“And then it goes back. And then it goes back. And then it goes back…” And here it comes again. “Wavin’ Flag”, Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan‘s loving and mournful, hopeful anthem to his home city of Mogadishu has, in the year since its release, taken on a life of its own – or rather: several lives of its own. A top 10 hit in his adopted home country of Canada (where he’s lived since his early teens), the song’s also been used on a video game soundtrack and later last year, was given a stadium ready bilingual remix (“The Celebration Mix”) when it was chosen as the official theme song for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Then, a couple of months ago, after the earthquake in Haiti, K’Naan performed a delicate acoustic version of the song on the Canada for Haiti telethon. In a timely reminder that Haiti still needs help, a group of Canadian recording artists calling themselves Young Artists for Haiti got together in the studio with producer Bob Ezrin (producer of both Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Berlin’s Count Three and Pray) to re-record the song all “We Are The World” style with a the obligatory in-the-studio, right-hands-to-headphones, documentary music video.
The guest list for this gig includes a few international stars like Nelly Furtado and Avril Lavigne, some super-hip alterna-faves (Esthero, Emily Haines of Metric, rapper Kardinal Offishall, the bands Broken Social Scene and City and Colour), along with a few alterna-also-rans (Deryk Whibley, of Sum 41 – remember Sum 41?); there are a few wonderful “only-in-Canada” names (Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans?); there’s a token old guy (Tom “Life is a Highway” Cochrane doesn’t rate a solo, but you catch a few glimpses of him in the video), and a lot of pretty youngsters including Fefe Dobson, Drake, Nikki Yanofsky (who wasn’t born when Tom Cochrane had that big hit), and Justin Bieber, who also wasn’t born when people knew who Tom Cochrane was, and has the strange distinction of having sung the first lines of “We Are the World 25” and getting to sing the final words here. This assemblage of stars gets an added kick of wide-eyed optimism from a gaggle of singing, flag-waving children at the song’s climactic key-change.
The result may be a bit “over-inspirational” (as is wont for this type of project), but on the whole, it’s significantly less artistically misguided than “We Are The World 25”. For one thing, it’s shorter. Which is nice. But I think the major thing it’s got going for it is that, while it’s still a remake (K’Naan does get the first few lines), it’s a current song; it’s not attempting to re-conjure quarter-century-old charity-single magic. The original “Wavin’ Flag” is still charting in the Canadian Top 10. (How it continues to elude a significant American audience is absolutely beyond me.) The rap section in “We Are The World 25” felt like a freakish appendage to a song written for a pop landscape that had no idea rap was coming, but when Drake drops a Haiti-specific verse leading up to that final chorus (you know, the part where the flag-waving kids come in), it makes absolute musical sense – it feels organic and right, and places that final flag-waving moment in an appropriately empathetic context. On “We Are The World 25” it seemed like a bunch of rappers trying to out-machismo each other on a rhyme that seemed ghoulishly self-involved and self-aggrandizing. (I’d quote it here, but I honestly can’t bring myself to watch it again… so: sorry.) Also, aside from the rap, there’s a general (and refreshing) lack of Auto-tuniness here. These singers mostly just sing, and some of them sing pretty amazingly – amazingly enough for me to want to spend my evening Googling my brains out trying to figure out who they are and where I can get my hands on some of their other music.
All in all, the song gets more right than wrong, and this actually feels like the proper heir to the original “We Are the World” and all the other idealistic charity singles of the 80s. Even if the faces and names aren’t as recognizable as will.i.am and Barbra Streisand.