Arts in Addis

By Eden Mekonen

EDM tracks, beatboxing, singing at karaoke night, and poetry night…this is Addis.

I attended performing arts schools throughout my primary and secondary school. I studied music, dance, and drama alongside traditional subjects such as English, History, Math, and Science; an educational anomaly amongst Ethiopian-Americans.

However, even in taking upwards of five hours of music classes daily, my participation in the arts was seen as a “cute hobby” by my Ethiopian elders, but never a serious lifelong endeavor that should be pursued too seriously.

My participation in the arts was seen as a “cute hobby” by my Ethiopian elders, but never a serious lifelong endeavor that should be pursued too seriously.

As most children of Ethiopian immigrants know, there is an ongoing stereotype that many individuals of previous generations have a select set of pre-approved professional careers which their children can pursue.

What are those fields? I’m sure you all know, medicine, engineering, and law (or, if a family is particularly generous, business/finance, tech, and education are also seen as acceptable fields of study). As a result, we often grow up being encouraged to pursue these fields because they offer the promise of job security and “good pay.” In a sense, these careers offer “stability,” an important consideration for many of our immigrant parents who left their homeland due to the uncertainty of their futures.

Even while living in Los Angeles, a seemingly open-minded, creative city, you can still get hit with the well-meaning advice to abandon non-traditional pursuits and instead study “practical subjects.” As a result, hearing such discouragement regularly, sometimes makes it feel as though pursuing anything outside of the “three golden careers” is “un-Ethiopian.”

However, in Addis, I’ve had the privilege of meeting local Ethiopian creatives who complicate the notion of what Ethiopians can do and be. While I’ve gone to my fair share of bahalwi bayetoch to see and hear traditional styles of dance, dress, and music, it’s also been inspiring seeing young Ethiopians creatively express themselves through unconventional mediums and styles. From seeing a 16-year-old Ethiopian female DJ spin EDM tracks at Taste of Addis, to hearing beatboxing masinko performances at karaoke nights, to attending poetry sessions where poets perform original pieces about menstruation and receive unabashed audience support, these individuals have demonstrated a creative side to Ethiopia that I hadn’t ever considered.

They exemplify the diversity of talent amongst Ethiopians and highlight the ways that Ethiopian culture and art is constantly shifting, evolving, and made accessible to its audiences.

Couture garments from designers such as the Yohannes Sisters, or just as well purchase more affordable options from local dressmakers in Shiro Maeda. In the same vein, there are possibilities to check out a local azmari bate to hear performers freestyle songs about audience members, or alternatively, opportunities to attend more exclusive music festivals and concerts. The professional and recreational avenues forged by local Ethiopian creatives aren’t confined to traditional spaces.

It’s also been inspiring to see Diaspora come to Ethiopia to create spaces that showcase the talents of locals. One great example is Addis Fine Art Gallery, which display the works of local and diasporic contemporary artists. In doing so, people create a wider support system and artistic community beyond Ethiopia itself that shows the importance and necessity of supporting and encouraging the creation of Ethiopian art irrespective of our geographic location.

While it often takes a considerable amount of fearlessness, sacrifice, and albeit economic stability to have the time and means to pursue these creative endeavors, my hope is that I will continue to see more of and more of my peers both in Ethiopia and across the ocean continue to create and pursue their artistic passions. While we have The Weeknd, Kelela, Amine, Ruth Negga, Julie Mehretu, Haile Gerima, Marcus Samuelsson, and the like receiving mainstream success, I can’t wait to see what other works the global Ethiopian community will create and I look forward to doing some elilta at their shows.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship the organization and the leadership.