Interview: K’naan

Published on May 12th, 2010 | Jonny Abrams

Coca Cola’s official anthem for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was announced as being Wavin’ Flag by Somali-Canadian sensation K’naan, a singer/rapper/musician/poet who was born in Mogadishu just as Somalia’s civil unrest began to unfold.

Rocksucker caught up with him to discuss the song, the potential ethical dilemma of being associated with a multinational, a collaboration with Damon Albarn that’s yet to see the light of day, how his aunt was the Michael Jackson of Somalia and what exactly is a Revolutionary Avocado…

So how did Wavin’ Flag come to be used as Coca Cola’s official World Cup song?

It was initially just a song of mine from my album Troubador. They were looking for a song and an artist that was in the World Cup’s spirit of celebration and unity. Some of them came to see some of my concerts and suddenly they were pretty dedicated to having something from one of my songs. I suggested an existing song – which is rare because they usually like you to write a new song – and Wavin’ Flag just seemed like a really good fit.

You recently went on tour with the actual World Cup! Was that part of the deal?

Yeah, it was. It was something they suggested and I was like, “Are you for real? That’s amazing!” We were going around the world on a private plane with the World Cup!

Which country went the most nuts for it?

We did 22 countries back-to-back for the Trophy Tour of Africa and those were the most intense that I remember. They were really overwhelmed and excited by the presence of the cup.

Given the political consciousness of your music, do you feel at all uncomfortable about your new ties with a multinational corporation like Coca Cola?

No because the song is the song no matter what. The song moves people, whether or not they’ve heard it on the Coca Cola website, on a Japanese car-maker’s website or from a friend giving it to them. It’s still the same effect when you hear the song. I was always confident in the song’s power on its own.

K'naan with the Fifa World Cup

What was Wavin’ Flag originally about?

It was just one of my songs on the album. I just wrote it like I do my other songs. There aren’t really any mission statements before writing a tune. I never think, “This is for that purpose…” [and so on]. I just wrote it. But I must confess that I was in melancholy mood [when I wrote it] – which I’m probably in 90% of the time! It’s a melancholy and heavy song and I give those guys big credit [for choosing it]. You know, most of the time those major corporations want something very glossy with no soul in it at all. So for them to choose something so tough was great.

Who are you going to be rooting for at the World Cup?

Cote d’Ivoire – the Ivory Coast. I just want an African team to win and I’m a really big fan of Drogba.

You’ve collaborated and toured with a lot of very impressive names – Youssou N’Dour, KRS-One, Mos Def and the Marleys, for instance. Who was/were the best to work with?

Collaboration is interesting because everyone that I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to work with has been like a world unto themselves. Collaboration is more about generosity, humility and all of that. For me, one of the most incredible experiences was working with Kirk Hammett from Metallica. He’s got an enormous amount of humility for someone from such a successful band. But I would say that the most interesting collaboration I’ve done to date was with Damon Albarn.

Has that been released yet?

No. It’s just something we did when I stayed at his home once. I was in London and he invited me to stay at his place. We went out, talked about life and at some point we went into the studio. We did the last sessions ever recorded at the Blur studio before it was torn down, which was a real honour! Damon’s a maniac, like a weird genius kind of character. I’ve never seen anyone like that ever in my life in the studio. He looked like an experiment monkey – he jumps around different instruments and plays everything. He was so incredibly intense and focused that I was just in awe watching him and I wasn’t really able to do much – I just watched him do what he does. Everything he plays is melodically incredible. He’s just a genius, he really is.

Your aunt Magool was a very famous singer in your native Somalia. Tell us about her.

She was like my country’s Michael Jackson. She was that famous. She was like a unifier and she always wrote songs about huge things like the world and change and life and love. But she was also just my aunt.

Was her fame strange for you while you were growing up?

Yeah because I would lay on her lap and she would sing songs and melodies to me while running her fingers through my hair. Then those songs would become songs that the whole country sang. That was crazy…like, “hey, I heard that before!”

How did your recent collaboration with Keane come about?

I got a call from Tim and Tom saying that they wanted to get together and come up with some ideas if I liked their music. And I did – Hopes and Fears is something I really love. I’m really into melody so I always love people who can create that. They knew about me because I played Glastonbury and Tom’s girlfriend’s best friend was at my concert and she apparently came back raving about me to Keane, saying “you must listen to this”. So they downloaded my album, probably illegally, and Tom said that Strugglin’, one of my older songs, became their favourite song.

Finally – one for the fans, here – what is a Revolutionary Avocado?

(Laughs) How do you know about that? That’s crazy! A Revolutionary Avocado…it was just a funny line I wrote about a rapper who was trying to be tough. If you think of an avocado, it’s green – which is a revolutionary colour – and it’s always really tough on the outside but really soft on the inside. So it’s about a rapper who was like an avocado.


About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.

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