by Teodrose Fikre
Teddy Afro occupies rare space in the history of Ethiopian music. At a young age of 39, he has already earned the status of legend within the Ethiopian community and those who know and appreciate Ethiopian music. By western standards, 39 is considered over the hill when it comes to singers and stars within the entertainment industry. But in Ethiopia, where music is taken as seriously as a cup of buna (coffee) and beloved as much as a gursha (a bite of injera) from our parents, musicians have to go through decades of dedication and endure the rigors of singing at smoke filled venues before they earn the distinction of being called a musical legend.
Teddy Afro has done in less than two decades what most singers have not been able to accomplish in their lifetime. When it comes to Ethiopian music, there are two names–Tilahun and Mahmoud and a couple of singers like Kuku Sebsebe, Muluken Melessee, Aster Aweke and maybe two more–who are undisputed legends. There is one thing that all of these singers have in common; they have spent more than 40 years in the music industry and have earned a level of adoration through perseverance and continuity. They also went through the challenges of pursuing a profession that was once dismissed as ignoble and unworthy of the elites. To be called an “azmari”–a once pejorative reserved for singers–was to be reduced to the lower rungs of society.
Thankfully, that time has passed and singers in Ethiopia are now accorded respect and acknowledged for their contribution to the arts and to the Ethiopian culture. However, it still takes a herculean effort and a gift to sing that is magnificent for singers to go from also-rans to the top of the Ethiopia music strata. Moreover, it takes tremendous staying power before fans of Ethiopian music acknowledge someone the distinction of being a true musical legend. A couple have managed to escape the shadow of animosity and have garnered a following. Jacky Gosee and Helen Berhe are a couple of names that stand out who have managed to enter the wider conscience of Ethiopian music listeners without a large body of work to their names. One thing Ethiopians don’t do is one hit wonders; we like our music just like our megeb–slow to cook but amazing to the palette.
Then there is Teddy Afro! Not only has he entered the conscience of Ethiopian music listeners, he now occupies it and sits square in the middle of Ethiopian musika . Teddy Afro has become an icon in ways that not even Tilahun and Mahmoud have done heretofore. His presence in the music industry is so large that he has earned the distinction of being at once beloved and polarizing. There is no lukewarm feeling towards Teddy Afro; people either adore him or his name garners acrimony. Teddy Afro is more than just music; he is a reflection of a wider conflict as his willingness to use music as a vehicle to discuss societal issues, history and the Ethiopian culture has made him a lightening rod.
Tewodros Kassahun was born on July 14th, 1976 in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. He started singing early in life; in his early 20’s Teddy dropped his first album Abugida. Immediately, Teddy Afro was letting us know that he was out to redefine the very concept of Ethiopian music. Poetic really, Abugida is the name of the Amharic alphabet–he was telling us right from the outset that he was going to transform our music from the root. That is precisely what he did; Teddy Afro took a chance and dared to incorporate a depth of message in his music. Almost every song that he releases thus has lessons of love, culture, oneness, and patriotism that is unique to Teddy’s music.
To be honest, Teddy Afro is a nationalist and a musical revolutionary. In a country where people who speak a bit too loudly are persecuted or worse, Teddy Afro defiantly professes his love of Ethiopia through his music. Using very subtle messaging, he encourages his fans to return to the roots of our common identity instead of following a discredited and bankrupt ideology of ethnic federalism. His bravery and divergence from the norm earned him the scorn of the Ethiopian government a decade ago when he was locked up on sketchy charges. For being a bit too outspoken, his freedom was taken away and he spent almost two years in Ethiopia’s most notorious prison Kaliti.
Courage has a cost; for his bravery and his defiant music, Teddy Afro got a taste of the injustice that bleeds countess many in Ethiopia. But he emerged on the other end of prison to find a blessing of wife and continued to put out music that is full of love and unity. His last album, Tikur Sew, spoke of unity not only in Ethiopia but throughout the continent and the world as well as he spoke of overcoming oppression for a people who have been mauled by repression for centuries. Teddy is not just a singer, he is a poet who strings along words and weaves lyrics that is at once profound and yet entrancing. Better harmonies have not serenaded eskista; more profound messages have yet to accompany musika.
What I am writing about Teddy Afro is not just hyperbole or hype. In a culture that is very much reserved and averse to bringing up contentious subjects that fractures the nation as it churns below the waterline, Teddy Afro has the bravery and the audacity to bring these taboo topics to the surface through his music. In Fiyorina, Teddy Afro discussed the subject of Eritrea succeeding from Ethiopia using a love story to highlight the sorrow of a nation being split apart. In Tikur Sew, Teddy Afro had the temerity to discuss the very notion of identity in ways that has never been done and in the process tied in the narrative of Ethiopians to that of the entire continent. Teddy Afro’s song is more than just music; its an audacious attempt to reflect about the past, our present morass, and how to move forward in love.
Abraham Demisse states that Teddy Afro’s music transcends time and space. He noted that Teddy Afro broke the record for the most video views on YouTube for an Ethiopian artist. The number of hits garnered is impressive even when put into context of the most popular American music stars–over 500,000 peopled logged in to watch the video in a 24 hour window. Abraham said this about Teddy Afro’s new single “Ethiopia”:
“Enkuan semay lay bandirashin ayto, semesh sitera man zem yelal ayto”. When he says semay lay bandirashin, he is basically talking about the rainbow. Maya Angelou once said “Be a rainbows in someone’s cloud” and Teddy is being a rainbow for the Ethiopian people who have been blinded in cloud to see the importance of uniting as Ethiopia.
You see, Teddy Afro is teaching as much as he is singing. He is imploring people to reconnect the past that made Ethiopia great among nations in order to move forward into a new age away from penury and barrenness. Abundance is possible if only we are able to put aside past grievance and come together as one people like our ancestors did in Adwa. 500,000 views in one days shows that Ethiopians are eager for a new age of andinet (unity) instead of bickering about the past and having past tense and pretentious pride.
It is because Teddy Afro is so outspoken that he is both beloved and detested by various communities in Ethiopia. When he speaks of past unity, he touches the sensitivities of some who have felt persecution in the past. Politics is a minefield in the Ethiopian community–our history has been as politicized as Donald Trump’s tweets. Politics is such a bedeviling subject in Ethiopia that the common refrain for most Ethiopians these days is “I don’t do Ethiopian politics” even as most stay discussing Trump and Obama. Teddy Afro has no such fear, he is a jegna (hero) who is willing to step into the breach in order to discuss the essence of what it means to be Ethiopian.
Those who dare to challenge cultures are bound to catch slings and arrows from the crowd. This is especially true in Ethiopia where those who do not follow the crowd and think different are judged harshly for having the temerity to be original. But Teddy Afro is a jegna with a microphone; if prison could not silence him, no amount of criticism or petulance from the sidelines can deter him from speaking his mind. The days of being dismissed as an azmari is long gone and past; more singers should follow the path of Teddy Afro and shake up a culture and challenge us to be introspective and to rock the status quo. This is what Teddy Afro does the best, he honors the spirit of Adwa by retelling that era through his music and having the courage to sing harsh truths.
Mesfin Demise said it succinctly and brilliantly as he noted what Teddy Afro represents to Ethiopians who believe in the essence of Ethiopia and what is possible through unity:
Teddy Afro, the king of lyrics, for me represents the true essence of Ethiopia. Let me be clear, I say “Ethiopia” to those who believe in her. If you believe otherwise, then the lyric that just came out is meaningless. He also represents country as well–if you believe in a COUNTRY. Teddy tells you that you can not abandon her even if you want to. He goes with Gezew (present times), what does gezew demand more than anything? Gezew demands unity, country, and identity, during this our most trying time. Gezew wants to remind us that this not the time to abandon a county that gave you life. I can go back on each of his lyrics and timing, you will learn quickly that he goes with Gezew. Indeed Teddy, Gezew is Ethiopia and for that my admiration for Teddy Afro is beyond words.
Teddy Afro’s lyrics speak to all of us differently, what matters is that the lyrics speaks instead of murmuring nothingness. Those who dare to speak will draw admiration and antipathy, but silence will not get us anywhere nor will inverting our culture by chasing modernity and money while disregarding our nation. This is what Teddy Afro keeps giving voice to; he is telling us to stop forgetting about the land that gave birth to us and instead be the heroes that can one day help turn Psalms 68:14 into a prophetic reality.
Par for the course really, Tewodros Kassahun is named after Ethiopia’s most iconic emperor Atse Tewodros II who once united the country through sheer will and tenacity. Teddy Afro might not be an emperor but his music and courage to speak on things we too often ignore makes him royal nonetheless. After all, royalty is not bequeathed but earned through distinction. Teddy Afro loves Ethiopia as much as he loves signing; he is back at it yet again singing unity and magnifying the culture of Ethiopia.
His new song “Ethiopia” talks about the beauty and greatness of his beloved nation. This song is once again stirring up debates and riling passions but what good is music if it does not move us. Love him or hate him, one thing is for sure, no one can ignore Teddy Afro for Teddy is the tikus gebena (hot kettle) that boils the buna and awakens the spirit. Below is the Teddy Afro single “Ethiopia”; check it out for yourself and find out why Teddy Afro is the most tikus singer in Ethiopia. #TikusTeddy
“If music be the food of love, play on.” ~ William Shakespeare
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