Somalia. Spring 1989.
On a dusty street in a Mogadishu district known as Wardhiigleey (Somali for “river of blood”), three 10-year-old boys, known in the neighborhood as K’naan the Skinny, Shorty, and La’ib, are washing wooden tablets. Each tablet, or loh, is used for note taking at school; pupils write their alphabets and math equations, as well as the phrases they are learning from the Qu’ran, in ink on these tablets. At the end of the day, they are washed clean.
Somalia is riven by clan wars. These are the last few years of the reign of President Mohamed Siad Barre, who has been looting the national treasury and speeding his country’s descent into the hell later memorialized in the movie Black Hawk Down. The battle zone is mostly to the north, but the war is felt more and more here in the capital. A cascade of refugees has flooded the town, survivors with strange accents. The local boys insult them with the nickname habadi keento, meaning “those who are brought by the gun.” The northern boys, presciently, have dubbed the locals habadi sugto — “those for whom the gun awaits.”
K’naan the Skinny splashes a bucket of soapy water against the wall of a house, exposing something round, small, and dull. He walks over to pick it up. It’s a grenade.
He passes it around to the other kids, who start tossing it to one another. They’ve seen grenades before and know they’re safe as long as the pin’s set. They’re playing catch, laughing, taking a break from the tedium of washing. But then two of them tussle over the grenade, and the pin pops free.
K’naan throws the grenade away, fast, toward the wall of the school. The kids run like hell. There’s screaming. Things go black.
Twenty years later, Coca-Cola will decide to build its biggest marketing campaign ever, a $300 million — plus global adventure involving 160 countries and the greatest sporting event in the world, around that skinny child from that godforsaken country. The deal will go so well that Coke, which Interbrand calls “the world’s No. 1 brand,” will completely redefine the way it works with content providers. And, of course, it will change K’naan’s life, although not in the ways you might expect.
“It was an intense place. I now realize it’s healthy for a society to have some middles,” K’naan says, “but Somalis live only in the extremes. There’s extreme violence and extreme poetry, extreme hate and extreme beauty and heartache. There are no in-betweens. It’s good for art but not good for life.”
K’naan Warsame — refugee, high-school dropout, petty criminal, and now rock star — is picking over an egg-white omelette at Manhattan’s trendy Mercer Hotel, fresh from a show last night before 400 radio raffle winners. He’s barely had a day of rest since his triumphant performance of “Wavin’ Flag,” the global hit at the heart of the Coke campaign, at the kickoff event of the 2010 World Cup of soccer. When he isn’t performing, he’s either in transit, in a hotel room, or in front of a microphone, doing nonstop promotion for the song, his album, and himself. “I understand that a kid from Somalia doesn’t get this kind of pop fame,” he says, “and I don’t want to waste that.”
In the decades before K’naan was born in 1978, back when the country was not constantly at war, “Somalia was called Paradise on Earth, like the Seychelles,” he says. “The walls of the houses were whitewashed like sand, the roofs painted blue like the water. All the streets are narrow. Mogadishu resembled a beautiful town in Greece, not Africa.” His aunt Magool was the country’s most famous singer, and so prominent a critic of the military government that ruled Somalia in the 1970s that she went into exile. His grandfather, Haji Mohamed, was credited with bringing a clan war to an end by reciting a poem. “I once heard Bruce Springsteen say that every song he ever wrote was about identity,” he says. “My grandfather taught me about mine. He would say, ‘Who are you?’ and I’d respond, ‘K’naan,’ and he’d say, ‘No, you are more than that.’ He’s the one who schooled me in my heritage.” The family lived in a lovely house with an open courtyard. Actors and singers were regular visitors, and sometimes K’naan would sing with them or play his accordion.
“War comes in stages,” he says. “First, you hear the rumors of war, then you hear the sounds of war from far away in the distance, and then comes a time when you actually see and feel the war.” At the age of 9, he learned to handle an AK-47. At 10, he blew up his school with that grenade. The older he got, the starker the contrast between “the beauty and poetry of my family” and the collapse of Somalia. “It was a war zone,” he explains, “but kids just want their life the way it used to be.” He and his friends would build trampolines out of discarded tires, stacking them up on piles of sand built against the remaining walls of destroyed buildings. They’d run up and down, performing backflips and somersaults.
One afternoon in 1990, K’naan and three friends (nicknamed Hussein, Nune, and Soviet) were playing in the yard behind a destroyed courthouse. As the boys chatted and teased one another, armored vehicles sped past at regular intervals. Nune told the other three he was tired of this, that he just couldn’t stand to see these military guys anymore. “He starts screaming obscenities at them,” K’naan says. “The first guy to pass, he just ignores us. Nune goes closer up to the road, yelling at the next one and the next, ‘We don’t want you in our neighborhood, you cowards. Find some other place to go.’ The vehicles are like pickup trucks, with a machine gun on top. One slows down. The guy behind the machine gun just looks at us. Then he slowly turns. He turns his machine gun at us, and then he starts firing.” Nune died first. Hussein was next. Soviet was shot and went to the hospital. K’naan escaped unscathed.
A few weeks later, K’naan, his brother, Liban, and their mother clambered into a white pickup truck. They were headed for the Mogadishu airport, for a scheduled flight to New York. His father, who had been living in New York since 1984, had secured exit visas, and his mother had sold the house and almost all their belongings to pay for the tickets.
“My mum said, ‘We’re going to stop by to see this family friend, a well-traveled man who knows about these trips, and about the West.’ So we went to see him, a few streets away, and he told me about things like snow,” says K’naan. “In Somalia, we have no word for snow, only a word that means ‘ice,’ so I think he’s telling me that ice, like ice cubes from a fridge, are going to fall from the sky. And I’m thinking, Man, these people in America are bad dudes!”
They departed on one of the last commercial flights to leave Somalia. As the plane soared skyward, the overhead speakers played the lambada. When they got off at their Frankfurt stopover, Liban walked ahead on the tarmac, smoke coming from his mouth. “Liban!” his mother yelled. “Is that a cigarette? Stop that right now!” The boy turned around and exhaled into the cold air. “Look, Mum,” he said, “it’s just my breath. You can do it too.”
After a year in Harlem, the family moved to Toronto, home to a large Somali community. Free but exiled, K’naan’s life fell apart. “It was the norm,” he says, “for Somalis to wind up in jail. We did not like the police, and they didn’t like us.” He describes a battleground of competing ethnicities and gangs. “The Jamaican kids were like, ‘We’re the toughest around,’ and we Somalis were like, ‘Nah, we don’t think so.’ ” Five friends were murdered, he says, while another four committed suicide. “One got out of jail and the next day jumped from the balcony of a skyscraper. Two died in a car crash being chased by the police. A friend called me from prison, and then a few days later, he was killed there.” K’naan’s parents were divorcing, he was unhappy in school, and he was wanted on charges ranging from assaulting an officer to missing court dates. “I was anxious, and absentminded,” he says. “I’d be hanging with my friends, and say, ‘Oh, shit, I missed my date.’ And sometimes I’d turn myself in.”
K’naan was drawn to the music of Nas, 2Pac, and Biggie Smalls, rappers with complex lyrics and a social conscience. He started dropping rhymes of his own, just messing around, but he did manage to throw together a demo disc. One day, a well-known R&B singer took a break from a Toronto music convention and went into a nearby park looking for a guy named K’naan, who could tell him where he could buy something to smoke. Recognizing the singer, K’naan went up to him, saying, “Dude, you do not belong here.” They started talking and the singer told K’naan they were having a demo competition at a convention. K’naan begged to get in. The singer couldn’t make it happen, but he introduced K’naan to an organizer named Sol Guy, who listened to his demo, liked it, and allowed him to enter the competition. “He finished in third place,” says Guy, “and thought for the first time, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this.’ This was the first time he’d really ever thought that there was a business side of music.”
Bored, distressed, frustrated, and fearful, K’naan confronted his parents after 10th grade. “I said, you know those dreams you have about your smart son who’s going to go to college and become a dentist and all that? Well, it’s not going to happen. I’ll die if I have to try.” His parents cut him loose. “Mum was very cool. She said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do this, go and be safe. We’re going to call you Free Man now. You’re a free man, doing your own thing.’ “
On something of a self-imposed exile because of the charges against him, K’naan hoboed between New York, Ohio, Minnesota, and Toronto, performing small gigs and slowly building a reputation as a poetic rapper. At an appearance before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1999, he met Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese superstar of world music. K’naan toured the world with N’Dour and recorded his first album, the trippy and eclectic Dusty Foot Philosopher. Only then did he move back to Toronto, which he still calls home. “I’d done what I wanted, released my album, so I turned myself in. Letters came to the judge from everywhere, from the UN, from the presidents of a couple of music labels, from the office of Madeleine Albright. And the judge said, ‘I can’t in good faith hold you for doing these things when you were a teenager living in that particular neighborhood. Especially when you’ve done all this.’ “
With Guy now his full-time manager, K’naan truly entered the strange world of the music business. Produced by a small Canadian outfit called Track & Field, Dusty Foot was released by BMG in 2005. It did very little business, but two years later, a scout brought it to Ben Berkman, executive vice president at a record label called A&M/Octone, which Berkman had established in 2000 with David Boxenbaum, general manager, and James Diener, CEO and president. A&M/Octone has unusual financial heft for a small label — the trio raised $5 million from Wall Street to launch and made a lot of money off the first band they took on, Maroon 5, which grew to pop stardom. The label also has an unusual commitment to building a few bands slowly, rather than signing on many acts. Launched at the start of a miserable decade for labels, it has a decent record, if not as good as some of the hype it has received: Flyleaf and Hollywood Undead have benefitted from its approach, while other performers, such as Michael Tolcher, whom the label had pushed quite hard, have been dropped after disappointing sales.
Diener and crew flew to Toronto to check out K’naan, who played a showcase for them, and to meet Guy. They came away impressed. “Dusty Foot is poetry set to music, sketches of good ideas,” says Diener. “But K’naan had a musical vision, and a good show and story. Plus, the synergy with Sol was a winner.” A&M/Octone signed K’naan to a 360 deal, giving the label a cut of everything — merchandise, CD, and digital sales; touring; and publishing rights, which are shared by Sony ATV. K’naan calls A&M/Octone the perfect partner. “They aren’t into instant gratification,” he says. “They’re small, and the three guys have equity. At other labels, the A&R guy and the president love you, but when they’re fired, your music just sits on the shelf. You can’t get them to do anything. These guys aren’t like that.”
The first priority was to record a new album. Troubadour, which features “Wavin’ Flag,” was released in February 2009. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales in Canada and the U.S. barely topped 90,000 for the year. And while international sales figures are notably unreliable, general manager Boxenbaum says it was slow going there as well: “I had this idealistic idea that the album would develop internationally first, so I was trying hard to get the territories to activate early.” A&M/Octone distributes its records through Universal Music Group, whose local managers around the world have great leeway over which albums to push. “They said he was too hard to sell without a good North American story,” he continues. “So let’s just say that the territories that were into K’naan were the exception.”
There was another guy trying to “activate” international distributors in 2008 and 2009: Emmanuel Seugé, the buoyant global director of worldwide sports and entertainment marketing at Coca-Cola. Seugé, a 35-year-old Frenchman whose childhood dream was to play for Les Bleus, his country’s national soccer team, was working on the dream assignment of his adult life — turn the World Cup into the biggest branding event ever for Coca-Cola. The company has a contract with FIFA, the game’s organizing committee, to be one of the event’s six chief sponsors through 2022. “My life has been driven by football, and I love marketing, so this is the best of both worlds,” he says.
When Coca-Cola launches an international branding campaign from its Atlanta headquarters, its highly autonomous international marketers assess how well that plan will work in their bottlers’ territories, and decide whether backing it is the best use of their marketing dollars. Sponsoring something as massive as the World Cup, CEO Muhtar Kent hopes that most sign on so that the company will get the biggest global bang for its sponsorship buck. Seugé was responsible for wooing the distributors and customizing the campaign for them; unlike Boxenbaum, he was having a grand old time. Just about everything was lining up perfectly.
Seugé’s research on the ground in South Africa had convinced him that the 2010 edition would be the most exuberant World Cup yet, which was perfect for Coke. Every brand at Coca-Cola is associated with a central idea or theme. Coke Zero, for example, is all about “making the impossible possible,” which is why Seugé had that brand sponsor Avatar, James Cameron’s revolutionary 3-D film. Coke, on the other hand, is associated with happiness. “Happiness and optimism,” says Seugé, “like all that singing on a hill in the middle of the crises of the 1970s. For the World Cup, we decided to tell a story of happiness through an African lens — if that helped change the perception of the continent, that would be even better.”
Seugé had found a great story to celebrate, the tale of Roger Milla, captain of Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions during the 1990 World Cup, when the team came within seven minutes of knocking off mighty England in the quarterfinals. Milla scored four goals during the tournament. After each, he ran to a corner post and shimmied joyously, a goal celebration so memorable that it was copied by players all over the world. And at least one of those shimmies was directly in front of, yes, a Coca-Cola ad. So when a distributor in Vienna reminded Seugé about Milla, Seugé quickly tracked down Milla’s cell number and called, reaching him at his home in Yaoundé. Milla answered, and Seugé got right to the point: Coca-Cola wanted to pay Milla to be an ambassador for the World Cup and to build an online campaign around videos of his memorable dance. Would Milla be interested? “The phone was silent for 45 seconds,” remembers Seugé, “and when he speaks he’s crying, saying, ‘I’m 57 years old and I’ve never had a sponsorship, and now the Coca-Cola Co. is calling me. Is this a joke?’ ” No, it wasn’t. Coke drinkers around the world were invited to log on to coke.com to send in videos of their own joyous goal dances — and millions eventually did.
To make his job even easier, Seugé also had the ultimate symbol of soccer excellence: the World Cup trophy itself. As part of its deal with FIFA, Coke has the right to take the trophy on tour before the tournament. The closest analogy in North America would be a company having the right to tour Canada with the Stanley Cup.
All Seugé was missing was a song, an anthem that would get the world singing along with Coke again. He had sent out a proposal explaining this to a wide swath of the music industry — agents, performers, publicists, scouts, and bookers — but by February 2009, with the World Cup just 16 months away, he still hadn’t heard the right tune. And then one morning, he opened up an email sent at 4 a.m. by the wild Turk he’d put in charge of music sponsorships, Umut Ozaydinli. “I think I’ve found our guy and our song,” wrote Umut (no one calls him Ozaydinli). “His name is K’naan, and the song is ‘Wavin’ Flag.’ “
Sol Guy had seen Seugé’s original proposal and shown it to K’naan. The pair were intrigued, but the brief called for a song in the vein of “Twist and Shout” — a far cry from “Wavin’ Flag.” So when Umut came backstage after K’naan’s performance at South by Southwest, in Austin, and told him Coke was really interested in making him the centerpiece of its campaign, “I was like, ‘That’s a nice thought,’ ” recalls K’naan. “You know, if all the ifs about this check out, that would be great, you know? But I was wondering: Have they checked out my videos? I’m not a pretty white girl. Have they heard the things I say? I say pretty much everything I feel, which can be a problem.”
The first hurdle was the lyrics of “Wavin’ Flag.” Umut and Seugé loved the upbeat chorus: “When I get older, I will be stronger/ They’ll call me freedom/ Just like a wavin’ flag.” But the rest of the lyrics reflected K’naan’s anguished, deeply personal reflection on Somalia. “I might be the best marketer of the whole group involved,” K’naan says. “I knew Coke wasn’t going to put its money behind ‘So many wars, settling scores/ Bringing us promises/ leaving us poor.’ And writing a whole new thing would have been a jingle. Emmanuel was too sensitive to ask me to rewrite ‘Wavin’ Flag.’ So I offered to do it.”
That meant ditching the reflective side of the song for new language that tapped into the optimism of the chorus. K’naan would write a version and send it to Umut, who sent back notes. “The Coke lyrics are the pop music side of me,” K’naan says, “creating a song you can hum at work. I love writing stuff like that.” Out went the poor, and in came an obligatory reference to soccer: “Staying forever young singing/ Songs underneath the sun/ Let’s rejoice in the beautiful game/ Then together celebrate the day.” The music for what would become the song’s “Celebration Mix” changed as well, with more upbeat instrumentation and even a five-tone cadence heard in every Coca-Cola commercial.
“All this stuff rubs me the wrong way,” says Bob Lefsetz, speaking of corporate tie-ins. A passionate curmudgeon whose online Lefsetz Letter is read by everyone in the music business, he explains: “The conventional wisdom is that since it is very hard to get noticed, and since the labels don’t have the dollars they once did to try to get attention, tying in with a corporation is the way to go. But these deals hurt your credibility.”
Most corporate deals with musicians are one-offs. An artist licenses her song to an advertiser, or her name to a clothing line or perfume. But with K’naan’s full support, Umut, Guy, and Boxenbaum were setting out to craft something broader. “It might sound arrogant or stupid,” says K’naan, “but I feel so outrageously authentic at what I do that the question of selling out or not selling out doesn’t even enter my head. I think people who worry about this must already be worried about their true credibility. I’m just interested in, How do we get my message out?”
Coke’s World Cup tour became the heart of the deal, with K’naan traveling extensively with the trophy, making many more appearances than an established star would have agreed to. Coke paid A&M/Octone and K’naan a $150,000 sponsorship fee, along with a fee of between $7,500 and $25,000 for each performance. To reduce Coca-Cola’s costs, K’naan agreed to trim the size of his band. Coke got 50% of the royalties on the Celebration Mix. To boost the song’s international appeal, K’naan customized 18 Celebration Mixes for specific countries, with local musicians singing up to half the lyrics in their language. In soccer-rabid Spain, he paired with crossover superstar David Bisbal; in China, he recorded with Jacky Cheung and Jane Zhang, the country’s equivalent of Mariah Carey; in Congo, his partners were Barbara Kanam and Patience Dabany, who happens to be the ex-wife of Gabon’s former president and the mother of its current leader. Across the world, there are now 20 versions of “Wavin’ Flag” for sale on albums and on iTunes.
Boxenbaum and Seugé also agreed to marry their international networks in a way that worked for both companies. For each territory, a memo detailed who was responsible for what. Coke, for example, would secure the audience for K’naan’s concert; Universal would secure radio and TV coverage. Now that K’naan had Coca-Cola’s marketing dollars behind him, Universal distributors were finally ready to support his album. And now that an African singer was deeply involved in the campaign, Coca-Cola’s marketers and bottlers were more excited about it.
K’naan kicked off the tour on November 13, 2009, in Nairobi. Through 20 countries, across 50,000 air miles, and over seven months, K’naan and Coke went on tour with the World Cup trophy. Some nights there was no bottled water backstage; other nights, the DJ would prep the crowd with recorded versions of “Wavin’ Flag” — “So not cool,” says K’naan. One evening, the local partners decided to take the song to its literal extreme. As K’naan went into the chorus, 15 feathered models mounted the stage, parading around K’naan as they waved enormous flags. “But it all came out all right in the end,” smiles K’naan. “It was all good.”
“The World Cup is shaping everything I do going forward,” says Seugé. “It is changing how we imagine a campaign, who we work with, what kind of ownership stake we want, everything.” Inside Coca-Cola, the campaign is seen as a massive success, in ways both tangible and ineffable. A total of 160 countries signed on, 65 more than had joined the company’s 2006 World Cup campaign. Sales of Coke rose 5% in the second quarter of 2010, a gain CEO Kent attributed directly to the campaign. Nearly a million people attended the company’s World Cup trophy events, and the various “Wavin’ Flag” remix videos have garnered 80 million page views. When Interbrand released its recent report that named Coke the world’s leading brand, the agency described the effort as “a campaign that marketing managers will be looking to as a case study for years to come.”
For A&M/Octone, says Diener, “the deal cut a year and a half out of the typical development cycle of an artist.” “Wavin’ Flag” became an international phenomenon; when the Spanish team returned to Madrid to celebrate its victory, the team led a 1.5 million — person sing-along. A&M/Octone estimates that some 2.1 million paid copies of the song have been downloaded. While sales of Troubadour in the U.S. and Canada are still slow — 59,100 as of September 19, according to Nielsen SoundScan — the numbers may pick up this fall during K’naan’s American tour. K’naan has garnered some real global fame, and Universal hopes that will drive international sales higher; the company has just made K’naan a global priority, along with more-established artists such as Miley Cyrus, Drake, Scissor Sisters, Brandon Flowers, Ne-Yo, Taio Cruz, and Robert Plant. Hoping that momentum is on his side, Diener has just delivered another single to the U.S. market, a raucous tune called “Bang Bang” that features a collaboration with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and a racy video with K’naan lustily eyeing a gaggle of women clad in little more than thongs. And soon the push will be on to deliver the next, even more mainstream album, which Diener wants out by next fall.
As for K’naan, it’s hard to say that he is exactly basking in the sunshine of success as he slides into a hotel restaurant booth in Dublin for yet another dinner with yet another reporter. It’s September 4, and he’s just back from a desultory performance in the Irish drizzle at Electric Picnic, an outdoor festival that featured him as a third-tier act, far behind headliners like Modest Mouse, the Frames, Leftfield, and Massive Attack. He’s exhausted and depressed. “It’s the first time,” he says, “that I ever performed most of a concert with my back to the audience. I just couldn’t feel it. Not at all.” His next stop: the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a 450-person club in London’s trendy Shore-ditch neighborhood, which is advertising a night with “K’haan.” In October, he launches his first headlining tour of America, playing venues that accommodate an average of 1,000 people.
All this might seem a far cry from June 10, when K’naan was in front of 2 billion television viewers as he performed “Wavin’ Flag” at the World Cup kickoff event, and far less than you might expect for an artist propelled by something as big as this Coke deal. But it’s a disappointment only if you cling to the old dream of music-industry success. Over the past two decades, only a handful of groups — including the Dave Matthews Band, Green Day, and Nickelback — have emerged that can consistently sell out arenas. If Lady Gaga can come close to the career of her spiritual mother, Madonna, she might be next. For everyone else, creating a lasting career in today’s music business is a slog — which is exactly what K’naan still faces.
Diener says he wants to build artists for that long haul, but he also wants to create stars. “We don’t want to have an important artist who remains unknown,” he says. “I worked with Dylan and Springsteen. Those guys understood having commercial music that captivated people. Bob Marley is another example.”
“I’m comfortable with the balance between my internal voice and those who want me to be as big as possible,” K’naan says. “That balance is significant. I like pop.”
But achieving that balance will be terribly hard. Both Guy and Diener argue that K’naan is a deep and complicated artist whose intelligent audience will want to dive deep and buy albums. But consider that K’naan’s album sales are dwarfed by the digital downloads of “Wavin’ Flag.” When consumers want singles so much more than albums, how can an album-oriented musician develop a strong core audience? That’s a problem that will only be exacerbated as the industry moves to a subscription model, where people own little music but pay a monthly access fee to tap into a global music database. At that point, albums become almost meaningless.
Then there’s the question of the artist himself and how he’ll handle the long haul that’s required, even after this World Cup campaign. Like any artist, K’naan has his differences with the label. As a Muslim, he wishes A&M/Octone would have waited until after Ramadan to release “Bang Bang.” And he worries about his audience, how to keep them interested as he moves on in his career. “Someone, it must have been a kid, wrote on my website, ‘K’naan, how could you put out a video with all those girls, just like everyone else? You are not the second Bob Marley.’ It was cute. But for some of my fans, it’s like, take off your shoes before you enter the house of K’naan.”
Touring can wear him down. After the World Cup, K’naan would have liked to take some time off. He has music he wants to write, songs to develop. When lyrics or melodies pop into his head, he has time only to sing them into his BlackBerry, which now stores a couple hundred voice notes, like a lovely tune labeled “Central Park Melody.” He’d like to spend some time with his two sons, who live in Toronto in his old apartment with their mother, whom he divorced just before hitting the road for Coke. (He stays in hotels when he goes home to Toronto. He’s so well-known there that kids from the neighborhood swarm his mom’s backyard when he visits.) “But success breeds more success,” he says, “and demands more attention of you. After the World Cup, the label was like, ‘Of course there are more shows. Now everyone wants to see you. Now everyone in the press wants to talk to you.’ The guys at the label are very passionate and they want me to succeed, so I can’t fault them for that, but at the same time, I’m a sensitive dude. I respond only to my internal questions, and when they come up, they come up hard.”
If K’naan can recharge for his American tour; if the tour sells lots of tickets; if he can manage the balance between pop success and artistic integrity; if Universal delivers the international sales of Troubadour; if his next album delivers more hits than Troubadour; if the label continues to feel the love when some future project turns sour; if he doesn’t get slotted into the NPR niche of world music but manages to find a market for his hard-to-define blend of pop, rap, and sing-song rhyming; and if he has the patience of Job, K’naan just might make it. His manager is a friend, his band is close-knit, and he’s a charismatic artist with a deep sense of mission and an ear for compelling hooks. He’s such a charmer that Hollywood could come calling. And he’s seen enough tragedy to have a great perspective on all the hype.
But the odds are just as good that he’ll disappear in a few years. The business is that tough. Like everything else that has been tagged as a “savior” of the music business — merchandise, videos, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, PayPal, the Montreal scene, cheap arena tickets, VIP ticketing, artist collaborations, advertising tie-ins, Apple, marketing targeted to your core audience, marketing that reaches everyone, great stage shows, video games, Rock Band, the Brooklyn scene, Guitar Hero — corporate partnerships are no silver bullet. Nothing can resurrect the old dream.
The deal between Coke, A&M/Octone, and K’naan worked for two reasons: First, because Coca-Cola is an unusually huge and unusually good marketer. Second, because everyone compromised to pull off something cool. The artist took less money than he would have a few years ago, and worked hard. The corporation respected his integrity and quirks, and developed a plan that was as good for him as it was for them. The label forsook a short-term payout for a broader partnership. This is the only way the Coke-K’naan deal could be a model for the industry: Accept less, work hard, don’t go for the quick buck, compromise, work with people you like, and create music that’s meaningful to your fans.
Shortly after the shooting in that Mogadishu courtyard, K’naan the Skinny was visited by his friend Soviet. Soviet explained that he’d be going out of town that day, accompanying his father, a bus driver, on his trip to a nearby town. The boy said good-bye and went to find his dad.
Later that afternoon, K’naan was playing with Soviet’s younger brother, hanging out outside his house. Looking down the street, he saw a woman wailing, running toward him, carrying something covered with a white sheet.
By instinct, he told Soviet’s brother to look away. He cradled the boy’s head in his lap, repeating the admonition, “Don’t look, don’t look,” as the woman ran past. But soon enough, the boy raised his head, in time to see the woman at the front door of his own house, knocking on his door, delivering the lifeless body of his brother to his mother. The bus had been shot up by the approaching rebels, killing Soviet, his father, and every passenger. The little brother ran inside K’naan’s house and drank an entire bottle of cough medicine before breaking down completely. “That was one of the most painful moments of consolation for me,” K’naan says.
A few weeks after he and his family reached America, they received a letter from Somalia. A number of people in the neighborhood had been killed, said the letter writer. Oh, and K’naan’s friend, the girl, the one named Fatima, she was shot as well. Fatima lives on now, in one of the best songs on Troubadour.
“I have no idea why I didn’t get hit,” says K’naan. “There were a few occasions when it seems like I should have been dead, but I wasn’t. I don’t know why that was.”