Saturday, May 15, 2010

Song: Three Takes of K'Naan's Wavin' Flag

The first time I heard K'Naan's song "Wavin' Flag" earlier this year it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was initially pulled in by the song's music hook and great chorus.

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

But, I was ultimately deeply moved by the song's verses.

In 2008, K'Naan -- a Somali-Canadian who came to Canada with his family around 1992 -- was having trouble working on his second album (after the success of 2006's The Dusty Foot Philosopher). He has related that he was in a bad place when the song came to him. Having escaped with his family from the violence and chaos of Somalia many years before, he was still trying to come to terms with what was happening there and express it in the only way he knew how, through music. This mix of Afrobeat and North American pop is one of those songs that once you get the music in your head it will play there, in a temporal loop, all day long. But then you get beyond the music and chorus to the meat of this song.

Born to a throne, stronger than Rome
but violent prone, poor people zone,
But it's my home, all I have known,
Where I got grown, streets we would roam.
But out of the darkness, I came the farthest,
Among the hardest survival.
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak,
Accept no defeat, surrender retreat,

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

The politics here is personal as a young man tries to understand what happened to the land of his birth. He finished the album (Troubadour, 2009) and the song was an almost instant hit. Wavin' Flag made its way to Coca Cola who were looking for an artist to write them a song for their ad campaign for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. They were impressed with it and approached K'Naan; he suggested using "Wavin' Flag". To the corporation's credit, they asked him if he really wanted to use such a personal song in a commercial enterprise. He suggested rewriting it.

The World Cup version, which has quickly become the unofficial anthem, is a completely different animal, yet it achieves its own level of greatness. Where the original song revealed an artist attempting to understand the struggle that his people still suffered through, the new version became a celebration of soccer, or as fans call it, The Beautiful Game.

Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher
See the champions, take the field now, you define us, make us feel proud
In the streets are, exaliftin', as we lose our inhabition,
Celebration its around us, every nation, all around us

Singin’ forever young, singin’ songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautiful game.
And together at the end of the day.

I think K'Naan's decision to offer it up in rewritten form was inspired, because it became like a book newly adapted for the screen. The original is still up there on the shelf, unharmed. The new version doesn't undermine the original, it riffs on it.

Sidebar: This reminds me of the 1980s band, The Psychedelic Furs, who allowed their hit song, Pretty In Pink, to not only be used unchanged in a John Hughes teenage-angst movie, but to also become the film's title. Up to that point, the P-Furs (as fans called them) were a popular New Wave band who wrote cutting-edge songs. The band had developed a good, if culty, fan base. Their decision to let the song be used in this manner resulted in a huge pile of the money for them, but the fans felt instantly betrayed. The moral of this story? Where are they now? K'Naan's decision not to do this saved the song from being completely linked to a Coke campaign.

Now there is a third version that turns the song yet again, this time from personal to the more overtly publicly political: "Wavin' Flag" by Young Artists for Haiti. In January of this year, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Haiti. K'Naan, inspired by the 1980s famine-relief songs "Do They Know It's Christmas Time?" and "We Are the World", decided to redo the lyrics once more and invite dozens of new Canadian singers to join him in Vancouver to create a version of the song that would raise money for flattened Haiti. This time, the song returns to its roots of hoped-for rebirth and redemption, but instead of in an African context, a Haitian one.

But it’s my home
All I have known
Where I got grown
but now its gone

Out of the darkness
in came the carnage
threatening my very survival

Fractured my streets
and broke all my dreams
Feels like defeat to wretched retreat
So we strugglin’
Fighting to eat

And we wonderin’
If we’ll be free
We cannot wait for some faithful day
it’s too far away so right now I’ll 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

Having Justin Bieber (regardless of what I think of him) sing the last rendition of the chorus is actually remarkably touching since Bieber is so young. K'Naan obviously never knew when he wrote "Wavin' Flag" as a way to come to terms with his own freedoms away from his shattered homeland that the song would morph repeatedly (supposedly there are now versions in several different languages and heard in countries like China and Nigeria) into something that could mean so many different things for so many people all over the world.

You can find all three versions that were discussed here on these Youtube links.

Original version (want proof of the song's popularity? This one has almost 10 million hits)

2010 World Cup version (this one has been seen by almost 2 million)

Young Musicians For Haiti version (almost 5 million have viewed this)

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death

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