The Sad Irony of K’naan’s Waving Flag

So, with all this insane World Cup fever which has even enveloped my dear North American continent which, outside of particular ethnic enclaves and socially obligatory little league teams, never had much interest in the sport. But this year? Damn, everyone’s into it. People who probably can’t even tell the difference between a football and a volleyball are following the World Cup, either as sudden ardent fans or just updating their Facebook or twitter with bandwagon statements.

The hype for this World Cup seems to be probably the biggest I’ve ever experienced in my own life. And for that I have to blame Coca Cola, which did an excellent job – as per usual of the soft drink gargantuan – of marketing unity and one of my favourite poets: K’naan.

I will never, ever forgive K’naan for selling out so hardcore. To Coca Cola. NEVER, K’NAAN, NEVER (well, probably. grudges are for doors). I suppose what kills me the most about the Wavin’ Flag sensation – which, before becoming the Coke-flavoured aural addiction that it did, was the official song for the African cup – was the complete stripping of the meaning of the song and how much more relevant the song, in its original context, was to the World Cup.

The song went from one about the aspirations of a child stricken with poverty in a war-torn country to one espousing love for a sport with the most nauseatingly cheesy lyrics ever. In about 7 languages.

Here are some of the international Coked out versions of the song that you most likely have heard:

Now, I’m not going to lie. I still get pretty giddy like a kid whenever I see or hear this sort of stuff. I do, at a very personal level, love it. As much of a complete marketing scheme it is by a pretty evil soft drink company, it still warms my heart a bit and has something beautiful about it.

Now, that 8-year old me aside, time to bring out the unfortunate irony of it all.

These are a selection of the lyrics sung by K’naan in all of the above-posted songs:

Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher
See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud
In the streets our head are liftin’, as we lose our inhibition,
Celebration it surrounds us, every nations, all around us

Singin forever young, singin songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautifull game.
And together at the end of the day.


When I get older I will be stronger

They’ll call me freedom Just like a wavin’ flag

Give you freedom, give you fire, give you reason, take you higher
See the champions, take the field now, unify us, make us feel proud
In the streets our head are liftin’, as we lose our inhibition,
Celebration, it surrounds us, every nation, all around us

Singin’ forever young, singin’ songs underneath that sun
Lets rejoice in the beautifull game.
And together at the end of the day.


When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom
Just like a wavin’ flag

The lyrics above are pretty clearly about a sport. They are uplifting, even if pretty damn kiddish simplistic for a brilliantly poetic wordsmith like K’naan.

Now, here is a selection of the original lyrics of the song, which as you’ll notice have a completely different sort of ‘positive’ feel to them:

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag

When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag
And then it goes back
And then it goes back
And then it goes back

Born to a throne, stronger then Rome
A violent prone, poor people zone
But it’s my home, all I have known
Where I got grown, streets we would roam
Out of the darkness, I came the farthest
Among the hardest survivors
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak
Except no defeat, surrender, retreat
So we strugglin’, fightin’ to eat
And we wonderin’, when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait for that fateful day
It’s not far away, but for now we say…

So many wars, settlin’ scores
Bringin’ us promises, leavin’ us poor
I heard ’em say, love is the way
Love is the answer, that’s what they say
But look how they treat us
Make us believers, we fight their battles
Then they deceive us
Tried to control us, they couldn’t hold us
Cuz we just moved forward like Buffalo Soldiers
But we strugglin’, fightin’ to eat
And we wonderin’, when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait for that fateful day
It’s not far away, but for now we say…

While K’naan claimed that he changed the lyrics because Coca Cola wasn’t too cool with the idea of ‘poverty’ and ‘violence’ being a part of their campaign for the World Cup, but at the same time he said he did it in such a way where his integrity as an artist was preserved; “I don’t work for Coke.”

Fair enough, K’naan – the weaksauce lyrics aside, does the irony of the change in your lyrics really prevade you that much?

Wavin’ Flag, in its original form, is about young children growing up in a poverty-stricken, war torn society still holding onto the hope of actually being free. Free from the threat of violence, from the burdens of poverty, the hurt of betrayal. The song references war as well as what seems to be detrimental international interference which deceives an already broken people (unsurprising given K’naan’s strong Somali background and consciousness of the country’s politics) on the basis of salvation.

The message is strong. It is ugly. But what is beautiful about it, as cliche and corny I sound, is that despite all of the struggles, deceit, poverty and violence that overwhelms the people in K’naan’s song, there is still a strong but patient grip on hope for freedom one day.

Dude, that’s awesome.

Now compare that with the Coked out version which is promoting, ultimately, nationalism in a sport which is actually used, often successfully, also for rehabilitation for children in post-conflict zones as well for bridging differences between different ethnic groups (UNOSDP held small games in Rwanda after the genocide, for instance, between Hutu and Tutsi children). Maybe I’m over-intellectualizing it-I probably am- but that’s what struck me first and foremost. How the very thing that has helped tear Africa and many other peoples apart informed the new lyrics to a song which first spoke of the struggles of never-ending war and poverty. The irony struck me.

Had it been any other song, I wouldn’t have cared. But the stripping away of the very real meaning of a beautiful song and having it replaced with something so meaningless and conflict-provoking well ..its irony that just can’t be ignored.

Anyway, whatever.

Don’t even get me started on the Golden Calf worship analogy and Shakira’s Waka Waka: This time for Africa.

24 thoughts on “The Sad Irony of K’naan’s Waving Flag

  1. To respond I would say it’s not that big a deal. I personally would like to hear a revamped version of the original lyrics because I believe that those lyrics do make a more artful and passionate song. But to criticize K’Naan for “selling out” is a bit over the top. The World Cup does have to teeter on the edge of civility because the players in the match have no control over the sad political divisions that divide up the world. Consider that if K’Naan hadn’t “sold out”, I wouldn’t have heard it on the radio on Monday, and then I wouldn’t even know the original lyrics at all.

  2. Nationalism isn’t all that bad at this level. I think these new songs help symbolize the cultural diversity that is found in soccer fans across the world; they CELEBRATE different cultures. Overall, I think they promote unity rather than separation. (All the international versions display people of various cultures celebrating the game.) What’s so bad about that? As for the “childish” lyrics, I think they do their job. You even said yourself the songs are uplifting.

  3. I think it’s extremely important not to lose sight of the fact that it was a Coca Cola campaign, a corporation that doesn’t exactly have ‘global unity’ at the heart of its intentions. The point was to sell Coke. Not the World Cup. Not unity.

  4. then again, we have Lupe, sayin it like it is : )

    nigga they ain’t living properly
    break ’em off a little democracy
    turn their whole culture to a mockery
    give ’em Coca-Cola for their property
    give ’em gum, give ’em guns, get ’em young, give ’em fun
    if they ain’t giving it up, then they ain’t getting none and don’t give ’em all naw, man, just give ’em some its
    the paper, some of these cops must be al-qaeda

    The more money that they make
    the more money that they make
    the better and better they live
    whatever they wanna take
    whatever they wanna take
    whatever whatever it is
    the more that you wanna learn
    the more that you try to learn
    the better and better it gets
    American Terrorist

    It’s like
    don’t give the black man food, give red man liquor
    red man fool, black man nigga
    give yellow man tool, make him railroad boulder
    also give him pan, make him pull gold from river
    give black man crack, glocks and things, give red man
    craps, slot machines…

  5. You seem to suggest that because the coke version does not hold references to uglyness and violence it somehow betrays the message of the original song – this seems a rather pedantic attempt at a critique.

    Living in suburbia of North Africa, you probably fail to realise the transformational and liberating role that soccer and the world cup plays in the lives of kids all over the world and particularly in the ‘third’ world.

    As you say the old lyrics give are about young children in poverty stricken societies holding on to the hope of being free, and for many children this is symbolised by soccer.

    So adapting the positive message of freedom from one context to the other is really not as much as a stretch as you make out. Stop trying to find irony in everything you see. As the Prophet said, cynicism is bad for the heart.

  6. : “The song went from one about the aspirations of a child stricken with poverty in a war-torn country to one espousing love for a sport with the most nauseatingly cheesy lyrics ever. In about 7 languages.”
    It started with the coke advertisement in my part of the world, you know, South Asia.. Had it not been for the “coked out” version, I’d never have come across this page, or the song either, the original one..
    Yes, coca cola made the artist change his lyrics to somewhat befitting the spirit of the championship and the game, rather than broadcast the utter reality of children in poverty and worse, to the world..
    I say they did good, the world cup is about celebration, getting together, and inspiring the world around you..
    I like the original version better, all the same..
    I just feel that maybe their intentions were not really bad after all..
    The opinion highlights a sneering disbelief in human sincerity, get over it..

  7. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If coke approached you with the offer to use your song as THE song for the World Cup, I’m sure you would be so stalwart in your moral dedications to say no thanks. I don’t know shit about K’naan and don’t pretend to. I’ve only read some of his lyrics, and they seem alright. People blamed Isaac Brock for selling out too, because some of his songs got taken by commercialism and used to sell products; shit sucks, but it doesn’t change the art inherent in the song. Your complaint is equivalent to raining on people’s parades, or crashing a wedding because someone else across the world died. Sure, the original version had a good message too, but there’s a time and place for everything, and I don’t want to listen to a requiem while fueling a patriotic tie (which isn’t the same as nationalism, either). Also, on a technical note, I hope you caught the irony in blogging about the stripping of a song’s meaning. Might want to explain how something can be conflict-provoking and yet meaningless at the same time.

    No harsh feelings, and I have no idea who you are, but I think most of the comments here point to you overstepping justification.

  8. keep in mind the importance of soccer in Africa. Its huge. Its not just a sport to them. So the impact this song can have being chosen as the World Cup anthem, being held in south africa no less…huge. Not only that, but watch this interview with K’naan. It was his choice to change the lyrics. I’m not saying your feelings are wrong. I’m just saying if you’re gonna accuse a gem of an artist like K’naan of sellin out, you gotta consider all angles, and consider what sellin out really means, especially in this day and age. Coke didn’t actually want him to change the lyrics. you should watch the full interview, it’s amazing. But the coca-cola issue comes up at 42:19.

  9. If it had not been for the Coca-Cola remix, I would have never known about K’Naan and the original lyrics.
    I hope he maintains his identity with all the popularity.

  10. THANK YOU – I thought it was just me. Saw a disgusting cgi ad for Coke using the bastardized song. K’naan is a sellout of the worst kind. At very best, he got played.

    Coke has terrible labor and environmental records worldwide – all for a product that ruins people’s health. There are well established international campaigns against them. How ignorant does K’naan have to be not to know this – or how callous not to bother finding out ?

    But the misdeeds of Coke are really secondary – changing the lyrics to a song, at the behest of any multinational corporation is a pathetic act.

  11. hi, i wanted to know do you know the song “one big family together every nation, we are the champions”, i believe its an old african song. does any one know which is the album

  12. I actually forgave him for that. He was right in his tweets, the single moment where he could raise Somalia’s flag before millions of people was more than worth “selling out”. His new video for Bang Bang ft. Adam Levine however is unforgivable. For someone who speaks out against strip clubs and degrading woman the video was not representative of who he is, unless of course he had a major shift in his beliefs and ideologies. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe he simply SOLD his beliefs and ideologies. The video is stupid, disgusting and reminiscent of every ‘hip-hop’/pop music video out there. Stupid, and unworthy of what I though K’naan was. Sad.

  13. Just look at his video soobax from couple years ago. Then look at his video’s now with and coke. He sold out. K’naan claims to be one of the most hardcore rappers out there (listen to “What’s Hardcore). Sorry but having 4 different versions of a song play on the radio and having your album on the front page of itunes isn’t hardcore. I’m sick of people saying they like an artist just cause they’ve heard of one popular song. Having a fanbase who actually listens to what you have to say is more important than money. He should have stayed underground. And I haven’t seen the video that the person above is talking about for Bang Bang, but it sounds like just another reason why he lost me as a fan.

  14. the meaning of this song is simple. listen to it over and over again it becomes a lot more clear. it is stating how blacks are treated by others. listen to the part “we fight their battles and they deceive us…” it is saying how we made african americans fight our battles in WW1 and WW2 and we then threat them like they are outcast and he is saying when he gets older he will be stronger and stand up for what he believes in.

  15. I completely agree with you. Admittedly I had never heard the original before but what an amazing song. How could he destroy it and using the company who makes the most evil non-alcoholic drink. It shows exactly what this world is really like. One that only loves money. We should be fighting for freedom, justice. I’ve been watching quite alot of things about the Apartheid and was reading the South African Freedom Charter. The song reminds me of the Apartheid songs. How hard did they fight for freedom! They always used music. It is very sad and ironic.

  16. i don’t see why your thinking leads to ‘irony’, but it really makes sense.

    tone betweet two songs are so different, being almost opposite!

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  18. It is becouz of the coca cola celebration mix i knew about it’s original song. This ‘celebration mix’ brought k’naan an immeasurable popularity. it’s very inspirational and it leads us to find about the singer and the meaning of this song. that’s why i knew about the original ‘waving flag’ and it’s real deapth.
    Selling this beautiful song to the advertising campaign of a company like coca cola is really a damn work. However through this transaction everyone knew about k’naan and knew about this original waving flag and heard the pathetic plight of somalia (this is same for most of the african countries) and made somalia a centre of world’s attention even for a minute.
    So i think this so called ‘sold out’ made a good impact also.
    So i can’t completely agree with this harsh accusation towards k’naan and the coca cola celebration mix.
    To me being able to knew about a poet like k’naan is more worth than everything.

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