~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, October 3rd 2012
The Somali-Canadian singer K'naan was the first artist on at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park last Saturday. As the simple piano refrain from his first big success rang out, the cameras panned over the 60,000 people in Central Park, before zooming in on K’naan—in a black train-driver cap and red scarf—singing “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag.” The crowd instantly cheered. "Wavin' Flag" was the anthem that Coca Cola had syndicated for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a song K'naan recorded 20 international versions of, and performed in 86 countries, including every nation in Africa.
Then K’naan stopped and told the audience:
When a song gets popular you have to deal with how it starts to shape in front of you, how it becomes a little bit of a spectacle, or something that it wasn’t. So today, I would like to do something I haven’t done for years, which is reclaim that song as a personal song.
Before the piano refrain began again, K’naan began to recite his story acapella, telling of his family’s passage to New York as Somali refugees, how they were driven from their home in Harlem by immigration officers and then handcuffed and deported to Toronto, where he grew up.
As the earworm of a chorus came back in, with its rousing chords, gospel choir and pounding drums, it was easy to see why Coca Cola had wanted to use it. As part of the deal, K’naan had to change his verses about Somali displacement. So instead of lyrics that went “Accept no defeat, surrender, retreat, so we struggling, fighting to eat”—with the "Wavin’ Flag" as a symbol of hope for a peaceful time that had not yet come—the Coca Cola lyrics went, “See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud”. In the music videos created for the World Cup, K’naan dances with African children on beaches and hops about with Asian children in conical straw hats as a football flies through the frame.
From football, it moved to politics: in February this year, K’naan threatened Mitt Romney with legal action after he discovered that the Republican presidential candidate had used "Wavin’ Flag" at the end of the Florida primary. K’naan later said Obama could use it unconditionally, but he didn't spell out which version.
But in New York this weekend K’naan restored the old lyrics, bounding across the stage while charity montages played on giant screens, determined that a song that has now gone round the world wasn't about football ("Let's rejoice in the beautiful game") but about his own personal history.
Hazel Sheffield is assistant editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a contributor to Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include A poet's guide to the Frick and Christian Marclay's time is now