THE latest African voice to resonate across the world belongs to a 31-year-old Somali singer known simply as K’naan. His hip-hop number, “Waivin’ Flag,” is poised to bring him global stardom, because it has been chosen by Coca-Cola, a sponsor of the coming football World Cup in South Africa, as the tournament’s anthem. It will be released in 150 countries and some predict it will even outsell Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma”, the cup’s theme tune when it was held in Italy in 1990.
Born Keynaan Warsame in Somalia’s seaside capital, Mogadishu, he is now a citizen of Canada. But he cherishes his Somali roots. Several tracks on his new album, “Troubadour”, have Somali lyrics. “Waivin’ Flag” refers to Somalia’s banner, a five-pointed white star on a bright blue background.
K’naan’s appeal is wide. He has been singing alongside the football trophy on its journey through 15 African countries. At last year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, known as SXSW, he entranced a huge crowd from the cowboy state. “I figured I’d like it,” says an American radio presenter. “I just didn’t expect to see people crying.” His latest album was recorded at the house of the late Bob Marley, the reggae king, in Jamaica.
The Somali rapper says he suffers “something like survivor guilt”, thinking of the people he grew up with. Several of his boyhood friends were shot dead in front of him. He handled a machinegun and exploded a hand-grenade accidentally but says he never killed anyone. His family was intellectual and well-connected. His Aunt Magool was a famous singer. But as Somalia collapsed, he fled abroad aged only 13.
More recently he has stirred controversy by partially excusing the activities of Somalia’s pirates. He blames Western companies for illegally hoovering up tuna fish off Somalia’s coast and says that European criminal gangs have dumped toxic waste along it. Piracy, he says, is an understandable response. He told an American radio station that the pirates had at least had the effect of “cleaning up the environment”: on that score, he has a point.
In any event, K’naan says he wants to help unite Somalis. Fighting between the clans has been a cause of the country’s breakdown. For that reason he refuses to say which clan he hails from.
Were he to return home, that might not help him. The Shabab fighters who control swathes of the country have banned music. Some Shabab commanders have publicly whipped musicians. “They don’t like me very much,” says K’naan. A suicide-bomber might even target him.
For all that, he and his music are defiantly hopeful. Despite their warrior reputation, Somalis love poetry and music. K’naan thinks the Shabab’s austere version of Islam will fail. The country’s vibrant culture, he insists, will win the day.
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Also, check out K’naan’s video for his song “Dreamer”