A few months ago I was watching The Hour’s George Strombolopolous interview Canadian-Somalian recording artist (and soon-to-be Terry Global Speaker Series speaker) K’naan, whose hit song ‘Wavin Flag’ had begun enjoying a period of enormous popularity. Originally featured on his 2009 album Troubadour, by the time of the interview the song had topped the charts for the past six weeks and Coca Cola had selected it to be the company’s promotional anthem for the World Cup. K’naan’s story about how he had heard a Japanese-language version of the song being played in downtown Tokyo made one thing clear: for some reason, people around the world really liked ‘Wavin Flag.’
At one point in the interview, Strombolopolous, who lives Toronto, recounted how he had heard a homeless neighbour of his singing the lyrics to ‘Wavin Flag’ “not as if he had just heard the song on the radio… but as if he really believed it.” K’naan seemed visibly humbled by this and as the interview moved on it was clear that the he remained preoccupied by the story. I probably would not have paid much attention to this anectdote at the time had it not gone to the core of what I thought made K’naan’s rise to fame interesting and special. Here was a complete stranger who was being sincerely and deeply affected by a song which not only a) might not have been written had K’naan not escaped the Somali Civil War in 1991 on one of the last commercial flights out of the country (more on K’naan’s early life here), but also b) might not have reached him had it not become popular enough to receive the amount of radio play it did. Might K’naan’s music, I thought, in both its worldliness and its simple contagiousness, represent that rare, successful combination of emotional heft and meaning with musical accessibility and, dare I say, ‘catchiness’?
It is, of course, really hard these days to be even remotely interested in the state of popular, widely-distributed music (or in some cases to even listen to a song on YouTube) without hearing constant complaints from listeners and fans about how popular musicians seem to be eschewing artistic integrity in favour of a more accessible sound. Some notable industry critics have even claimed that, with falling physical record sales, an ever-shrinking group of ‘elite’ popular artists, and a rising demand for more ‘authentic’, ‘underground’, ‘indie’ artists and groups, this desire for musical purity is part of a larger movement in the music-consuming population.
Indeed criticism concerning commercialization appears to be most fierce when it concerns hip hop: K’naan’s genre, if he ever belonged to one, and a genre whose global audience and impact continues to grow at a phenomenal pace. (As bizarre as it might sound to some people, the fact remains today that, as American literary critic David Foster Wallace wrote in 1990, hip hop and rap are still “quite possibly the most important stuff happening in American poetry today.”) As the global influence of hip hop and rap has grown, however, the widening chasm between the authentic and the ‘mainstream’ seems to point towards a growing perception that one must for some reason choose between musical ‘purity’ and accessibility.
K’naan, who has gone from little-known Canadian musician and emcee to world-famous recording artist, has himself been criticized as a result of certain creative choices he’s made. Many music reviewers questioned his decision to collaborate with Kirk Hammett, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars on his last album, and others have expressed fears that his recent success could somehow take away from the classic K’naan ‘sound’ on future projects. Anyone who follows K’naan on Twitter or Facebook also knows that positive fan feedback concerning new songs or music videos is often accompanied by a fair share of negative sentiment.
This is probably nothing new for someone who outside of music has been simultaneously criticized as being too afrocentric, a condoner of piracy in Somalia and African Islamists, as well as not African ‘enough’ and not ‘truly’ Muslim. What some people don’t seem to realize, however, is that K’naan’s openness to new sounds, far from being a flaw or something new, is what has made his music what it is today. Beginning with his listening to American hip hop as a youth in Somalia, a tendency to absorb new stories and new ways of expressing himself seems to have given K’naan’s music a certain fullness and ‘life’ that is hard to place genre-wise but easy to enjoy and connect with.
In the end it seems that a constant desire to hear new sounds goes hand in hand with a more general urge to experience the world in constantly new and different ways. As a music producer who spends a lot of their time observing how people react to certain melodies and rhythms, I personally don’t think it’s much of a stretch to claim that people’s past experiences, their ability to see past differences, and their openness to new ideas often not only reflects, but is also directly influenced by their musical listening habits. What K’naan’s case proves is that a wealth of past experience, coupled with a willingness to explore new ways of expression, can result in something special.