The versatile musician

Meklit Hadero is a singer and songwriter based in San Francisco, California. She is known for her soulful performing style, and for combining jazz, folk, and East African influences in her music. Born in Ethiopia, she was raised in the US and attended college at Yale, where she studied political science.  Shortly after graduation, Meklit moved to San Francisco and became immersed in the city's thriving arts scene. Named a TED Global Fellow in 2009, Meklit has served as an artist-in-residence at New York University, the De Young Museum, and the Red Poppy Art House. She has also completed musical commissions for the San Francisco Foundation and for theatrical productions staged by Brava! For Women in the Arts. She is the founder of the Arba Mintch Collective, a group of Ethiopian artists in the diaspora devoted to nurturing ties to their homeland through collaborations with both traditional and contemporary artists there. As a Senior TED Fellow since 2011, she co-founded the Nile Project. She recently traveled to Ethiopia and performed at the African Jazz Village. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter caught up with Meklit to discuss with her musical journey, her albums and the various projects she is involved in. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Let’s start with your recent performance that was held at African Jazz village. How was it? Did the audience understand the lyrics of “Kemekem” and “Abay Mado”?

Meklit Hadero: It was awesome. I have to say I did not really understand how much “Kemekem” have penetrated the music scene in Addis Ababa. People told me that this piece was playing on various stations on the radio but I did not know the level. So it was definitely a surprise. The audience was very receptive. I feel very grateful and very connected and it is inspiring to me. We put a lot of work into the video with Ethiopia in mind and I made certain choices with the dancers and the director to suit the Ethiopian audience.

Tell me about “Kemekem” (the love for Afro). What does it mean with regard to the concept embracing natural hair?

I will tell you how I experienced it. The first time I came back to Ethiopia after I left it was in 2001. I came with my mother. That was the time I cut off my straightened hair. I was new to my Afro and everybody was staring at me. Moving forward to this day the staring is not there, which shows the change in attitude towards natural hair.

One of the reason I loved this song is that it is a place where we can connect between various communities of Ethiopians and also with the rest of Africa. I am so grateful that Ethiopians really accepted “Kemekem” but I also get messages from Brazilians, South Africans, Ghanaians and so many people of African origin.

I was talking to some of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement in the San Francisco Bay Area and they told me that it is one of their anthems. They said they play it in the office all the time because they feel it has a love for our people and who we are and it is a self-affirming kind of thing. So that is what I wanted in the song; connecting Ethiopians, Africans and people of African origin.

So you believe that hair is more than just hair. Does the song have any political message?

I think it definitely gives the message that hair is more than hair. Hair reveals our identity. Taking pride in who we are and in what God gave us. We should not be ashamed with the hair we have. I made a choice not to straighten my hair because it is part of my identity. In that sense, we Ethiopians are proud of our culture, and who we are. In the mainstream US media, there are messages of self-hate for the black diaspora. So this can be a boost and a story to connect with.

 “Abay Mado” is an old song. How did you pick this song?

I have this little personal theory about folk music such as “Abay Mado”. When you sing a folk song, generations of people who have sung that song are somehow in that song. But I decided to do the music because I was obsessed with it. For one year the music haunted me and so I said this song chose me. When the music chooses you, you don’t question it. “Abay Mado” was included in my first full-length album “On a Day Like This”. I was experimenting on my music. In the album Ethiopian, jazz and cover songs were included, which became a wonderful template for the albums that followed.

When you perform, you take your audience on an emotional journey of longing and yearning. At the same time it is filled with fun. How do you do that?

Let me tell you one thing a friend of mine, who is a neuroscientist and studies music and brain, told me. He says that the only place where sadness and enjoyment meet in the brain is in music. We feel it too in thinking about songs such as Tizita. You can really express anything in music and still fell joyful. It is also about performance, physical communication and reconnecting with the child in you. You have to be like a two-year-old who is extremely joyful. It is fascinating and powerful even with the simple act of moving your legs. That is how I feel when I am on stage.

So when you are on stage you are totally immersed in your music?

Yes. Sometimes you get the self-judgment moment. Any artiste or performer would get that but you have to learn not to let it be in charge. You say a little prayer to reconnect with the music and let the music take over.

You studied political science in college but ended up being a musician. How did you get into music?

I always wanted to be a musician but with Ethiopian parents I was very much discouraged. They were fine with me singing in the house, in school or the end of the year banquet. I also think I did not know any role models for the way I wanted to do music. I saw people taking an academic path that meant studying music in schools. In a way that seemed less fun. Now I understand the practice from a different angle. The other path was following this cult of fame.

I did not really connect with that either. I started music when I was 24. I am a late bloomer to music and I have an affinity for all late bloomers of all disciplines because of that (laughs). When I went to San Francisco I understood how I would do my music. In San Francisco I met a group of musicians and artistes of many disciplines who were deeply engaged in the community by organizing art events and festivals. I started working with them and I became the co-director of the Red Poppy Art House. It is a tiny space but I would do the sound, lift the speakers and carrying the equipment. It was a real sweat job. It was great and I was having the time of my life. I met musicians from every corner of the world who were making interesting music. They were doing Brazilian Jazz and Senegalese Jazz. It was a space where questions of how we can make hybrid music, which is relevant to today’s audience, were answered. We honored our culture and the way our life played out. We are deep-rooted in one place and we live in another place.

How was the journey of finding your musical voice? And what kind of music did you play when you started?

As a musician you have no choice but to grow in front of other people. As a musician you cannot hide. That is how I understood the bravery that it requires to show people who you are. So I would say that finding my voice is an ongoing thing. In the past I had a collection of songs that are jazz, cover songs and also Ethiopian. The music I am writing, which we are planning to record in July, is influenced by all three and they are fused in every song. In a sense, there is no separation between jazz songs, singer songwriter songs and Ethiopian songs. I don’t think I knew how to do that until now. I feel like I am finding my voice in the last year of song writing than ever. I am still new to this. I have been doing music for 11 years and music is a lifetime commitment. Music is about experimentation and trying new things. Mulatu Astatke has been inspiring to me in that. He has been giving me advice over the years. He says don’t play Ethio-jazz like we played it. He asks me what my contribution to music is. Where are you taking this music? Bringing all these is a response to his question.

Through the years, I have really developed discipline. Every day I go to the studio, I practice my guitar and I write songs. That kind of discipline over time just starts to pay off.

Who are your audiences since your music is somewhat different?

I have a wide variety of fans. No matter where I play there are Ethiopians around which I really appreciate. I try to bring them on the stage to dance with me. It is not only for me; it is also to show the audience that we are here. I have a lot of American fans. We had good experiences in the UK as well. My Nairobi shows were also wonderful and packed. Everywhere I tour I discover that people are listening. Surprisingly, I get a lot of people writing me from Greece. I have never performed in Greece. Different radio stations tag me on Facebook. Music is worldwide no matter how local it is or tied to a certain place. It is always international. I just feel grateful for the platform and the care because there is no guarantee in this music business. They may be listening now but that might not be the case for next year.

In 2012 you released an album entitled “Earthbound”, the first of ever Ethiopian Sci-fi Hip hop Opera. How did this project come about?

Copper Wire’s earthbound is a special album project for me because I don’t know if there is any sci-fi hip-hop space opera that exists. Sci-fi is imagining the future, alternative futures, and understanding the flexibility of stories and how storytelling can shape the future. The creative process of making this album came by chance. My cousin Gabriel Teodros and my best friend Elias Fullmore, a.k.a. Burntface, and I were hanging out in Elias’s house and the idea was incepted momentarily. We created the song that night, wrote our own verses and created our own characters.

Gabriel’s character was half human, half alien visiting earth for the first time. Elias’s character was about the experience of an Ethiopian in another planet and my character was Ko-Ai—a supernova someone who can travel in time and have traveled all over the universe. We collaborated with an astrophysicist from NASA from whom we got sonified light curves (star sounds) to use in the beats. We also worked with a Nigerian American writer Nnedi Okrafor who is a powerhouse of Africa sci-fi. Sci-fi became a good metaphor to talk about distances that possibly can’t be traversed but through this sense of magic and the bending of the rules of space, time and such concepts we can get to places we could not even dream of without this platform. There is also a big afro-futurist movement gaining a lot of speed everywhere in the world. For me afro-futurism is a state of mind. It started with people like Sun Ra and George Clinton, Parliament Funkadelic but it is the way a lot of stories are told right now by being able to define our own future as Africans.

Were people receptive of sci-fi hip-hop?

Well the reception in the hip-hop community was amazing. We did a lot of connecting with people when we were touring. I think some of my fans that were used to my acoustic music were puzzled. People felt like now she did hip-hop now that is what she is going to do. They had a hard time understanding that you can make different music in your life.

Since you write your own lyrics, what are the relevant issues?

I remember the moment I realized that I could write a song about absolutely anything. I was listening to this Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso entitled “O Leãozinho” which means Oh Little Lion. The song was a huge hit in Brazil and that was the moment that made me say that I can write about anything. You can write about an orange, heartbreak, everything you hope for your people, the ups and downs of life or being connected to cosmos. You can write about anything and you should. Music mirrors life. So I don’t feel there is a certain message that needs to be inside music.

Let’s talk about your latest album “We Are Alive”. In this song you say “As hard as it gets and as sweet as it gets, we are alive”. What does this specific song means to you?

“We Are Alive” means that even in the darkest moments of our lives, we are alive. We are going to have glorious days, tragedies and grief but still in our grief we are alive. It should not be only during the good times that we celebrate our existence and our presence.

For me it is how we can get through the tough times. We should celebrate with both our feet on the ground, with our hearts beating and breathing together. This is my life raft that can save me from the drowning waters when things get difficult and so I made a song.

It has a pentatonic scale influenced by Sudanese music. Tell us more about that?

This music was inspired by the Nile Project, which has a concept of educating, inspiring and empowering the citizens of Nile basin to foster the sustainability of the Nile River’s ecosystem.

First of all, the Nile Project was the best music school I could ever go to. It was a creative learning experience on many different levels. It was a learning experience. I spent time with Ethiopian traditional musicians and musicians from across the Nile. There was a Sudanese artist named Ahmed Said. He was playing pentatonic scale with five-count rhythm. I was blown away with this rhythm. It was not typical for either Ethiopia or the US but that particular five felt so natural to me. When I was listening to the radio I heard Radiohead’s, a British band, song called fifteen steps. So the idea came to me to bring these two together. They actually made it a perfect song.

The Nile is vast. How was the travel experience?

I did not travel all over the Nile since it is vast. Following the Nile basin is very diverse. One common thing is that people love it. The Nile is very important for this region. When the world is looking at the Nile they only think of Egypt. But there is so much more than that. So with this project we expanded the perception of what the Nile is including the upper and lower Nile basin countries.

The idea of the project was purely musical. The idea came about during a Debo Band and Fendika concert in Oakland. I was with my Egyptian friend and ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and we were blown away. Afterwards, we said to each other that we should not be in Oakland to learn about Ethiopian music. We (Ethiopians and Egyptians) don’t know each other that well and there are a million reasons for that. The diversity of culture in Ethiopia alone is massive and trying to understand it is a huge task let alone to understand all the countries neighboring you. We brought musicians from the upper and lower Nile basin countries.

It was a learning experience; learning to arrange for a large ensemble. I really grew as an arranger through this project. Now I am swinging back to needing to focus in my own music because I invested so much time in the Nile Project for more than a year.

The other project you were involved in was the Arba Minch Collective. You also came to Ethiopia in 2011 through that. How is it now?

The idea of the Arba Mintch Collective is bringing Ethiopian diaspora artists together. Many of the diaspora artists have similar experiences where we try to stay connected to Ethiopia. We can’t do it without going to Ethiopia because Ethiopia is changing fast. We can’t let the stories of Ethiopia be the stories told by our parents. When I was growing up the Derg regime was still there and we could not come to Ethiopia for a long time. The world of our imagination of Ethiopia was our parents. We should hold that dear but we have to create our own stories the only way we can do that is by coming to Ethiopia. So we decided to go together and share the expanding stories and acknowledge our thematic connection. We did two trips in 2009 and 2011.  After that it became heavy because I was the only one who was organizing it and I got busy with making my own music. My idea is that we can do trips together but it should be a network. Being a network allows different people to go on different trips because so many new people are coming constantly to the art world. I need someone to help me with this.

The other project you were involved in was “Home Away From Home”. You were born in Ethiopia and grew up in the States. Where is home for you? In a way the concept of home is illusive.

Home Away From Home is a project we did in 2014. It is an initiative created by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. They had an idea of community engagement initiative. So we brought Ethiopian and Eritrean artists to have an opportunity to engage with cultural and arts institutions so that it can bring them more stability and more support as an artist. Since it is hard in the US to get the first residency, grant and commission, we became their first residency, grant and commission. So by highlighting the arts, music and culture that brings immigrants from those two communities together we commissioned them to explore the theme “Home Away From Home.” We made a pop up gallery on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland that resembled a gojo (tukul). Many people visited weekend-long visual arts, music, dance, poetry and food event. We also translated Ethiopian proverbs, put them in a jar by the door so that they leave with one piece of Ethiopian wisdom. So for me, home is ever evolving and home is the intangibility of relationships.

Here I am with my aunt and my grandmother. So they are my home. In the States my sister, my mother and my father are there and that is also home. It is a heart-centered place. Yes, home is very illusive. Growing up, my mother always says “back home” when she talked about Ethiopia. When we came here to visit in 2001 she referred to the US as “back home”. It is a circle and that comes back to Tizita. There is always something you are longing for.