By Desta Wegayehu
Steeped in history and tradition, the ancient East African country of Ethiopia is home to a growing hip-hop culture that gives voice to talented youth. Hip-hop – primarily in the form of rap music – has offered opportunity and changed lives throughout the country. The capital city of Addis Ababa was the main entry point for hip-hop, with the pioneering artists citing influences such as Tupac, Eminem, Jay Z, and LL Cool J. Although the earliest manifestations of contemporary rap date to barely 15 years ago, by one artist’s estimate about 90 percent of high school and college students now identify with this genre.
The rapid influx of the global youth culture has been the cause of consternation among parents and conservative members of society, who worry that foreign influences will disrupt traditional values and practices. But Teddy Yo, the country’s pre-eminent rapper, says this is a misconception. “We didn’t steal hip-hop from America,” he says. “It came up from our own culture.” Teddy points to the ancient practice of shilelakerato whereby warriors would take turns rapping, backed by heavy traditional drum beats, before engaging in warfare. “It was essentially battle rap,” he says. The lyrics nowadays generally focus on themes such as the value of hard work, and social issues such as poverty, materialism, and education. There are, of course, numerous tracks praising the charms of pretty women.
In the short time since its introduction, hip-hop has grown due to pioneering MCs such as Algorash, Mad Boys, Abyssinia Boys, and Afaris. “Basically, they just took the music from the US and made mixtapes,” Teddy says. “It wasn’t too popular at that time.” Other artists like Faf Crazzy (Lij Michael) and the Gamo Boys skillfully blended traditional beats and instruments into their own unique styles. Although some artists’ lyrics are in English, most raps in Amharic or any of the more than 80 other local languages in order to better reach their audiences.
Teddy Yo who is among the early internationally prominent Ethiopian rapper. In addition to tours throughout his own country, he has performed in Europe and the Middle East. He was first drawn to hip-hop in 2005 when he listened to LL Cool J, but he says that due to lack of other Ethiopian rappers at that time, he was self-taught. “I just looked at my own culture and my own life.” His tracks “My Life” and “Be Yourself” shed light on the obstacles young people face, such as poverty and lack of opportunity. “It is difficult here and we all have to hustle hard,” he says.
Due to financial constraints, Teddy sold his first album to a record label which 15 days later went out of business. “So, my music never really had a chance to get out there,” he says. Another setback occurred in the form of harsh media criticism. Teddy currently works with DJ Miller, who explains that “Every two to three months they criticize hip-hop. I think they’re afraid of us.”
Undaunted by these challenges, Teddy continued to focus on his work and the evolution of his music. “I need money for the music only,” he says. “It’s not about cars and clothes.” But the hard work has paid off. Teddy’s second album “Prisoner” scheduled for release on 2018. The title, he says, refers to someone who is a prisoner of the culture. The 18 tracks contain harder beats than his earlier work, and 10 other artists – including Jungle Crew and Jalud – are featured. “Over the years, a larger fan base for hip-hop – and for my music in particular – has grown and so I think it will be very successful,” he says.
The “hustle hard” mantra is taken seriously by other established MCs such as DJ Same, Jungle Crew, Jolox, Yoni Yoye, and YapiMapi. Same, for example, has a wealth of varied industry experiences including a gig DJing for contestants on Ethiopian Idol; endorsements for a local sneaker company; performing as a member of the group Afro Sent: and hosting the “African Vibes” hip-hop radio show on 98.1 FM. He also has been involved with projects to instill leadership qualities in the youth and combined these with musical celebrations. He organizes concerts, dance performances, and other events, and like Teddy has performed in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Same’s association with Teddy Yo dates to their high school years, but their creative collaborations began after each of them had produced a commercially successful song. Same’s single “Marengecha” was released in 2007 and was popular on radio programs and at clubs. “It’s about the transition from our parents’ generation to ours,” he explains. Teddy had already released his hit single “Gurageton,” and the two decided to work together on songs such as “Wuraj Ale,” which became a hit upon its release in 2009. The two progressed to making video collections and performing at clubs, schools, and other venues to expand their fan base.With his brother Freezer, an accomplished videographer, Same is currently opening DJ Same Productions. “Now we’re coming with new styles that give a DJ flavor to the music,” he says. “I always dream big.”
Jukebox the Illustrious is one of the few Ethiopian rappers who has lived outside the country. Jukebox, who was born and raised in Addis Ababa, spent seven years at the University of Texas. The US “was a journey of discovery. It’s a global society and it broadened my scope. There were so many international students, so I learned a lot outside the classroom. Nonetheless, he at first experienced loneliness and racism, noting that while Ethiopia is a communal society, the US is more individualistic. “But it was ok,” he says. “It gave me time to reflect and I started to vent on paper.”
Jukebox returned to Ethiopia in 2003, but for two years working in various management positions in his family’s businesses. “I tried to quit hip-hop, but I couldn’t. It’s my gift,” he says. “Deferred dreams become nightmares.” After some soul searching he summoned the courage to tell his family, who now support his choice. “
But the transition hasn’t been easy. Jukebox was dismayed to find that “appreciation of art and music is still in its infant stage, even though we were probably the first to beat the drums. I’ve heard people say that they would rather buy a coffee than a CD, so even the neighboring countries are ahead of us.” The scale of success is one significant factor. “When an album is bangin’ here it means 50,000 copies sold. You can’t have an industry like that.” Another problem, he says, is that “there’s no record label here to groom and promote the artists. The artist gets almost nothing, so whatever I’ve learned I’ve learned the hard way.” But with his musical partner Woah, Jukebox has made six video clips. They also have performed in Addis, have an album in the final stages of production, and plan to start touring.
HahuBeatz, who hails from the northern Ethiopian city of Mekele, has been involved in hip-hop for eight years and counts DMX, Nas and Busta Rhyme among his earliest influences. Hahu, who holds a B.A. in Business Management from Hawassa University, began by rapping in English, but later switched to Amharic to better express himself. Through his company Fidel Productions, he makes beats, handles the production, and films and edits video clips; he has completed his first album but had not yet decided on a name.
“The problem here in Ethiopia is that 90 percent of teens in the cities listen to hip-hop but not ours,” he says. He adds that the overall quality of the lyrics and videos is to blame, and notes that many of the artists imitate Western rappers, rather than finding their own voice. His song “Shame” addresses this issue. “Your performance should always be more than the audience expects,” he says. “You have to have the style, the look, everything, then you can bring the audience.”
Although hip-hop culture is reflected in the fashion and musical tastes of youth throughout the country, it is especially vibrant in the southern cities, and in the minority ethnic areas of South Omo near the border of Kenya. Bujustar Gamo, from Arba Minch, combines traditional and contemporary beats with original lyrics to produce a unique flavor. Although he enjoys the music of Lil Wayne, Kanye West and others, Buju says his major influence came five years ago through the persona of Teddy Yo. “His style, pronunciation, the fashion clothing and his hairstyle, just everything – and he has beautiful lyrics,” Buju explains.
Buju has performed at a club in Addis, at hotels, Abra Minch University, and even at a police conference. Several of his videos, including ” LimataBesana” (Work Hard), have been aired on Ethiopian Broadcasting Service television. In his video “MetoMokoPoolo,” Buju and Hawassa artist Tokichaw lyrically address the issue of a person who is asking for help to solve the problem of inadequate food, clothing, and money.
Although Buju says there are no other established rappers from his area, several Arba Minch University students have demonstrated their talent. Yared, a civil engineering student who also has studied language, was drawn into an appreciation of hip-hop through the lyrics and style of T.I. ”Because I was a fan, I copied (him) at first, but now I focus on lyrics and wordplay that represent me and where I’m from,” he says. “People told me to rap in my own language so I could be popular, but I always rap in English. I’m not trying to be popular – I just want to do what I want to do.” Yared has performed at his university but adds that. “It’s a risk; it’s a different culture here. Right now I’m just trying to please my parents.” Nonetheless, he continues to find and follow American artists like YG, K-Camp and Young Jeezy on YouTube. “That’s the way I approach it,” he concludes.
The lakeside city of Hawassa has given rise to a host of talented teens who rap in English, and writes lyrics that authentically represent their lives and social issues they see every day. The most noteworthy include Ethio Joe, Christian rap crew R4C, and a powerhouse female artist, TG.
Ethio Joe, whose mobile phone features a YG ringtone, explains that as a youngster he was violent, but says that hip-hop changed all that. “I feel like I’m explaining my feelings to the paper, then I get solutions and can let go of something. Hip-hop is the only place I feel free,” he says. His lyrics take a sharp look at poverty, materialism, and people he knows. “I write what comes out of my heart, which can help people understand their own feelings, too.” Joe is now a second-year economics student at Addis Ababa University. “You can make hella money out of hip-hop if you know economics,” he says.
Christian rapper Sammy, who leads the R4C group, notes that hip-hop is a “universal culture that can be used to eradicate poverty and other negative things. The new generation is all into hip-hop culture,” he says, “so they need somebody to show them how they should live.” Influenced by American gospel rapper Lecrae, Sammy began writing his own lyrics when he was 15, first in Amharic, then in English. He and group members Ba-Rock, Dave and Truth Kid, have performed at their church, at schools, and – like Ethio Joe and other a few other Hawassa artists – at two concerts with Teddy Yo.
TG is an anomaly – a young woman in a field almost exclusively male. Now a mechanical engineering student in Addis, she was planning to record three demos during her summer break. Her topics include family, love and hate, and anything else “that strikes an emotional chord, like what life is like for a woman.” In addition to recording, she wants to mentor other young women and encourage them to speak out.
And it won’t stop. Sammy says that he and R4C have recorded singles and are currently working on an album. Dave notes that “Hip-hop speaks to your soul. It’s the best genre to express yourself.” “There are a lot of new rappers coming up in the high schools,” Sammy says Ethiopian hip-hop will continue to grow and allow the youth of the country to tell their own stories.
In the Hamer indigenous area near Kenya, the first rapper has emerged. Dressed in clothing that would allow him to blend in with youth anywhere, Wadu traces his involvement in hip-hop to the music of 50 Cent. He says that “the people who sing about Hamer are not true and I wanted to tell what is real and true.” So far, Wadu has performed in his village at evangade, the traditional Hamer dance events. He writes his own lyrics but says he is in need of beats.
And in the southern city of Jinka, the dance group Tenate (Patience), stages regular competitions with other crews. Formed two years ago, Tenate comprises five male and three female dancers. “We are from poor families where our mothers have left us,” says 16-year-old dancer TamerayhuAdye. She adds that dance “is our life, and we want to take it on the street.”
The question most commonly asked by mystified elders is, “What is the purpose of this?” Tamerayhu best answers this when she says, “Hip-hop opens the doors and opens the windows. We want people to see to the bottom of our hearts.”