Portrait of the Rapper as a Young Marketer

November 4th, 2010

Fast Money Magazine

Portrait of the Rapper as a Young Marketer: How K’naan Delivered on Coca-Cola’s $300 Million Bet

By: Rick Tetzeli
October 19, 2010

Coca-Cola bet that an unknown Somali rapper could support its biggest marketing campaign ever. The company was right, and it may have launched a new star. Or not.

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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.

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