In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, as we regret the New Year’s resolutions we’ve already cast aside, we’re picking our favorite songs about broken promises.
It’s common to associate songs with people that have touched your life, but some hit harder than others. For me, K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” is probably the hardest hitting. I graduated with a journalism degree in 2011, but instead of diving into the world of media, I was pleasantly sidetracked by a job teaching English language arts to high school students in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For two years, I taught all four grades everything from grammar and composition to American literature, and as clichéd as it sounds, there wasn’t a single student who didn’t teach me something in return.
One in particular taught me the value of promises. He was a senior who had immigrated (the charter school I worked for was predominantly attended by Somali immigrants) later than most of his peers and was noticeably behind in all of his classes. From the start, we made promises to one another—he would ask for help when necessary, I would stay after school to tutor him twice a week, and so on—in hopes of getting him up to grade level and seeing him graduate with his classmates in June. During this time and through his writing, naturally, I learned more about him: One of his favorite songs was K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag,” and he was adamant about preferring the original—written for Somalia and the aspirations of its people for freedom—to the Coca-Cola “Celebration Mix,” a reworked promotional anthem for 2010’s FIFA World Cup.
I could see why. He understood the truth behind lyrics like “So many wars, settling scores / Bringing us promises, leaving us poor / I heard them say ‘love is the way’ / ‘Love is the answer,’ that’s what they say.” He had left many relatives behind, watching them struggle in a country that didn’t always afford the same freedoms he was now entitled to in America. He knew those sorts of promises in a way many never will, and worse yet he knew what happened when they were broken—“But look how they treat us, make us believers / We fight their battles, then they deceive us.”
By the time the end of the school year arrived, although he had improved vastly in our class, he had not done well enough in others to graduate. I couldn’t help but feel I had in some way broken my promise to help him succeed. I took that hard and so did he. After the news, he didn’t show up for school that Thursday or Friday. I left Saint Paul for Chicago later that night with a heavy heart and the knowledge that my student had not only skipped school, but that his family hadn’t seen him for two days either. Sunday night, as I was moving down one of those magical walkways at O’Hare, I got a phone call I’ll never forget. They had found my student. For a fleeting moment a rush of relief washed over me. But then reality hit and I broke down. I never saw him again, since I wasn’t able to attend his funeral, him being Muslim and me being an unrelated woman.
For a while, it was difficult to hear any music that made me think of him, but with time I’ve come back to “Wavin’ Flag,” allowing it to remind me of both the pain broken promises can bring, and the determination to move forward that they can instill. I finished out the year with the rest of my seniors, and at graduation heard some of the most thoughtful and loving tributes to a fallen classmate, and one last K’Naan lyric stuck with me—“Out of the darkness, I came the farthest.”