Tedy Afro’s Song and our Conversation
April 30, 2017
Let me from the outset be clear that the very purpose of this opinion and comment is not to invite unnecessarily overstretched and endless dialogue about the new song of artist Tewodros Kssahun. It is rather to express my opinion (what I believe) and comment (critique) on how the way we engage in a conversation about a given subject matter positively or negatively affects the very outcome we want to benefit from. To make my points view clear and specific, I preferred to use the conversation about Tewodros’ song that has been dominating most social media and considerable number of traditional media for the last couple of weeks if not months as the topic of my opinion and comment.
Gerry Spence, the author of a book, How to Argue and Win Every Time (1995) has the following to say about the very purpose of argument or conversation: the means by which we aid another; it steers us to the right direction and save us from danger (warning); … it teaches us; … as a reasoned dialogue, it resolves disputes; … it engenders respect; … it expresses devotion; it is an entreaty of love; … it moves multitudes and changes history.
I am not declaring that all these components of argument can or should apply to this very particular song of Tedy Afro. But I strongly believe that there is a need for us to conduct our conversation at least with a real sense of belief of listening to each other, respecting one another, staying focused on issues and doing whatever we can to reach a mutual understanding and if possible agreement; but not to turn our disagreement into inimical atmosphere or terribly emotion-driven mentality of “you are not true Ethiopian but I am or we are”. This is because as Gerry says, “We cannot argue until we understand what the argument is about.” To my understanding, the very purpose of a conversation on this particular or any other similar work of an artist should not be used to make our already existing problem of identity crisis somehow related with our political history and tragically aggravated by TPLF/EPRDF for the past two decades much more cracked. It goes without saying that rational, tolerant, healthy, respectful, problem-solving, constructive but critical conversation essentially requires the willingness and courage from all sides involved to know who they are and what they are for. That is why Gerry once again says, “… Our perception of the people we deal with everyday depends on who we are ourselves.”
Yes, we are Ethiopians who unfortunately never had any opportunity to deal with our differences and conflicts through democratic, civilized and progressive way. We are the people with the history of both great achievements and considerable failures. We are still captives of the political mentality and practice of ignorance, arrogance, intolerant, irrationality, non-problem solving and looking backward instead of looking forward. Although there are fellow Ethiopians such as some Oromo brothers and sisters who go negatively too far with regard to the issue of Ethiopian identity, those of us who consider our belief and stand is for unity (Ethiopiawinet) are not playing the game in such a way to bring our two extreme opposing views and positions to the middle. Needless to say, our conversations or arguments on any issue including this song of Tedy Afro are influenced and overshadowed by our undesirable and unproductive way of thinking and doing things.
Knowing ourselves necessarily requires a clear understanding of our characteristics of strengths and weaknesses, courage and timidity, dreams and reality, honesty and dishonesty, responsibility and irresponsibility. This very self-conscious way of doing things paves the way for behaving and acting toward achieving a desired, well thought, well –defined and well- guided purpose of social action and interaction. This in its turn empowers us to make things happen the way we want to happen. It is when we know ourselves that we can build on the strength we have and identify areas of our weaknesses so as to make appropriate and necessary improvement.
Effective communication through objective and healthy but critical exchange of ideas and views is indispensable to make a meaningful difference in our private lives as well as in dealing with a highly complex and difficult human behavior and activities in a society we belong to. I do not think there is any other circumstance which calls for engaging in rational and healthy dialogues and conversations than the very horrifying socio-political situation in our present Ethiopia.
Unfortunately enough, the way we behave and interact with each other in most subjects of conversations ranging from the very huge and critical issues of Ethiopian politics to the very localized or particular subjects of concern terribly suffers from a very serious lack of engaging in a real sense and purpose of good intention and amicable interaction.
I sincerely believe that having a comment or an opinion on any subject of conversation should not be measured and determined by the question of whether we are right or wrong. Rather, it should be measured and determined by the question of whether we critically/rationally, genuinely, ethically, and respectfully express our perception and understanding regardless of having poor points of argument or getting it totally wrong. This is because we do not engage in a conversation with a predetermined view of knowing everything and winning every case. This kind of mind set is nothing but the greatest enemy of making our conversation critical, healthy and problem-solving. Neither do we engage in a conversation with a subjective prejudgment about the subject of a conversation (focusing more on who is the subject of the discussion instead of what is the issue in the discussion.)
The moment we fail to control our emotion and anger because some participants of a conversation may intentionally or unintentionally go for personal or identity attack; we fail to pursue a just cause we claim firmly stand for. Our claim of standing for a just cause is tested by how we engage in a conversation and communication with the rational, tolerant, problem-solving, constructive and forward-looking manner.
To my understanding and belief, although there may or might be some fellow Ethiopians who may or might have been excessively subjective and wrong in their judgements about the work of Tedy Afro, they should not serve us as excuses for responding or reacting with excessive emotion which may kill our willingness and reasoning power to carefully and tolerantly stay in the conversation and make some sort of sense out of in such a way that it pursues us not to blow up out of proportion and end up being good for nothing.
For that matter, the existence of some fellow Ethiopians who may go to the extent of using these kinds of situations as excuses to attack what they do not want to see or hear is not surprising as far the existence of the very mishandled political identity which has been made worse for a quarter of a century “thanks” to the minority ethno-centric tyranny is concerned. The question is: should we go the way those who have difficulties to recognize even the very concept of Ethiopiawinet want to go and make things much worse or try hard to make things better by “going high when they go down” (to borrow the very short but powerful words of the former first lady, Mrs. Michele Obama ).
Shouldn’t we be in a much better position of engaging those fellow Ethiopians who intentionally or otherwise undermine the very essence of Ethiopian identity? Should don’t we try hard to bring those fellow Ethiopian into rational, tolerant, respectful and constructive sphere of engagement instead of widening and deepening the rift which has already been widened and deepened for a quarter of a century ?
Shouldn’t we be mindful of how the very sentiments of those Ethiopians could become the destructive material forces of hate and resentment if we ourselves are prone to the damaging consequences of irrational, intolerant, repulsive, impatient and hateful way of interaction? I am not saying we should not argue about what we objectively and sincerely believe in and call the spade a spade (bad idea is bad) whenever necessary and appropriate. What I am saying is let’s do it the right and constructive way.
I am saying this because I have observed kind of very shallow and extremely shortsighted exchanges of ideas during the conversation about the song. I strongly argue that those who got angry and tried to declare that the song does not deserve criticism on the one hand, and those who tried to irrationally belittle its positive influence on the other hand, have made the conversation more difficult, unhealthy and full of monotonous rhetoric. I do not believe that engaging in this kind of conversation about a very particular work of an artist who just sang a song of praising his country and her historical and cultural values in much more well-thought and organized fashion is helpful and truly teachable.
The moment we join a conversation with a very sentiment of this or that person deserves admiration not criticism because he or she is popular or prominent figure, we end up inviting unrealistic /irrational, if not stupid way of thinking. And this of course leads to the dead end of our careers. Needless to say, a career or any other human endeavor in life that tries to downplay or avoid criticism regardless of having good intention or even some sort of ulterior motive contributes to the degradation of its own public influence. This is because it loses one critical characteristic; the power and energy of creating opportunities for further and vibrant progress which should be beneficial from a conversation that is characterized by all kinds of diverse views and ideas. And this is critically desirable even in a well-developed society of literature, culture and arts leave alone ours which is still terribly suffering from serious shortcomings mainly because of the total absence of freedom of expression and innovation.
If we were such social animals of having the same idea of understanding and interpreting thigs as well as having the same interests in all the things we deal with and interested in, there could have been no need of engaging in any conversation at all. There is no such a thing in real life. I think the very problem we have is that when we engage in a conversation, we get lost in our own ideal thoughts which makes us forgetful about the real world we live in and deal with. To my understanding, that is what I observed in the conversation about Tedy’s new song. I did listen to commentator’s views and read articles telling that the song is kind of groundbreaking without substantially explain whether it is just a great praising of Ethiopia the way we wish to be or strongly reflects our present Ethiopia. How we explain the very meaning and message of the song and an incredible level of horrifying situation in our country? Is Ethiopia of today a country we sing and dance about her glory? Preaching peace among ourselves and love for our country now and then is great. But our message remains weak if it does not reflect the very national disgrace we are experiencing and challenge us why and how we keep failing. Yes, our messages remain with the problem of effectiveness unless we call for action to make our own history of freedom and justice and make the great history of our court complete. I am not saying I want to hear songs sorrow and despair. Absolutely not! What I am saying it is high time to make our songs about our country powerful reflections of the reality on the ground and make them instruments to communicate with our people who are in desperate need of help.
If we have to make our conversation healthy and fruitful, it should not be measured and determined mainly by the question of who is the subject of the conversation: a king/queen, papa or patriarch or his subordinates, high or low ranking official, popular or ordinary artist, prominent or ordinary scholar, so on and so forth. The moment we preoccupy our minds with the sentiment of passively submitting ourselves to the very idea of criticism based on social, or profession, or economic, or religious belief statuses; we become victims of cynicism and opportunism. I wish I could describe it otherwise. But that has never been, never is and will never be the case unless we want to make it the other way round. The reason is because it is totally unrealistic. If we try to create an atmosphere of “touch not him or her because he or she is a big and popular figure”, we must be creating an atmosphere of having our own “small gods” which in its turn creates a situation prone to the emergence and development of self-aggrandizement behavior.
It should also be noted here that not expecting some very weird, disingenuous, disruptive, highly personalized, and even badly stupid types of comments and opinions in this conversations is unrealistic and naïve itself. This is because we as human beings, we do not and cannot behave and act the way we wish ideally to be or to do. And this problem is quite vivid phenomenon in our political culture. I do not think I need to go back to the story of the guilty behavior and act of our very first parents, Adam and Eve to reason out why we are the way we are and the way how we behave and act. It is self-evidently true that we are their children who are doing much more terrible things than they did. More regrettably, we are also their children who use their wrong doings as our clumsy if not stupid excuse for our won wrong doings.
Now, the only thing we can and should try to do is deal with our own varied and so complex behaviors and actions as wise, rational, desirable and constructive as possible. I strongly argue that this is what we keep missing or ignoring, and consequently be victims of our own made failure.
Let me proceed to my very specific points of opinion and comment.
I have no knowledge about music in technical terms. The very perspective of my comment is not whether the rhythm is smooth or rough and so on and so forth. I do know very well that artist Tedy is one of the popular singers of this young generation who deserve due respect and credit. I do know that this song, “Ethiopia” is so great because singing a song that praises and honors our beloved country cannot be described otherwise. It is truly appreciable!
I am stressing this view of mine to mean that the very focus of my opinion and Comment is not to say that these kinds of songs are less important at this very time of difficulties. But I would argue that they have their own weaknesses to make strong connection between what is the hard reality on the ground in our present Ethiopia and their big and colorful words. Do not get wrong that my line of argument is to get anybody or somebody pleased or unpleased. Rather, I am expressing my own perspective about the song in general and the new song of Tedy Afro in particular. I am well aware that this may seem to some fellow Ethiopians going too far and make them uncomfortable if not upset. But that should not be an excuse or frightening to restrain myself from expressing what I believe in with a real sense of reasoning.
• Yes, my angle of argument is not to undermine the role of songs in glorifying our history, the physical and human characteristics of our country, our tricolor of national flag, good aspects of our cultural values and practices, not to abandon our country as we should not do to our mothers, the priceless value of peace and love. I strongly believe music or any other art that praises or glorifies our country should be appreciated and encouraged. It is from this perspective that I want to see and understand Tedy Afro’s song about Ethiopia in general and this new one in particular. Is this new song really groundbreaking as many fellow Ethiopians including media personalities tried to describe it? I do not think this kind of over exaggeration will help both the artist and listeners if we believe that the more to be done is expected to be much more advanced and meaningful and even a sacrifice to be offered for the sake of seeing the ideal Ethiopia we sing about becoming the home of freedom and justice.
• I do understand that though the very detailed and technical nature and character of the song should be left to professionals or those who may have a good sense of knowhow , it is wrong to undermine comments of ordinary listeners or genuinely concerned Ethiopians . I do not think the very meaning of songs such as the one we are discussing about are beyond the understanding of ordinary Ethiopians, particularly those who can speak Amharic language. Mystifying the very meaning or message of the song as if there has never been a song about Ethiopia like this one is not only unnecessary exaggeration but it is also misinforming this young generation which is not exposed enough to great works of senior singers of older generation who left with nothing for their own lives when they said goodbye to either their careers due to ageing or losing their lives forever.
• Just example: I am well aware that the late legendary artist Tilahun Gessesse used to admire his “son” Tedy Afro. To my understanding, that is to mean that the young generation of art or music must be encouraged by any means of encouragement. But if you ask me what is deeply printed in my mind about the very power of song or music in reflecting the hard realty of life, I would without any hesitation say that that was the songs of legendary Tilahun which stay deep in my soul. I am sure most of us remember his song about the suffering of millions of innocent Ethiopians from a very devastating drought and famine. He made us look at, deeply feel and thoroughly read the horrified innocent people through his flood of tears rolling down on his cheeks and getting his shirt wet. Can you see and fell the very power of song when it depicts the hard reality we live in? Don’t we have millions of innocent Ethiopians who are languishing between death and life at this very moment? Is singing a song about why we continue to be examples of destitution and dehumanization in this 21st century because of our own failure to change things for the better politically scary and dangerous to our well-established private lives? I do not think any genuinely concerned Ethiopian should and can tell any artist what and how he or she has to sing and not to be fearful of political consequences? But I do think and believe that we have to admit that we are in a very serious dilemma; to make our songs or music strongly relevant to the realty (not ideal Ethiopia) and face the consequences, or keep singing wonderful and colorful songs about the features and history of our country (kind beating around the bush) and with no significant influence on the very challenging question of how and when we can be the people of songs of victory by making our own history.
• I do know and sincerely believe that a person’s popularity or prominence or highly regarded position cannot and should not be an excuse not to be a subject of critical comment. There is no such a human nature or human activity which is not destined to either wholly positive, or positively critical, or simply personal attack. The way we respond or react to any critical view about our great works matters a lot to how we are better or worse than what we claim to be. I want to see Tedy Afro be much better in this regard; and his admirers should help him to be.
• I do know that songs such as “Ethiopia” of Tedy are articulated messages to the people of Ethiopia. But I also do know and genuinely believe that how the song reflects the very reality of today’s Ethiopia (not Ethiopia we see or aspire through our great songs or we ideally express) is an appropriate and legitimate question. To be clear, the question ; do we really see and hear the voices of millions of innocent citizens who are incredibly destitute, dehumanized, and starving to their bones due to the total nonexistence of freedom and justice in the song, “ Ethiopia”? I listened to some commentators from social and traditional media trying to give analytical explanation that the meaning of the words in the song are meticulously powerful. I do not disagree. But I do not see or hear that words of meticulousness challenging us with the question of not swearing how we love our beloved homeland as a mother now and then without exerting significant course of action. I do not hear or listen to a powerful voice in the song which challenges us with tough, straight-forward and timely question of what we are doing to a mother whose survival is at great risk? It is great to preach with our songs that Ethiopia is like a mother never to be abandoned because she is such a poor mother. Yes, it is true that this is a very common knowledge of genuinely concerned ordinary Ethiopians including me. Does the song challenge us with the question of what is wrong with us when we repeatedly and terribly failed our poor mother? How the notion of just love her even if she is not just poor but one of the poorest of all without questioning why and how this makes complete sense? I am well aware that this comment of mine may make many fellow Ethiopians especially those who admire Tedy with no any trace of critical view. I wish I could see and look at things that way. But I am not a person of viewing things that way because of the very reason I am trying to reflect in this piece of mime. Do I understand this is controversial and even disagreeable? Absolutely! Do I believe that the controversy and disagreement we may have should take us to a path of enmity, mutual mistrust and mutual exclusion? I strongly argue that that is a total stupidly or nonsense!
• I do know that music tells the story of not only glorifying or praising the history and socio- cultural and even spiritual values of the people but also (most importantly) the sorrow, unhappiness, dehumanization, hunger, untold sufferings, moral and spiritual degradation and unjustified death of innocent people because of the total absence of freedom and justice. Am I saying that artists such Tedy Afro should sacrifice their ways of life by singing about how the politics of TPLF /EPRDF is getting bloodier and bloodier? No, I am not; because that requires an extraordinary decision of a person by himself and for himself. I want to be clear enough that it is right and great to sing any song that praises who we are and about our beloved country and preach the priceless values of love and peace. But it must be underscored that we cannot afford keep singing songs about our good side of history and our patriotic forefathers and mothers, and pretend that we are still great and proud in this 21st century. This is simply because we are not people of greatness and glory at this very moment because of our tragic failure for about half a century. I have to reiterate that a song (songs) about Ethiopia that are shy of posing challenging questions in this regard cannot have significant influence on our way of doing things let alone to be the groundbreaking material forces of change.
• I do know that music is a powerful instrument of creating well informed public and an invisible power of public awakening and struggle to get rid of a brutal ethno-centric tyranny and determine the desirable destiny of the people. Do I hear or listen to such powerful words in the song? My answer cannot not be positive without being critical about it.
• I do know that music is not a matter of simple stories about the past or the present or the future; but most importantly it is about why and how we lived yesterday, why and how we are living today, and why and how we expect to live tomorrow. Well, which circumstance of our country and our lives as a people calls for a clear and loud but systematic message of “to be or not to be”? Is it not at this very horrifying circumstance of our country which is caused by the continuation of the notoriously brutal political system of minority ethno-centrism? So, should we keep singing songs which are not very different from we have sang throughput our social- political history? I respectfully beg to differ!
• I am well aware that there may be fellow Ethiopians who may have their own disingenuous and ulterior motives in the name of criticism toward the song. But I also do know that not handling or engaging those fellow Ethiopians with a sense of civility, humility , tolerance , maturity, and with a good assumption that whatever we may disagree today, there will be tomorrow of real sense of unity within our diversity. For example; making very emotion –driven and highly jargonized rhetoric about the sentiment of some fellow Oromo Ethiopians who have their own problem of presenting their legitimate cases in the right and constructive manner does not serve our great purpose. Expecting the very conception, perception and interpretation of Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinet which has been terribly messed up for a quarter of a century to easily go away and within a short period of time is terribly unrealistic. Making the rift which is already wide and deep much wider and deeper because of our wrong and unhealthy attitude and behavior in our conversation about Tedy’s or any other song about Ethiopia is stupidly self-defeating.
• Do songs such as” Ethiopia” of Tedy tell us the stories of many artists who tried to voice the voiceless in their own country are now victims of fleeing to any direction of the world without having any idea of where their destiny is? Does it tell us that the history and beauty of our country and our culture of which we sing about are now being brutally assaulted by those ruling elites who have no any sense of national pride and interest?
• Will we be rational and constructive enough if we will have to have another conversation or will we keep going with approach and behavior as usual? I hope the former will be our choice.
• I strongly believe that it is great for artists such as Tedy Afro to sing a song that tells the fascinatingly truly reflections of feudal Ethiopian society, Fikir eske Mekabir (Love up to the Grave) of the late honorable Hadis Alemayehu. If I am not mistaken, I heard that one of the songs of Tedy Afro’s new Album is devoted to this great work Hadis Alemayehu who very meticulously and powerfully depicts the deep socio-political conflicts within the then system of monarchy. This would be very appreciable. But we need to draw the very picture of the lives, beliefs, traditions and political thoughts of the people of places such as Debre Elias, Debremarkos, Mankusa, Dima Giorgis, Mertolemariam, Debrework of Adis Alemyehu ,and what the realities in which the people of these places looked then and looks right now . Will the song tell us just about the wonderful settings of Addis Alemayehu or beyond? I hope it will tell us the story beyond expressing the socio-cultural and religious aspects of those places.
With all due respect, my argument about this work of Tedy is not to undermine his work or to tell him how he should sing or how his technical arrangement should look like. No! That is not only because it is not my field of expertise but also it is not my business to do so. My understanding and opinion is not how he sings extraordinarily beautiful or how the poem is strong or soft. My very perspective of critical view is how it powerfully reflects the present Ethiopia and Ethiopians. I am also of the opinion that the very argument that sounds that there has never been such a song of groundbreaking message about Ethiopia makes us just passive receivers, not critical listeners or audiences. ? What would be our response if a foreigner who knows Ethiopia and her history very well would challenge us as follows: “I know the history of Ethiopia and her people who are proud of their national pride; but that has been badly affected by bad politics which is mainly caused by your rulers, but also because of your tragic and repeated failures for the last quarter of a century to stand together and go beyond your rhetoric and beautiful songs. May I argue that the present Ethiopia is not the country you are trying to portrait in your songs?” Very tough challenge!
I hope with the help of God, we will prevail sooner, not later!!!