Telling stories with rhyme and reason

By Heirete Yibaleh

Throughout human history, it has been established that the fruit of power is in the hands of the beholder. The types of power people have might be different but the outcome and decision to do good or bad lies in the hands of the one who possesses it. Whether it is knowledge, authority, money or talent all of them can be thrown in both directions. Power in the hands of the likes of Adolf Hitler resulted in the holocaust while Nelson Mandela used his power to put an end to Apartheid and create peace. Similarly, talents like Bob Marley attempted to reconcile warring factions.

When considering power, one of the most powerful things in the history of humans is music. The expression ‘music a universal language’ is considered to be an understatement by many. It is so powerful that it is even said to be instrumental in altering health and personality for the better. Many talented musicians like Bob Marley and Michael Jackson have tried to do good things with the power of the talent they possessed.

Biruh Gebrekiros is a 22 years old youth who lives in Addis Ababa. He is a young hip-hop artiste who is trying to make it in the local industry that is starting to show its head in the country. Biruh, who was born and raised in Hawassa, moved to Addis to continue his higher education and is now a 2nd year marketing student. He says that he has a very special power and he wants to use it to do good. “My special power is music and I want to be able to use my talent for good,” Biruh says. He says that even though hip-hop does not have a good reputation in the society at the moment, it was initially one means of motivating people to fight. Experts in this area also say that before the rough, raw, sexist and violent music that defines most top hip-hop artistes today, in the beginning it was used as a voice, poetry and social copiousness and a way to fight racism, sexism and other injustices in the world.

The story is different now and when one hears hip-hop these days the first thing that comes to mind is violence and drugs. However, Biruh says that the original purpose is good and many great things can be driven out of it. Biruh says that for him hip-hop music is a way of expressing himself. “Hip-hop helped me pass through a lot of things. When I am feeling happy or sad, depressed or excited, my music is what gets me through things,” he says.

Biruh also explains how difficult it was to convince his family especially his mom to support his talent. “My mom is my number one supporter and fan but it wasn't easy getting her on board,” he says. Because of the image that the society has for hip-hop Biruh's mother was not happy when her son started showing interest in hip-hop. “I knew he had musical talents ever since he was a kid but I wasn’t happy when he started taking it seriously,” Desta Habtemariam, Biruh’s mother, says. She says that even when he was a kid Biruh always liked to rhyme. “Even when we drove in our car he used to cheer for his dad in rhymes. I think it was born with him,” Desta says.

Like any concerned mother, Desta was not happy when she noticed what her son was taking interest in. “Sometimes, when I go to his room in the middle of the night, I find him writing lyrics or trying to learn how to make music,” she says. She used to get very upset because she wanted him to focus on his school studies but all he did was make music. “One day, when I went to his room and found him writing lyrics, I started to tear the papers. While I was doing that he said something that I will never forget. He said that I might be able to destroy the papers but can’t do anything about what’s inside his head,” she said. She was very surprised and his response somehow showed her that what he was doing was something special and meant a lot to him. Biruh thought himself how to make music by going to software shops and buying music making software. “The first software I used was called magic pro and I started from a scratch and thought myself how to make music,” he says.

Biruh’s musical career started when he sang at a talent show in school. “I saw that my friends were happy and were cheering me and I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says. As the years went by, he performed various venues and his attachment to his craft started to grow. A major change in his musical career happened when Behulu Mengistu, a friend of Biruh, introduced him to a woman called Dr. Carol O’Connor, president of Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists talented youth from Jackson, Mississippi, to Ghana, focusing on education via hip-hop. O’Connor has spent most of her life in education, teaching both high school and college level English languages courses. Her PhD work at the Jackson State University focused on hip-hop and education. She holds BA in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a MEd from the University of Guam. She has lived all around the United States and abroad including Ghana and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently works in Hawassa, Ethiopia teaching English using hip-hop.

“When I first heard about her, I wasn't very happy about it because it made my son get even more attracted towards music. When he told me she wants to meet me with me, I agreed because I wanted to protect my son,” Desta says. Eventually, she met O’Connor and realized that it was not as bad as she thought it would be; in fact, it was something that would change here perspective. ''What I expected I would find and what I actually found out was something totally different,” Desta says. The perception Desta has about music—especially about hip-hop music—was something negative. ''When I saw what they were trying to do, I was really touched and decided to help right then and there,” she says. Desta is an educator by profession and when O’Connor proposed to work together she agreed. “Teaching is what I love doing it and we decided to form an organization called Education Option. I fell in love with the idea because the whole theme was education, collaboration and celebration,” she says.

Education Option educated students especially in the area of language using hip-hop and creative writing by taking model schools. “We also did some charity works at schools for students from low income families,” Desta says. According to Desta, the whole idea was to give children the chance to entertain themselves and find another option to make it in this world by changing their talent into a profession. After his mother saw what they were trying to do, she started supporting Biruh in his musical endeavors. Education Option educated kids and created a platform for talented kids to use their talent and Desta says that she was happy her boy was part of that. “The foundation couldn’t continue due to several reasons and because we moved to Addis; however, I would still love to continue the work here if there is anybody who would like to support,” Desta says.

''My first professional performance was at the Addis Ababa Convention Center. I don't exactly remember what the event was but I was the last to perform and almost everyone was out by the time I was done. I was a bit disappointed but it still felt good since I manage to send my message to the few people who were there,” he says. When he was working with O’Connor, Biruh got the chance to perform in front of a big audience of around 700 people at an event organized by the American Embassy here in Addis Ababa. “It felt really great to perform in front of all those people. See the people entertained and energized is a great feeling,” Biruh says, adding that he wants to create a music industry where many can benefit from.

Biruh is now working with Henok Getamesay a.k.a. Jukebox, a music producer, who is helping and mentoring Biruh in music-making. He believes that they will be able to do a lot of things and come up with a great album in the future.

Maranata Tsehaye, a third year medical student, is one of the artistes that collaborated with Biruh. Maranata’s specialty is on beat-making and he is the one who currently makes Biruh’s beat. “It hasn’t been long since I started working with Biruh but when we met and I heard his music, I really liked them and decided to work with him,” Maranata says. “What we are trying to do is not copy everything from abroad but arrange it in a way so that our society can accept it and listen to it. What we want to do is be music chefs,” Maranata Says.

Elaborating this idea, Biruh says, “We want to give the society something that it can relate to and be able to reach out to the international community and promote Ethiopian culture,” he says, adding that what he wants to do with his music is tell stories; stories that can touch and change peoples’ lives and stories that have reason. “Women have a lot of respect here in my country and I want to show and promote this by singing about the strength, power and wisdom that women have,” Biruh says. The young hip-hop artiste believes that there are lots of beautiful stories to tell in Ethiopia and he wants to be able to do that through hip-hop. ‘’Hip-hop is a very powerful music and Ethiopia has a lot of powerful stories and I want to be able to tell them,” he says. Biruh also says that he wants his music to be big and become a platform for others to be able to show and express their talents as well.