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.”

An Example Of How Corporate Interests Subvert Rap Music And Redirect Popular Culture (Coca-Cola, The World Cup and K’Naan Sitting In A Tree)
Rap Does Not Tear Up the Art Vs. Commerce Argument