It was a warm, wet night in Manhattan in 2006, and K'naan was taking a walk alone, trying to shake off some disturbing news. It might have been something immediate, or perhaps something that had happened in Somalia, where he's from; he can't recall what exactly had sent him out into the New York streets. But he remembers how the air felt, that the rain had stopped, that he was in a T-shirt and that a melody suddenly came into his head, with the lyrics: "When I get older, I will be stronger, they'll call me freedom, just like a waving flag."
These were the beginnings of the catchy song Wavin' Flag, which has truly gone global, first snapped up by Coca-Cola as its anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and now, recorded as a We Are the World-type fundraiser for earthquake relief in Haiti.
On that night in New York, it took the Somali-Canadian rapper 20 minutes to produce what he calls the "original sculpture" of the song, which has now gone double platinum in Canada.
"Most of my songs stem from some kind of a discontent that's inside, and I'm somehow humming the discontent without knowing it," K'naan said this week about the beginnings of Wavin' Flag. "I was really in a heavy-hearted thought and I sang [it]in my head."
K'naan, 31, comes by his heavy heart honestly. He was born in Mogadishu, where as a youngster he witnessed terrible violence. He and his family escaped the civil war there by moving to North America, ultimately settling in Toronto in 1992. His breakthrough album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, released in 2005, dealt with this subject in depth and to great acclaim; it won a Juno Award for rap recording of the year and was also nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. He followed it up last year with Troubadour, which included Wavin' Flag.
K'naan has partially re-written the song twice now, most recently to add references to Haiti for the fundraising recording. As many as 50 musicians crammed into a Vancouver studio last weekend to record the song. The idea came from music producer Bob Ezrin, who brought it to K'naan and Universal Music.
"We wanted to collectively do something that will have a 'sustain pedal,' that will still resonate with people as time goes by and I think that songs do that," K'naan says.
"There was a lot of great energy, a good cause, good people coming together." He won't say who, but thanks to the Olympics, there were lots of artists in town in the days leading up to the recording, including Lou Reed, Feist, Stars, Our Lady Peace, Hawksley Workman, Corb Lund, Ron Sexsmith, Jully Black, Sam Roberts, Coeur de Pirate, Jason Collett, Julie Doiron, Tanya Tagaq and Chromeo.
Plus there are some big-name artists based in British Columbia upon whom Ezrin may have called, including Sarah McLachlan, Michael Bublé, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Nelly Furtado (who has worked with K'naan before) and a horde of indie bands and singer-songwriters.
The Haiti version of the song is expected to be released in late March.
While K'naan certainly witnessed his share of devastation growing up, he rejects any suggestion that he feels more of a responsibility to respond to crises in the world because of his own troubled homeland.
"Having some experiences that were difficult may give you maybe a special sensitivity to things, but I think that the humanity's that's built within us is capable of feeling those things with or without having seen struggle."
They may be on the same continent, but it's a long way from Somalia to South Africa, at least on this journey. K'naan is now associated with a big corporate sponsor, after being approached by Coca-Cola with a proposal that he write a soccer anthem for the World Cup in June. (Coca-Cola is a World Cup sponsor; the song will be used for Coke's World Cup branding, including on TV and at FIFA events.)
K'naan says he had no concerns about hooking up with the soft-drink giant; he says Coca-Cola wanted a song that was positive and hopeful, a celebration of humanity. "To me, that's a beautiful connection rather than a corporate connection," he says. "It wasn't like, 'Hey guys, pay me and I'll make you a jingle.'"
K'naan tried to write something new, but kept coming back to Wavin' Flag. He was surprised, though, at a top Coke executive's response to the proposal. "He said, 'You know, I think that Wavin' Flag is one of those special songs and I'm afraid that in the end we're just a brand and I don't want to take away from your magic and the beauty of this song by making it some kind of a product."
The Coca-Cola version, however, is much cheerier than the original. Gone are the references to war, hunger and poverty, replaced with lines such as "Celebration, it surrounds us" and "Let's rejoice in the beautiful game."
This was not Coke's idea; it was K'naan's. "Every four years [at the World Cup]the world kind of puts aside their differences and challenges themselves to love and play and have fun, celebrate each other. This is an amazing time and I didn't want to come and kind of rain on everybody's parade," he says. "So I had to find a way to make that song retain its spirit and what it is, but also give it that thing where everybody feels like they're celebrating, even though they still have something to think about."
When K'naan sings the song tonight at the Orpheum in Vancouver, where he's appearing as part of another sporting event - the Winter Games' Cultural Olympiad - he will sing the original, darker version, as he always does in concert. It's the version that came to him after the rain, when the ground was still wet.
K'naan plays a sold-out show at the Orpheum in Vancouver Thursday night, in a double bill with Tinariwen, beginning at 8 p.m. ( vancouver2010.com/culturalolympiad ).