We Ethiopians do not see our nation merely as a birthplace, or even as just an ancestral land; to us, Ethiopia plays a powerful psychological role, and we call it “Mother.”
We were born in the same neighborhood, a special place called Colfe Kuas Meda in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Before they retired, both of our parents were employed in public service, as professional staff in the same division of the former Ethiopian government’s police force. As children, we played soccer on the same neighborhood fields.
Now, one of us (not me) has become a world-renowned superstar, whose album, with the simple, yet unique and powerful name “Ethiopia” sits atop the Billboard world albums chart and recently set a national record by selling nearly 600,000 copies in less than two weeks.
This music is not written in one of the more widely spoken languages of the world, like Chinese, English, or Spanish. The Amharic lyrics represent Ethiopia’s national language, but this tongue is spoken in no other country. Nor does Ethiopian music generally tend to have a global fan base. And, as with other music sold internationally, purchase data reflect but a fraction of those actually listening to the songs, as other ways of accessing digital media have proliferated in the modern era.
So what accounts for the sudden, meteoric rise of Teddy Afro’s musical composition?
Sharing, as I do, his humble, highly localized origins, I cannot help but wonder what has made him, now, a transnational sensation, whose music clearly resonates well beyond regional bounds. What underlies its universal appeal?
These questions cannot be answered without recourse to Ethiopia’s prevailing socio-political circumstances. The current government, known as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), gained control of the nation in 1991, after years of civil warfare. It did so by making a pact with its Eritrean counterpart, the EPLF, and with the help of nearby Middle Eastern powers/countries interested in controlling the strategic Red Sea ports of Massawa and Assab, the Dahlak Islands and the source of the Nile River.
Upon using their joint forces to overpower the reigning Derg government, the TPLF and EPLF went their separate ways, with the latter taking the helm of the newly split-off nation of Eritrea. Meanwhile, the TPLF promised to return power to the Ethiopian people by holding national elections after a couple years spent stabilizing the battle-worn region.
However, operating more like a mafia clique than the democratic body it claimed to be, the TPLF has managed to remain in power for more than a quarter of a century. During this time, it has divided the country along tribal lines and into various clans, against the collective will of a general public historically proud to be united under the national banner of a single, greater Ethiopian state, despite hailing from over 80 individual tribes. The Ethiopian people have tried to oppose the TPLF’s notion of tribal division through civil demonstrations and peaceful protests, but the government has responded with mass arrests and covert genocide. Anyone who speaks truth to power in Ethiopia now is liable to pay with his or her life, or at the very least their freedom.
The government pulls the wool over the eyes of Western powers by professing to fight “terrorism” in eastern Africa, the use of that term artfully aimed at silencing any dissent with the implicit justification that “fighting terrorism” carries. But the TPLF’s definition of terrorism has come to encompass any act or speech that shows opposition to its own power. Its abuses, by now, are legendary, and well known to anyone closely following international news. For example, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) places Ethiopia fourth on its list of the “10 Most Censored Countries,” trailing only Eritrea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia, a distinction earned by rates of imprisonment or harassment of journalists, restrictions on Internet use, and other repressive legislation. Indeed, Ethiopia has no independent broadcasters; Facebook and other forms of social media are strictly forbidden.
Teddy Afro himself was jailed for 18 months, several years back, on what were widely believed to be trumped-up charges, a thinly veiled excuse to silence his increasingly insubordinate voice. Still, he has put his natural talent to use in preaching unity and love for one nation, along with diversity and love for one another. In one song, he spans Ethiopia’s 4,000-year history and taps into the deepest wellsprings of pride that continue to hold its people together, even in the face of the government’s persistent efforts to splinter the country into smaller factions, more amenable to central control.
We Ethiopians do not see our nation merely as a birthplace, or even as just an ancestral land; to us, Ethiopia plays a powerful psychological role, and we call it “Mother.” Teddy Afro has put these emotions to music and, thus became a national hero. Even as the government’s education minister has attempted to purge the state schools’ curricula of the country’s true history, Teddy Afro has sung it out to the world and passed it on to the next generation. He is us and our hope, and we are him and his. And the world has listened up and taken notice. Who could turn a deaf ear to such a pure and impassioned plea for joining together as one in the face of oppression?
While he speaks, in an immediate sense, to and for the Ethiopian people themselves, his voice echoes that of all individuals longing for unity, harmony and freedom everywhere these human dignities are denied. Evidently, he has touched a chord that reverberates well beyond the neighborhood he and I grew up in, and my hope is that world will hear the cry for change resounding in his music and, at long last, heed it.