“If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
We have come to a season of drives and urges where people no longer wait for that knock by the door but instead packing their insecurities, passion, goals and energy all in one, creating their own opportunities on their way. When you look around, you can now see there are lots of young people partaking in different areas for they are no longer taking up on paths that they don’t feel like walking on, there are now lots of youths with lanes they carved themselves and so there are lots of satisfied and successful people coming out of that circle.
Amongst the many Ethiopians abroad chasing their dreams, those making headlines and cover pages of big magazines, there are also others working their ways up to that level, those we haven’t heard of yet. And as part of Addis Insight’s vision, giving our readers an insight to whatever or whoever is on the rise to the next big step, we here by present to you Samrawit Assefa / SamRi a 28-year-old Singer/ Songwriter and story teller currently studying music and business at California State University East Bay. Below is an interview we’ve had with her, Enjoy the read.
- Tell us a bit about yourself, your background. How did you get into the music industry, Is your family musical? Who or what first got you involved with songwriting/ singing?
My name is Samrawit Assefa, but I go by the name is SamRi. I didn’t come from a musical family at all. I was the black sheep of the house. Nobody and nothing got me involved except for my natural love of music. The only person that saw my musical talents was my grandfather, who insisted that my parents get a drum made from me, because he saw me singing around the house when I was three. I will always be grateful for the first instrument I ever played, but I didn’t realize I was born an artist till I started writing as a teenager.
- How would you describe yourself as a musician? How long have you been writing music? What does your writing/singing mean to you?
I would definitely describe myself as a singer- songwriter and storyteller. Music for me is always about doing the story you are telling justice. I started writing poems when I was 13 and song writing came years later, but 13 was when my stories started being acknowledged. Writing is everything, even though the music is the medium for me, writing is where music is given birth. There is nothing like taking a picture of a feeling or an experience with your words and your melody; that is eternal.
- How would you describe your music? Have you got a target audience for your music?
My music is contemporary; raised in the 90’s I’m most definitely influenced by pop music. But my true love comes from the 60’s and 70’s. Rhythm and blues and soul were really the corner stones for my vocal development that ignited my creativity. I am unapologetically millennial and highly influenced by both Ethiopian music and western music. I said unapologetically because my generation has highly been criticized for not following “the traditional norm” some has set as a standard. True artistry can never flourish under such restrictions and it is highly unrealistic to ask people to not be influenced by the music we listen to. The western world has influenced the rest of the world because most people have access to that music, does it mean we don’t have something of our own? No it doesn’t. But I don’t think we should apologize for it. Most people just think the generation before them is always the better one; there maybe some truth to it, but that should never be the standard. Most people will tell you they love Alemayew Eshete, but in his time he was breaking barriers by playing Rhythm and blues, he even had the Elvis Presley hair style, but if you ask people today, they will tell you that was real music. He was criticized in his time and was not given, as much recognition as he had, but he went with what he loved and time will test everything.
- Who are your musical inspirations?
I have been inspired by a lot of musicians at different parts of my life; From Celine Dion to Asnakech Worku I have always been inspired most by female artists. When I was a kid I was in love with Selena, because I was obsessed with that movie. I watched it so much I could quote it verbatim. Years later when I joined an Ethio-salsa band the moves I learned from Jennifer Lopez, who played Selena in the movie, served me really well. I was really into boy bands in my early years. Every 90’s kid knows they were our Justin Bieber. I was in love with The Back Street Boys and West Life. I bought every gum with a sticker in it to get their tiny pictures. I had all their names in my notebooks when I was in Junior high; this would go on till high school. There is not a single friend that has not gotten a copy of “Millennium” and “My Love” for their birthday. I literally would find an excuse to make a copy of these albums for my friends. We played them till our ears bled in the taxi ride to and from school. They were the soundtracks to our high school years. When I got to high school is when my voice started developing and I started listening to the usual suspects, The Holy Trinity of Diva hood; Celine, Mariah, and Whitney. Then I gradually fell in love with country music and their simple way of writing. Shania was my favorite, in fact I loved her so much, and in my graduation yearbook I used her picture as a backdrop for my page.
In my senior year of high school was when Zeritu’s first Solo album came out, that girl literally stopped my heart in its tracks. She showed me it was possible to play any kind of music you want and to write as openly as you can without following the norm. I will never forget the first day I heard her sing “Mela Mela” way before her originals started coming out. She was a huge inspiration for me because that was the first time I knew my music could have a place in Ethiopia and my generation would understand and receive it. She also validated it was okay to sound the way I did. I was often told to sing higher to sound more like a girl and this skinny bold girl came out of no where and blew everyone away with her velvety, chocolaty, tsunami of a voice. Did I mention I love her- I Do!
When I got to college, I started listening more and more to blues, soul, and Rock and Roll. My voice starting taking a life of its own, instead of imitating other singers, I was coming into my own. Then I fell in love with Folk and Jazz and there was no stopping then. Nina, Etta, Patty, Eva, Aster, Asnakech, Abebe, Getachew, Ottis, Ray, Creedence clear water, Steven and so many more. But if I had to choose one person who was most like me as a songwriter it would be Patty Griffin, she was like coming home and finding my heart inside somebody else. By then I knew music was my destiny and I would pursue it. That’s when I decided to Come to the States and follow that dream.
- Tell us a bit about your experience in the U.S, your performance, collaborations and the challenges you may have faced while trying to get to where you are now?
Coming to the states was a turning point in my music career, though I have been singing all my life, I had never had formal training. I came to the states to get a degree in Vocal performance; it opened my eyes to Classical music and reacquainted me with Jazz. Through that experience I learned to sing in several languages and perform in ensembles and choirs as well. It played a big role in my development as a musician. It also thought me that you have to put yourself out there and show the world what you have to offer. I was a really shy student, “the shiest he had ever seen” as one of my professors stated, but I pushed through it and I persevered. It paid off when I moved back to Addis, I had the ability to work with other musicians and perform with ease because of my experience at school.
Being an independent artist is always tough, the one thing I had going for me was that I wrote my own materials. But finding the right producer, and musicians to play on your records, and having the means to record is something you have to work on to achieve. I am a firm believer that what ever I believe in manifests itself and the path always appears before me when I take a step in faith; this is not to say there is not some hard work involved, but hard work is rewarded with the right people at the right time.
- How would you define ‘success’ regarding a singer/songwriter? Would you define yourself as successful and why? – If not, what do you feel you would have to achieve to call yourself successful?
Success is a very tricky word, as we most often associate it with popularity or financial gain. Even though these are some aspects of success they are not the definition of it, in my opinion. For me success as a songwriter is writing something so honest that relates with your audience on a primal level. It is writing and sharing something that people always want to say but never know how to. It is successfully relaying a certain emotion and having it serve that purpose fully. I wouldn’t call my self a “success” or “not a success”, because my only measure for success is that my music represents how I feel and how I see the world and in that aspect I consider myself successful. But have I allowed all that I have to say to be seen? Not yet. In that aspect I would consider myself on the path to success that has no destination, with the release of this single, I’m taking a giant step forward.
- Tell us about your new album, what message that it holds and what you are looking to get from it/ your expectation?
This first record is mostly about loss, letting go, and learning lessons. It will include some songs of hope, some of heartbreak, and some of bravery. These are just some songs from the most vulnerable space in my heart. My hope is that everyone will be healed by it, and to those who cannot express themselves, they will find their voices in it. I hope it will make people brave enough to ask for what they want, to say no to the things they don’t want, and to live in their truth.
- What are your fondest musical memories? In your house? In your neighborhood or town?
My fondest musical memory from my house would have to be singing in turns with my siblings when the power would go out and ending up singing the whole thing by myself, when they eventually quit taking a turn. I had the fondest memories in high school where every body made me sing this Céline Dion song “Because you loved me”, I think that experience has forever ruined that song for me. When I went to Addis Ababa University one of my friends made me sing a Whitney Houston song for her boy friend over the phone, we were in China Block; the girls came out in flocks and gave me gifts like bracelets and globes. That was the first time I got a present from fans, I will never forget that experience.
- If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t singing I would definitely be writing, but I guess that is a part of my music too. But I love to write screenplays, so I would go for a playwright. I have varying interests from Directing to photography, philanthropy to human right law, from designing to history; I am influenced by a lot of things. It is totally a normal thing to find me in front of the TV crocheting or knitting, I love stories and I love creating things. Anything in those realms will be my forte.
- Do you have any plan to get your music to Ethiopia or what is your plan for Ethiopia in relation to music/ performance?
My plan has always been to be a voice for my generation, especially girls. I am unapologetically millennial and no matter the critique I am always going to write music from my perspective and never stick to the status quo. I feel like mainstream music is always saturated and everyone is trying to copy the latest trend, my philosophy is, there is only one me and no one has my stories and I will tell them my way. This first single is in Amharic, I only started writing in Amharic two years ago and I am excited to be able to bring music to my people.
- Please leave one tip you think is invaluable for aspiring/beginner singer/songwriters to know?
The only advice I can ever give is the one I couldn’t take when I was younger, which is, JUST DO IT! There is nothing that can be wrong when you are doing something you were born to do. Doing and failing cuts your learning time in half. As they say, “there is no there when you get there.” So just follow your dreams and share your dreams and your unique perspective with the world. Practice, you can never be good enough- Just do it. Play with as many bands in as many venues as you can find- Just do it. Never turn down learning experience- Just do it. Doing can only bear a good outcome; it’s A WIN- WIN.