The story behind K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag”


When I get OlderBy Greg Quill Entertainment Reporter

K’naan could have written a memoir for adult readers, an epic refugee story of flight, struggle and discovery that traces every thrilling and agonizing step the young Somalia-born, Canada-nurtured rapper/hip hop artist, songwriter and activist has made on his way from poverty and fear in his war-torn native land to the highest strata of international pop music stardom outlined in his multi-award-winning hit song, “Wavin’ Flag.”

But he very deliberately chose to aim his first book at children, he told the Star on the eve of the publication Tuesday of When I Get Older: The Story Behind “Wavin’ Flag,” a 32-page picture book written by K’naan and illustrated by prominent New York artist Rudy Gutierrez.

“When you’re young is when you start to familiarize yourself with certain kinds of empathies that help you understand history in the right context,” K’naan, 34, said in a phone interview Friday.

“When we’re grown, it’s easy to think of foreigners, immigrants and refugees as people who are different, separate, from the rest of us. I think children can more easily understand that these people have families also, and friends they love and have to leave in difficult circumstances, and that we have more in common with them than we believe we do as adults.”

The book tells, in a simple conversational style, how 13-year-old K’naan, his mother and three siblings, left their home in Mogadishu after the 1991 outbreak of the Somalian Civil War, and describes their experiences as refugees at the hands of Somali, U.S. and finally Canadian authorities as they made their way first to New York, then Toronto, where they were finally granted status, and where K’naan’s fascination with music at school blossomed into a substantial career.

“I’m not trying to explain the song, just the world behind it,” he said.

The book also includes the complete lyrics and sheet music for “Wavin’ Flag,” which became a worldwide hit after being chosen as the official song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer series, as well as a brief history of Somalia and a short biography of the author/musician, who has two children, aged 7 and 5, with his ex-wife.

The guiding spirit in the story in the book, as in the song, “Wavin’ Flag,” is K’naan’s grandfather, Haji Mohammad, a celebrated poet in his homeland, “who could stop people fighting with a poem,” K’naan said.

“He passed away just before we left. His stature and centredness impressed me. He was very well loved for being such a politicized poet, but he also wrote about love. No one should try to guide the pen of an artist, and he would never allow that to happen.”

With a new album, Country, God or the Girl, set for release Oct. 16, featuring peer artists and musical friends Nelly Furtado, Nas, Bono,, Mark Foster and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, K’naan — real name, Keinan Abdi Warsame — is gearing up for a major two-pronged promo blitz organized by his record label and his publisher.

With four albums — including the 2009 monster hit Troubadour — already under his belt, and riding expectations that Country, God or the Girl will break new musical ground, K’naan said he feels “pressure in the air . . . from the public, radio programmers and my label, from everyone who waits in hope.

“But I have a very stubborn, protective layer. I don’t much care about those kinds of pressures. I’m happy to have done what I’ve done, and then to turn around and do something completely different.

“I never worry about whether a record will be more successful than the one before. Each record is a step on the way to making the next one, and hopefully to a life of making music.”

Writing a memoir for adult readers isn’t in his current plans, said K’naan, who makes his home now in New York City, but spends as much time as he can with his family in Toronto’s Somali community in Rexdale.

He has often been called on to speak in public about life in Somalia, and in 1999 addressed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the failed UN mission in his homeland.

“I might do that some time, but it would not be a standard, straight-up memoir. That wouldn’t interest me. It’s a challenge.

“Who needs another musician’s memoir?”