The Real Thing
With his friend and fellow activist K'naan, Vancouver producer Sol Guy harnesses the power of pop
January 1, 2010
Sol Guy’s leaving for Africa in 24 hours. But right now he’s on the phone with Coca-Cola.
“We just really want the hook to be featured,” he’s explaining. “We’re happy with them doing the vocals. But we want to hear the hook.”
That hook is the irresistible chorus of “Wavin Flag,” a song by the Somali-born Toronto rapper K’naan: “When I get older/I will be stronger/They’ll call me freedom/Just like a waving flag.”
“No problems, bro. We just want to see it, me and K’naan. I’m sure it’ll be cool.”
Six foot four and handsome in jeans, hoodie, and plaid cap, Guy flicks constantly from BlackBerry to MacBook to the landline in his office in the Dominion Building, on the edge of the Downtown Eastside. He’s pretty languid for a man in the midst of “planning hell,” sorting out plane tickets for a six-week tour of Africa that will combine his two professional lives: managing K’naan and running his film production company. For the first half, Sol and K’naan will join the East African leg of the World Cup Trophy Tour, a nine-month sweep through 86 countries organized by FIFA and Coke. Then they’ll head for Somalia—which K’naan describes as “worse than Kandahar, and that’s kinda hard”—to film a documentary about poets in war.
For now, though, Guy has Coke on his mind. In September the soft drink giant bought the rights to use “Wavin’ Flag” as the theme song for its advertising for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, which is set to be the most-watched global event of all time. Guy hasn’t added up all the money involved but acknowledges it’s into seven figures.
He hunches his lanky frame over his laptop to scrutinize poster treatments for the Wavin’ Flag Coca-Cola World Cup Celebration Mix. “I like the one with the guitar, where you can see he’s not just a rapper,” he says. “Not the one with the mic.” He’s right: in the guitar collages the musician looks like a young Lenny Kravitz, hip and full of swagger; in the others, he’s more like a Michael Bublé crooner.
K’naan and Guy met nine years ago, when they were both down and out. A 1995 trip to Sierra Leone had flipped Guy’s life upside down. Only 22 at the time, he’d been living the dream. He’d made it as a hip-hop producer for BMG and was working in Manhattan and hanging out with stars like Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy. But an invitation to join his Vancouver rapper friends Rascalz on a film shoot in the war-ravaged West African nation was a wake up call. “Meeting boy soldiers, holding a six-month-old baby in my arms that had had an arm chopped off—after that, I couldn’t do it.”
So he “committed professional suicide: I tanked my career.” He spent a couple of years in the wilderness (mainly Toronto, with long sojourns in Cuba), writing manifestos, reading, trying to work out what to do with his newfound awareness. Salvation, too, came from Africa, in the person of K’naan, who was struggling with demons of his own. A refugee who’d caught the last flight out of Mogadishu when the civil war started in 1991, K’naan had had run-ins with the police and was struggling to find his voice as a musician. The artist needed a manager he could trust and the manager needed an artist he could believe in; it was a perfect match.
Guy soon had K’naan in the recording studio. Revitalized, he returned to Vancouver to set up a film company with old friend Josh Thome and support from local legend Chris Haddock (Da Vinci’s Inquest, Intelligence). Their first show—the pilot for the 4Real series—followed K’naan to Nairobi, where they filmed the video for his breakout song “Soobax.” (The first season of 4Real—in which celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Joaquin Phoenix, and Eva Mendes travel to world hot spots and meet with activists—played on MTV Canada and the National Geographic Channel in the U.S. and beyond; the mainstream loved it because it appealed to that slipperiest of demographics, hip 18-to-25-year-olds.)
Ever since that first trip to Sierra Leone, Guy has returned to Africa to reset his compass. “It really helps you understand the globe and our role in it,” he says. “What I do, it has to matter. Or why bother? I don’t mean that as an attack on other people; that’s just what I ask myself: ‘What’s important?’ What I see in Africa, I’ll carry that with me all year.”
Born in a hippie community in Sooke and raised in Grand Forks, Guy has always been aware of race. His parents are Americans who left during Vietnam; his Jewish mother is from upstate New York and his black father grew up in Missouri. When Sol was 11, his dad made him read Roots and write a book report on it; “I’ve still got it around here somewhere,” he chuckles. Despite his light skin and boyish freckles, “Me, my dad, and my sister, we were never seen as anything but black. Emotionally and socially, Grand Forks was a great place to grow up. It equipped me to be an outsider.” It equipped him for a lot more: at 20, when he found himself making boardroom pitches to executives twice his age, he was unshakable.
He’s still unshakable, and it seems like the corporate world has caught up. Social entrepreneurship, social venture, more-than-profit—whatever you want to call it, “It’s doing the right thing. The blue chips these days, they’re talking about the three Ps: profit, people, the planet. Cool culture shifts a lot. It matters now to give a shit. ‘You’re all invited to the party; it doesn’t matter what you did before.’ ” He laughs after this passionate outburst: “Not that I have any opinions, man!”
If Guy sounds a tad defensive, that’s because both he and K’naan have struggled with their choices. Four years ago, they couldn’t decide whether to play at the Canadian Live8 concert alongside a lineup of wrinkly rockers. But it was for Africa, so they agreed. “And it was the highlight for a lot of people, here and all over the world, this skinny Somali kid singing with his friend on drums. ‘Until the Lion Learns to Speak’—that blew a lot of people away.”
As long as the song, the message, isn’t compromised, Sol believes, it’s all good. More than good: it’s an evolution that benefits everyone. “Do you think these huge corporations don’t know what they’re doing, when they put a skinny refugee guy who sings about redemption, Marley-style, at the heart of their campaign?”