
SI.com: The World Cup trophy tour was scheduled to take the trophy to every country in Africa, and I noticed that included Somalia. I'll be honest: I wondered how that was going to work out.
K'Naan: It didn't. It's the only country that it didn't get to go to. It was sad. I was the one marching that one. I really tried. You could make a documentary on the days leading up to that and how much I did. I was on the phone with the Somali government in Mogadishu and with the president on the north side of the country. I was talking to the FBI security people, Coke, FIFA, and stressing staying up night after night trying to make this work. Eventually I got the e-mail: It's not gonna happen. It was so sad that I almost stopped going on the rest of the tour. But I tried to look up. I went to Somalia on my own after that in December.