January 28, 2019

Youth and Urbane Music- A Generation Raised Through Divisive Rhetoric Embraces Ethiopia


(A keen observer of Ethiopian socio-political events today can identify the ways Ethiopian youth…

Avatar: Hewan Semon
By Hewan Semon

(A keen observer of Ethiopian socio-political events today can identify the ways Ethiopian youth are depicted by various actors such as politicians, scholars, writers, journalists and bloggers. Youth are presented as though they don’t know their role or have little understanding of their lives in Ethiopia. And also, as if they have little to contribute. There are seemingly opening spaces of dialogue, panel discussions, presentations and so on, but these rarely invite the panelists to be among youth themselves. Popularized by social media activism, there are presentations given by older men and women about how to utilize youth in this time of change in Ethiopia, usually with invited young people listening.

This is written out of the desire to show youth taking agency in dialogues about Ethiopia. It is about a patriotic music video by musicians whose backgrounds I am unaware of, but who are performing with Addis Abeba’s ‘Dureye’: a term linked to the young Addis Abeba dweller facing unemployment, and is consequently seen as an actor that is a burden on the city, a challenge to the urban society. It is an attempt to show that our dureye are not bystanders; they are engaging in their own way and via spaces they create for themselves.)

* * *

As the credits roll up at the end of the music video, you read an unusual list of people that the two musicians, Yared Negu and Micky ‘Gonderegna’ have extended their gratitude to. The Federal Police, and youth of Gerji Mebrat Hayl neighborhood, youth of 6 kilo neighborhood, Somalie Tera and America Gebi neighborhoods’ youth, and 24 kebelle (kebelle is a local administrative unit) youth are among the listed. This is interesting. I know personally that 24 kebelle is known for being host to the most notorious youth groups and youth violence. Growing up, it was the neighborhood that was in constant fierce battle with 13 kebelle over my neighborhood, 18 kebelle. Our brothers and cousins were usually involved in these violent clashes and the local police stations were usually filled with mothers begging for their children back promising on all the saints and Emeye Mariam that their children will never be involved in these squabbles again. As for Somalie Tera and America Gebi communities, it is a commonly held belief that these neighborhoods are targets of police raids for a slightly different reason: illegal trade of vehicular products. These, as well as the young people of Gerji, 6 kilo, and neighborhoods across the city, are what constitute the dureye. And it is from among these young urban constituents that four neighborhood’s youth have been credited at the end of this particular song.

Yared and Micky

Yared Negu and Micky Gonderegna are known for their one-hit wonders in the contemporary music industry. Yared Negu’s YeMerkato Arada launched his predominantly online based career. His song tells the story of an ‘Arada’, the name given to the hip city dweller. In the song, Yared’s character came from a Gurage region and is now working in Merkato. Though we are unaware of what he does exactly, we see plenty of tires in the video suggesting something along the lines of, Yared is working as a tire collector in the streets of Merkato. In all seriousness, his music video shows the fusion of traditional Gurage dances with modern dances. He code-switches; meaning he uses Amharic and Guragigna lyrics, switching from one language to the other throughout the song. A noble attempt, his is an experiment of telling the story of the rural to urban migrant, nostalgic about his home but also in love with the city that is Addis Abeba. He has had more songs released since this came out in 2015, but none were able to impress listeners that much.

On the other hand, Micky is mostly known for his collaborative Gonderegna song featuring the comedian Filfilu and Yoni; perhaps one of the few songs that some said shows the dilemma of the Ethiopian music industry. It presented the use of the Masinqo (Ethiopian traditional music instrument) and the basic Gonder rhythm fused with an on-screen demonstration of delightful chaos as the musicians rap. We see ‘modern’ dressed characters visibly extending the Gonder rhythm to contemporary dances. The lyrics are, again, noble; the rappers site Ethiopian regions Nazret, Asossa, Dire Dawa, Selale, Jimma, Sidama, Mekelle, and so forth. There is no point in attempting to understand the reason for the chosen words and the purpose of the whole fiasco, however, through the confusion you see youth enjoying themselves, dancing various dances, eating injera (meshamat is the word for it- sharing a dish and fighting over it), and that’s the whole song. To top it off, we have Filfilu remaining honest to his attested comical character throughout the video. You’re left questioning yourself if Filfilu’s presence is meant to make you wonder about the seriousness of the whole thing.

These two have now collaborated to release a song titled ‘Ethiopiaye’, on January 25. My introduction to these two musicians might have made them appear as though they are not taken seriously as musicians in Ethiopia. It maybe true. One cannot compare their vocals, lyrics and on-screen presentation, as well as their inability to produce albums to musicians like Michael Belayneh, or Teddy Afro. They also remain far below the standards of Getish Mamo, or Asgegnew (Asge). But, Micky and Yared produce songs independently and consistently; meaning, they take themselves quite seriously as musicians. Plus, their songs are played in bars, clubs and other public spaces. Their poor poetry and their usually chaotic musical arrangements aside, people do play and listen to their songs. Yared has over 2 million views in most of his songs on YouTube.

The song: Ethiopiaye

Yared and Micky’s song Ethiopiaye is not a pioneer in it's choice of subject or in what it attempts to do. Musicians have sung about Ethiopia for generations, and the number of songs about Ethiopia have shown a dramatic increase since April 2018. (The number of songs about the new Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed is also another interesting topic.) It is released by Hope Entertainment on YouTube. I am least interested in the musical arrangement of Ethiopiaye; my interest is in the lyrics, the video that relays powerful images to viewers and its depiction of urban youth.

The song’s first scene is of a Federal Police walking to his son, or a younger family member, kissing him on the forehead and walking past him to go to work. Shockingly enough, this doesn’t seem as surprising now as it would have been a few months ago. We are now used to seeing federal police smiling at us on the streets of Addis Abeba. True story, I have witnessed a Federal Police beg to help an older woman up the steps by Selassie Cathedral with her blessing him in return. But again, the scene sets us up for something to come later on in the video.

Then we have a neighborhood tailor raise the volume of the radio whereby an older man’s voice is heard saying “...ባንተ አልተጀመረችም ባንተም አትጠፋም ትቀጥላለች” (Ethiopia did not begin with you and will not disappear because of you, she will go on…). This is a direct quote taken from an interview Haile Gerima, the famous Ethiopian film maker, gave to Seifu Fantahun on EBS (a local TV channel).

Following this, we see Micky carrying a flag. The flag isn’t among the three mostly carried flags in Ethipia today, i.e., the plain Ethiopian flag, the OLF flag, or the Ethiopian flag with the blue star in the middle. Micky’s flag is something that speaks to something beyond these three symbols. His flag is black, with white writing that reads “ዘረኝነት” (racism) which is crossed out with red ink. Before the musicians start singing, you are already set up for what is about to come. You’re about to see young people take their music platform to preach forgiveness, consideration, and end to racism across the country. That they have not carried any particular group’s flag is to appeal to everyone; it is a call to all that at least an anti-racism stance should unite us, if nothing else will.

Micky sings,

አዎ እኔ አዎ እኔ  (Yes I, Yes I)

ሁሉም ነው አገሬ  (All is my country)

ደስተኛ አድርጎኛል  (It has made me happy)

ካንቺ መፈጠሬ (That I’m created from you)

ፈጥሮሽ ሁሉን ሰጥቶ  (He’s given you everything)

ፈላጊሽም በዝቶ (And those who want you are plenty)

ሁሉም የኔ ይልሻል  (All claim you belong to them)

ባንቺነትሽ ኮርቶ  (Proud that (he) belongs to you)

Here’s a classic appeal to mother Ethiopia, the common public broadcast of appreciation on what Ethiopia has been given by God, the assertion that all want to belong to Ethiopia and all claim Ethiopia is theirs. Quite a cheesy poetry on translation, but deeply sentimental. The most important of these lines seems to the the second line, “All is my country”. The idea of ownership is engaged with repeatedly throughout the song.

Let us continue: next we see our urban dureye come into view singing along Micky (behind him), as he says what appears to be the chorus,

የኔ የኔ  (Mine)

እኔም አልኩሽ የኔ የራሴ  (I also call you mine)

ኢትዮጵያ የማንነት ደሜ (Ethiopia, the blood of my identity)

የኔ (Mine)

Ownership. Micky straightforwardly claims that Ethiopia belongs to him. We have children as young as ten following from behind, and teenagers as well as those in their early 20s are seen singing these lines with him.

Then we see three patriots, decorated in their war suits, proudly standing in front of the Yekatit 12 Martyr’s monument in 6 Kilo, as Yared sings,

የኔ  (Mine)

የሞቱልሽ እናት አባቴ  (My mother and father have died for you)

ማትሸጪ ርስቴ ነሽ ነሽ ጌጤ  (Un-commodifiable, you are my decoration)

ቤቴ  (My home)

Ownership. Micky pays tribute to the sacrifices made to maintain Ethiopia’s sovereignty in four lines, he equates their sacrifice with the nature with which nothing can actually be exchanged for his country, his home. His claim that his country is his only however, is not a selfish declaration. If one considers something central to her or his life, an item or a value, one will stand by that item /value/ in face of everything, including adversities. It allows us to speculate: perhaps each Ethiopian sees Ethiopia as his; his item to not sell, give up on, or let go of. This idea of ownership gives way to a much resplendent idea, that of communal responsibility. This sense of responsibility is invoked in his lyrics, ‘I belong and I have a responsibility to look after Ethiopia and Ethiopians just like others have done so before, and will continue to do so’. The flag Micky carries is one visually striking example of this responsibility.

Yared finally joins the video a minute later wearing an Ethiopian flag like a scarf around his neck and greeting his friends.

He sings,

በኔ አልተጀመርሽም  (You weren’t started by me)

መቼም በኔ አትቆሚም  (You’re existence can never be stopped by me)

መኖርሽ ጅረት ነው  (Your existence is like a river’s)

ይፈሳል ዘላለም  (Which flows forever)

አንዳንዴ ቢጨልም  (If it gets dark at times)

ነው እና ሊነጋ  (It is because its about to be dawn)

መቼም ከቶ አትከስሚም  (You’ll never lose your light)

አበባ ነሽ ለጋ  (You’re like a flower, alive and healthy)

These are mostly religious metaphors and popular sayings that one as an Ethiopia is used to. The first line shows an almost sincere testament to Ethiopia’s long-standing history. By admitting that he was only created in the history of the country, and not the other way around; Yared hits the nail of the humble Ethiopian mind-set that everything will pass; except for Ethiopia. From the popular speeches, sayings, quotes, discussions and conversations we have been a part of for a few months now, one can suggest that there exists an almost agreed upon belief that Ethiopia will continue to exist, even in the face of adversity. Simply, generations will come and go, but Ethiopia will continue.

Now, following this popular romantic fantasy, we see an all too common enactment of a confrontation between federal police and youth. The federal police drive in on a pickup truck and try to stop the small group of youth making its way down the street. The reason for the confrontation is unclear; perhaps that is to show what once was the rule of the day – that the federal police can and will disperse any group, any event, and anything they deem inappropriate as they wish. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into this scene. Regardless, the federal police hold their defensive gears against the boys at which point the federal police who was seen embracing a younger boy (his son perhaps (?)) notices the same boy and looks conflicted. We then see some faces of the federal police one by one, and slowly. The stand-off is broken as the federal police, in an act of benevolence, removes his helmet walks to the boy and these two embrace one another. Micky waves his anti-racism flag as this happens.

Here I am reminded of a close friend of mine who showed me a picture of a federal police playing with young kids in 2012. We were surprised at how humane the police appeared then. The scene seems to serve a similar purpose here. Even federal police, viewed with fear and suspicion since their first appearance during the May 2005 elections, have family members and are as human as the rest of us. Isn’t this an attempt to bridge gaps between polarized groups of people by our urban dureye?

Following this, Yared and Micky list areas of Ethiopia to which we all belong to:

ከሸገር ነቀምት እስከ ባሌ (Sheger Neqemte to Bale)

ወላይታ ሶዶ መቀሌ  (Welayita Sodo Mekelle)

ባህርዳር ደሴ ሻሸመኔ  (Bahirdar  Dessie Shashemene)

ሁሉም ቤቴ ነው ሁሉ አገሬ  (All is my home, all my country)

ጎንደር አፋር አርሲ ሮቤ (Gonder Afar Arsi Robe)

ቤቴ ነው  (Is my home)

ጅማ ማርቆስ ሐረር (Jimma Marqos Harrar)

ቤቴ ነው  (Is my home)

ራያ ዋዛ እና ሰላሌ  (Raya Waza and Selale)

ቤቴ ነው  (Is my home)

ጋምቤላ አፋር ሻሸመኔ  (Gambella Afar Shashemene)

ቤቴ ነው  (Is my home)

በደቡብ ምስራቅ ምዕራብ ሰሜን (South East West and North)

ቤቴ ነው  (Is my home)

የኔ የኔ  (Mine, mine.)

Listing of Ethiopian regions in songs is done exhaustively by various other musicians. But one of the things that hints at the poor preparation of these boys for the song is that while Ethiopia has hundreds of towns, cities and provinces that they could have used in their songs, they resort to repeating Harar, and Shashemene in an attempt to keep the rhyme of the poem unbroken. It’s an easy ‘ኤ’ sound; they could have managed if they thought deeply about it. It shows that this song was done out of need to express something but without in-depth thought regarding the song’s lyrical quality. But still, even in light of their carelessness, the song has a purpose.

We see youth expressing their ideas of what Ethiopia means to them. We see them trying to bridge gaps between groups who’ve had to hold deep animosity towards one another, we see them proudly broadcasting Ethiopia’s patriots at 6 kilo, and we hear them declare that that Ethiopia, from north to south, is as much theirs as anybody else’s and that there is no one who can take that away from them. In their lines, one hears simple poetry but grand statements of nationhood and dialogues about belonging. They are stating proudly that to them, those in Asossa, Bale and Jimma, Mekelle are as Ethiopians as those in Afar, Addis Abeba, Dessie and Shashemene. (I think I just rhymed.)

This three minute and 48 second long music video is a presentation of an idea about maintaining Ethiopia. Considering the large number of songs that are produced just like this one, where we see youth taking social responsibility on-screen, it maybe time to consider giving voice to Ethiopia’s youth when it comes to questions of national reconciliation and dialogue. It is necessary to recognize that youth assume themselves as responsible citizens who can maintain their country, regardless of their communal realities. Here is a song about transcending divisions, and they’ve stated it quite boldly (in the flags they carry, their poems though flawed, the presentation of the patriots of Ethiopia and on-screen reconciliation).

The two musicians sing the following public poetry and close off with Haile Gerima’s words that were heard at the beginning, “...ባንተ አልተጀመረችም ባንተም አትጠፋም...”.

እረ አገሬ   (Oh my country)

ስትኖሪ ነው መከበሬ  (It is when you exist that I can be respected)

እረ አገሬ

ባንቺ እኮ ነው መከበሬ  (It is because of you that I can be respected).