Most rappers would be considered a sell out if they let their song be used by Coke. Not K’naan.
“I have a lot of friends who are from either side, Mos Def and those guys who are in the conscious lane. I know other friends who are in the make-money lane. But for me, I see myself as someone who can speak to both audiences,” he said. “That to me is important, to never claim a position too smart for the listener. I think it’s important to reach everybody.” (read the complete CNN article Somali rapper bucks hip-hop code of violence). His interview with CNN as well demonstrates the basic humbleness of the guy.
I first got to know of K’naan when i was organizing the youth program for the World Urban Forum in 2006. What I learned was that he was both a principled artist and a pretty good businessman. He never did play at the WUF (unfortunate, as we had a great lineup and over 5000 people attending), but one of the EYAers organizing the WUF, Kevina Power, and a EYAer turned Hip Hop blogger/writer Tara Henley helped out on an amazing concert tour in Joburg and Soweto. (I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not attending this was one of them).
I later was able to briefly connect with him at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (of all places) as part of my volunteer work on the media committee. Again, blown away by the guy and his amazing music and poetry. This is a photo I took of him playing on the mainstage (with the mountains in background … surreal).
What moved me about his Wavin Flag was the strong shout out (like my hip hop lingo?) to youth in Africa:
So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day
It’s not far away, so for now we say
When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag
And then it goes back, and then it goes back
And then it goes back
So many wars, settling scores
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor
I heard them say, love is the way
Love is the answer, that’s what they say,
But look how they treat us, make us believers
We fight their battles, then they deceive us
Try to control us, they couldn’t hold us
Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers
I love the in your face realism of his message – yes, we are proud; yes, we will move forward to a promised future; but damn the struggle is hard. Funny enough, this verse is not repeated in the official Coke song. I guess Coke isn’t THAT radical.
He has an earlier song (In the Beginning) that speaks to this message of the struggle – it is really beautiful and quite moving spoken word:
It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark
In the eyes of the youth there are question marks
Freedom for the mind and soul
We don’t see them
See them for their worth at all
That’s why we lead them
Lead them to these wars and what is it we feed them
Feed them our impurities and who it is we treat them
Treat them like the enemy humanity will need them
Need them like the blood we spill and where freedom
Freedom for the hearts we fill
They hunger for the love we give
But we cheat them
The cops beat them when all he wants is his freedom
So they defeat them
Whatever spirit he’s got
And they teach them that the rest of the world don’t need him
And he believes it’s a disease that he’s heathen
Put up your fists if all you want is freedom
You really have to listen to the song to get the full impact.
It is amazing to see that someone from such a background as his can hit it out of the park the way he has. Gives me some hope for the future.
ps. for those die-hards, here is Wavin Flag … one more time.