ITS long been considered a counter-culture to Ethiopia’s long, proud musical traditions, even though its foreign exponents are fairly popular in Africa’s second most populous nation of nearly 100 million.
Hip Hop, the American urban culture that includes rap music and graffiti art as it’s main components, has always struggled in a patriarchal country, where conformity is valued and the government frowns on rebellious culture.
Of these, graffiti art has struggled to gain traction because of its clandestine nature. But now even the government is trying to tap into it, with the Addis Ababa city administration seeking help from graffiti artists to paint over some of the dull concrete landmarks and road structures.
Break dancing, another component of Hip Hop culture, is also coming out of the margins of society as numerous talent shows help exponents of this art get publicity as they try to fuse it with Ethiopian dance forms.
In a land where young people idolise US Rap icons like the late Tupac Shakur and Lil Wayne, but look down on local artists as cheap clones and unauthentic, a new group of rappers is trying to break the mould of “failures” as they balance conservative traditions and current music trends.
One such artist who is receiving attention and playtime on radio and TV is Lij Mikael. His brand of Ethiopian beats flavoured with American-style swagger has seen his new album sell well.
He is preparing a solo concert, which would be quite a feat as the need for sponsors and fear of sparse attendance often deters new acts from attempting such a move. Most are prepared to settle for being guests at concerts headlined by other singers, mostly traditional.
Lij Mikael raps in Amharic, Ethiopia’s working language, even though his icons rap in English, which, despite gaining increasing traction, is still relatively seldom spoken on the streets.
Drawing on a tradition of Ethiopian storytelling and synthesized Ethiopian melodies, Lij Mikael’s songs have won positive reviews.
Dawit Yifru, President of the Ethiopian Musicians Association, whose been in the profession for about 50 years, says he’s got no objection to these artists as long as they follow the intellectual property laws of the country.
“I’m seeing young artists sampling music from veteran singers, which I don’t object to as long as permission has been gained,” he says, adding that it also has to be done professionally to benefit the original singers and song writers.
However he’s conflicted about the modernization of the music industry, of machines replacing big bands.
“While I appreciate the simplification of making music in term of cost and time saving, band-driven songs are generally much more refined and good quality,” he said, while also expressing concern at some of the makeshift music studios proliferating in the city nowadays.
One such example is a rap duo trying to make it largely by its own effort, the Juke Box and Wow formed by Senay Mekonen and Henok Getamesay.
Senay Mekonen (MC Wow), who started his rap career more than a decade ago, knows how difficult it is to present a local rap album to an Ethiopian audience.
“We’ve done two English rap albums, but failed at it because we didn’t create a fan base locally, even though young people like to watch the likes of MTV,” Mekonen says, adding that now the group has started rapping in Amharic, fusing musical influences from Ethiopia as well as the Jamaican musical style, Reggae.
The duo seem to be succeeding after switching languages – they are getting air play time on TV, radio stations and their music is being played in clubs in Addis Ababa, where night life is growing.
What started as a hobby for Ethiopia’s youngsters in the mid-1990s and also for Mekonen, may soon be viable enough to support a fulltime rap career, despite him seeing fellow rappers fade away from the scene and pursue other careers. Many blame rap’s “uncertain future” for giving up.
“The music industry doesn’t show mercy to those who keep quiet for a long time. So soon I plan to release a solo and a duo album,” Mekonen says adding that he’s already testing the waters with singles to see if they appeal.
Mekonen says he plans for his songs not just to have party appeal but also to touch on social, familial, philosophical and political messages, potentially a risky strategy in a country where the government keeps close eyes on dissenting voices and social conformity is very much valued.
The rap duo have tried to make contacts with small record labels in the US. They have also tried to sell their music on Ebay, a rarity in a country where the internet penetration and speed is low.
They’ve now focused on collaboration work with local rap and non-rap artists as well as finding local sponsors for their new album.
“We want to release solid material, which does justice to us and justice for the audience, while having an international appeal, even if the audience doesn’t know the meaning of the words,” says Mekonen.
For youngsters like Mesay Belete, rap songs that relate to his own circumstances, while still “staying cool”, will create a fan in him for years to come.
If the reception of Lij Mikael’s new album and the confident ambitions of Juke box and Wow are any indicators, rap music may soon be treated as part of Ethiopia’s music fabric and not a counterculture as many still see it.