There were Canadian artists who made more money and generated more online hits this year. But K’naan achievements stand apart. While his Wavin’ Flag flew on the global focus on soccer, the rapper himself used his greater fame to provide aid to charities around the world.
The sequence of events certainly sounds familiar: Canadian indie musician makes a few well-received albums, gathers a few Juno Awards, then gets boosted to international prominence by an advertisement for something else. It happened to Feist in 2007 when her song 1234 became the theme for Apple's iPod nano, and it happened to K'naan when Coca-Cola chose a remix of his Wavin' Flag to bear its standard at last summer's World Cup of soccer in South Africa.
The soccer connection made the Somali-born rapper's name and sound familiar to hundreds of millions around the world, put Wavin' Flag on the hit parade in several countries, and gave new life to his 2009 album, Troubadour. It also gave him a bigger platform for his continued efforts to educate North Americans about Africa, and to spread a little balm on the wounds in Haiti and Somalia. During the Vancouver Winter Olympics, for instance, K'naan participated in a fund-raising performance and disc for the victims of the Haitian earthquake.
K'naan wasn't as ubiquitous on the entertainment scene in 2010 as pop prince Justin Bieber or rapper Drake, and didn't sell as many records. But K'naan, 32, was also less susceptible to the distracting turbulence that comes with tabloid-level popularity, and seems to have a deeper and larger sense of community that will probably strengthen his art as he prepares, through a forthcoming album, for what could be an even bigger 2011.
As well, K'naan's big year may have put him closer to a crossroads in his own life and identity. The Globe's arts person of 2010 is proud of his Canadian roots, but was also deeply affected by his extensive African travels during the past year, through some 25 countries, many of which had taken up Wavin' Flag as a pan-African theme.
“I was very aware of the impact the song had in Africa,” he said, sounding humbled by the response, and perhaps caught a little off guard. “Some songs find their own path and their own success, and that’s both a surprise and not a surprise. There has to be some kind of belief that anything can happen, but you’re often surprised when it does.”
Surprised, also, when you meet Nelson Mandela and find yourself hanging out in the great man’s house. It seems a very remote and unlikely outcome to K’naan’s modest experiments in music-making during his teens in north Toronto.
“That was a beautiful moment, meeting Mandela,” he says. “He was very sweet. I was with a lot of friends, and everyone was very quiet around him, and in awe. I told him that these guys that I brought to meet him, that they were all suddenly voiceless, and that all the clever things we had prepared to say, no one could say to him. He laughed, and said that he thought it was very nice that we found such an old man interesting to even visit.”
Other parts of K’naan’s journey were inspiring for the sheer extent of the continent and its peoples. Characteristically, he emphasized the strength and creativity of what he saw and heard.
“I didn’t encounter despair, I encountered vastness, from the majestic mountains in Swaziland to the incredible culture in Madagascar,” he said. “Africa is probably the most varied place on earth. I also realized that during times of hardship, people look to hopeful things, to things as they wish they were, not so much the way things are. I saw concerts in Mali, and listened to what people are listening to in Ethiopia. They’re dancing to their ideals, not being handicapped by their realities. In times of war, people write love songs. That’s an important realization for me, and a beautiful one. So I’m finding that what I’m writing these days is a balance between the way things are and the way we would like them to be.”
In Somalia, he returned to a place that’s still in his bones, where he would like to live again, even though it wasn’t possible for him to visit his dangerously unstable home town of Mogadishu. He and his family didn’t abandon the country – they fled its civil war. It’s maybe not surprising that the notion of home is much on K’naan’s mind these days, even as he admits that, in practical terms, his success has made “home” a tenuous reality.
“I’m not really living anywhere,” he said. “Toronto is home, even though I don’t really have a place there. I’ve been on tour for three years, and now I have a place in L.A. I like the sun, and I have relationships with people there. I’ve done most of my recording in L.A., so it feels comfortable.”
He has started work on a new record, and though he said it’s too early to discuss what it will sound like, he imagines that the sounds and maybe the feeling of his African travels will filter into it, that “in some way, my experiences will all be accounted for in my music.” He may do some of the recording in Africa, and will no doubt take inspiration from the confidence that Africans have in their own cultural lives.
“I was moved by how much the people there are drawn to their own culture,” he said. “You go to a party or something in Mozambique, and you don’t hear one western song, not one thing from our top 10. They listen to their own top 10.”
Those are words to ponder in Canada, where we’re awash in other people’s popular culture. But maybe the continuing lesson of K’naan’s career is that we are a sum of peoples, whose identity is continually in flux, rippling and changeable like a flag waving in the wind.