K'naan Wins Recording Academy Social Change Award For "Refugee"
The Somali-Canadian songwriter released "Refugee" in 2023 as a tribute to refugees worldwide. The Recording Academy is presenting him with a Special Merit Award for his artistic efforts towards social change.
Somali-Canadian artist K'naan has been named the recipient of this year's Best Song for Social Change Award, honouring his 2023 single "Refugee." The award is presented by the Recording Academy — the same body of music industry professionals that presents the GRAMMYs every year — as part of their Special Merit Awards. The recipients will be celebrated at the Special Merit Awards Ceremony on February 3, the night before the GRAMMYs.
K'naan, who rose to international fame with his massive single "Wavin' Flag," has always addressed his personal experiences as a refugee in his music. His family came to North America from Somalia, taking refuge from civil war, when he was a teenager in 1991, arriving first in the U.S. before settling in Toronto. A decade later, already building a fanbase in Toronto, K'naan performed at a 50th anniversary event for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he criticized the organization's failures in Somalia. That performance set K'naan on a path toward his Juno-award winning debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher, followed by 2009's critical and commercial hit Troubadour.
K'naan has focused on other projects since 2012's Country, God Or The Girl — including completing a fellowship at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University — but in 2023 he released a new single "Refugee," a song dedicated to the millions worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. “In the dictionary, ‘refugee’ is synonymous with displaced person, fugitive, outcast," K'naan says of the song. "In Somali the word feels like drifter or homeless. I wanted to write a song that felt like a home for those of us made homeless by conflict.”
"It takes both courage and desperation to abandon your home for somewhere unfamiliar," the singer adds, as reported by the UN Refugee Agency. "You set aside whatever it is that once made you an individual, in order to join a kind of faceless mass." In "Refugee," K'naan pushes back on popular narratives and dehumanizing language that turn refugees into a "faceless mass," emphasizing instead collectivity and community.
The song opens with just K'naan's vocal as he tells the listener: "If I was gonna be free / I'd have to change my name / Mama don't feel shame." His lone voice is then joined by a choir: "somebody call me refugee." Throughout the musically uplifting song, K'naan takes pride in the term refugee. The music video juxtaposes scenes of refugee camps and boats with footage of K'naan taking the train and singing in the street — as well as a shot of graffiti that reads "No One Is Illegal" — creating a sense of connection between disparate and distanced scenes. As of mid-2023, there were 110 million forcibly displaced people across the globe, according to the UN HCR, including over 670,000 Somali refugees.
K'naan's 2005 debut, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, won a Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year, and in 2010, with the success of Troubadour, K'naan won both Artist and Songwriter of the Year. "Wavin' Flag" was re-recorded by Canadian stars as a charity single following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and spent four weeks at No. 1 in Canada. The song also became Coca-Cola's chosen anthem for the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa, with a remix charting across the globe and reaching No. 82 on the Hot 100.
K'naan will be honoured with co-songwriter Steve McEwan and producer Gerald Eaton (Jarvis Church). Alongside K'naan, the Special Merit Awards are recognizing Gladys Knight, N.W.A., Donna Summer, the Clark Sisters, Laurie Anderson and Tammy Wynette with Lifetime Achievement Awards; DJ Kool Herc, Peter Asher and Joel Katz with Trustees Awards; and Tom Scott and Tom Kobayashi with Technical GRAMMY Awards.