ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian rapper DJ Same took out a smartphone and played a clip of a man proclaiming passionately in a traditional Amharic style called fukera, used during feudal militaristic times to rouse the populace to go to war.
Then he started to beatbox along to the oration before saying, “Sounds like rap, doesn’t it?”
Nowadays, Ethiopia’s rappers aren’t concerned with stirring people to take up arms, but they still want to have an impact as they explore modern forms of music.
It is a complex picture that is emerging. When Ethiopian rappers perform in English, the comparisons with American rap are clear to see and hear. But when voiced in Amharic, the language of the second-largest ethnic and linguistic group in the country and used as Ethiopia’s official language, Ethiopian rap moves out of America’s shadow toward establishing its own unmistakable voice.
Yet there is a limit to how far that voice can go. Like many forms of artistic expression in Ethiopia, most rap artists use self-censorship when it comes to rapping about domestic politics. Amharic rap can, as a result, seem fairly apolitical compared with some Western rap. But that does not mean Ethiopian rap is without passion or lacking a desire to bear a worthwhile message to audiences.
“The government thinks we have a bad message, but they don’t understand what we are trying to do,” said 22-year-old rapper Ella Man. “A lot of foreign rap is about ‘I have this, I got this,” but we want to present a constructive message. We represent Ethiopia.”
Rapping in Amharic remains an underground part of Ethiopia’s music scene, dominated by traditional music yet with Ethiopian rock and reggae gaining mainstream popularity. But “people’s minds are changing and so are more open,” said DJ Same, who grew up listening to U.S. rappers such as Jay-Z and Wu-Tang Clan. He highlighted how Amharic rap has a growing following on social media, especially among teenagers and those in their early 20s.
Established and up-and-coming Ethiopian rappers face a quandary over which language to rap in, not least because Amharic is just one of scores of languages spoken in the country. Some perform in Oromo and Tigrinya, languages of the largest and third-largest ethnic groups, respectively. Many Ethiopian rappers using Amharic say their audiences are proud of the country’s resistance to colonialism and remain skeptical of many forms of foreign influence, which can include rapping in English — seen as mimicking America.
At the same time, “rapping in Amharic limits the extent of your audience to Ethiopia, maybe some other East African countries,” said 33-year-old rapper Woah, best known for “Walya” about Ethiopia’s fanatically beloved national football team. “My plan is to rap in Amharic to get popularity at home. And then I can try abroad.”
Amharic is a grammatically complex and subtle language with a rich tradition of allegory, eloquent communication and sophisticated wordplay. But today’s government, much criticized for repressing free speech, won’t tolerate criticism or what it thinks is criticism — no matter how deftly presented.
“I really don’t know why the government has a problem with our rap,” said 27-year-old rapper Yoni Yoye, who cites American rappers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Flo Rida as major influences. He’s best known for his rap hit alongside Mc Mike “Gondergna,” about 19th-century Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros and the culture of the ancient city of Gonder.
“On state TV, I got criticized for my song,” Yoni Yoye said. “They don’t seem to realize that musical entertainment can be good for the country, playing an ambassadorial role, and that rap is a way of reaching the younger generation.”
He explained how he can’t rap about everything he wants to. “People are afraid. If I tried to rap about certain issues, my friends and family would stop me,” he said.
Plenty of Ethiopian singers who have been overtly political suffer harassment for it. Many have had to leave the country, continuing to make music in exile, often in the United States.
But even if the situation were different, being overtly political wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of his agenda, Yoni Yoye said. There are plenty of other issues to give voice to. He is working on a new album in which he raps about the corrupting influence of too much money, problems in rural areas and Ethiopian mothers’ struggles and deserving more respect. “These things make me mad,” he said.
Some rappers approach restrictions obliquely. In Teddy Yo’s forthcoming album, he raps about when 19th-century Ethiopian Emperor Menelik ordered a regional king to pay taxes. The king refused and initially won battles resisting Menelik. By the time he was captured, he had won the emperor’s respect and so was taken to him in chains made of gold, Teddy Yo explained.
“Like the old kings, we can’t express ourselves against the establishment,” he said. “Music is like gold. I have plenty of gold, but I can’t do anything with it.”
That album, in Amharic, will be called “Isreunya“ (“Prisoner”). But rappers in Ethiopia are not alone in working around restrictions.
“We do our best. Politicians don’t like freedom of speech. Every day is a fight,” said Lexxus Legal, a leading figure of Congolese hip-hop known for criticizing problems in his country and beyond in Africa, before performing at the Selam Festival Addis 2015 in the Ethiopian capital. “Sometimes I censor myself. I won’t accuse a politician directly, but I’ll ask how he suddenly built a million-dollar home.”
Politicians’ fears of rap’s power to mobilize dissent aren’t without justification. He pointed out last year’s protests in Burkina Faso after its president tried to remain in power beyond term limits. “It started by a rapper speaking out,” Lexxus Legal said.
In Ethiopia, music is so entrenched culturally across all generations that a song’s lyrics can become known nationwide.
Some Ethiopian musicians address politics, but normally they are sponsored by the government, limiting themselves to uncontroversial topics such as women’s issues and the benefits of rigorous agricultural production.
In addition to self-censorship, plenty more hurdles exist, according to rappers and others in Ethiopia’s music industry. Copyright violation and lack of enforcement is rife; a system of royalties for music used on television and radio is absent; there aren’t enough producers, with most tending to be older and disdainful of newer styles likes rap; and lack of adequate recording equipment and music studies adds to the burden.
Plus, it’s not just the all-hearing government that limits the topical range of rappers and musicians alike.
“It’s hard for up-and-coming artists to sing about politics, as you need people to feel good about the music if they are to buy your album,” Woah said. “After you’ve built up your credibility commercially, then you can address what is really important.”
Despite present difficulties, many remain positive about the future.
“Amharic rap is where American rap was at the start of the ’80s,” said Jukebox the Illustrious, an Ethiopian rapper collaborating with Woah, who cut his teeth on hip-hop while in college in Texas.
Lexxus Legal agreed, adding that rap across Africa has reached the same point as when American rappers “became activists speaking out about rights issues and injustice” and the American rap scene took off.
But Yoni Yoye isn’t so sure. “The hip-hop game is hard in Ethiopia,” he said. “I might get tired of it. I love hip hop and want to do it full time, but I have to work other jobs to pay for food and fuel. It seems music is going backward in Ethiopia.”
But judging by the heartfelt explanations of rappers, what’s out there online, open mic nights in Addis Ababa and the like, there’s plenty of good Amharic rap still to come that might just break through with its message.
“Even the media seems to be against us, but I’m going to change this with my new album,” Teddy Yo said. “I’m going to break the chains.”
Lyrics for “The Truth” by Woah
I heard you say you’re not feelin’ this rhythm
You’re a hybrid, too different, won’t listen
But I won’t quit, back down or back off
My true self will be revealed!
The gift is from above
Receive love and grace
Enough relying on man
The mystery is hidden
The spirit is greater than the flesh, money and power
All useless in God’s eyes
I heard you say you’re not feelin’ this rhythm
Seedless conversation and bogus behavior
Bring true light through your word’s taste
As for me, I’m here and I’m gonna stay true to myself.
What is given from above will never perish
The truth won’t fade away
Nor be seen as such
Oh! So much gossip
Seeking someone else’s fortune
Forgetting one’s self-righteousness
It’s no secret
The word won’t be kept hidden
The truth will be voiced to the highest.