by Tigist Geme
(OPride) – Ethiopia’s pop star Tewodros Kassahun, better known as Teddy Afro, is once again back in the limelight. Teddy made headlines last week with a comment published in the local Amharic magazine, Enqu, in which he condoned Menelik’s greater Abyssinian campaign in southern Ethiopia as a holy war. Despite this disturbing statement and Teddy’s controversial past, local subsidaries for two multinational corporations – Heineken NV and Coca Cola Company – have recently signed Teddy to promote their products.
Enqu editors circulated the magazine’s December issue (pictured above) via email featuring Teddy and his beloved emperor side to side on its cover with a comment that reads, “For me, Menelik’s unification campaign was a Holy War.” A few days later, amid protests on social media, the publishers shelved the comment and sought to dismiss the controversy by saying it was a technical glitch in their system.
As Hallelujah Lulie points out in a blog post at Horn Affairs, on a closer reading, the Enqu publishers retraction doesn’t hold much water. First, a direct quote from a source cannot in any way be a “technical glitch.” Second, as Lulie rightly notes, every news organization has established workflows and mechanisms for editorial oversight. It is therefore preposterous and unethical for Enqu editors to downplay and fix quotes by caving to pressures from Teddy and his handlers. Third, by lionizing one of Ethiopia’s most ruthless tyrants – one whose historical atrocities amount to genocide against several nations and nationalists in southern Ethiopia including the Oromo, Kafficho, Wolayita, Sidamo and many others – Teddy has already condoned these atrocities. He has never been shy about his saintlike admiration for the loathed emperor.
For example, in an interview with EBS’s Kassa Show, dressed in a royal knight-like wear, Teddy flamboyantly showed off portraits of kings Menelik and Haileselassie in his living room while boasting about the need to understand history and the past to create a better future.
Even if one accepts Enqu’s botched retraction as plausible, Teddy has already done enough damage to his reputation. To be sure, as a private citizen, Teddy has every right to admire or immortalize whomever he so chooses. But he is a public figure. His music and words have significant influence. His willful ignorance and simplistic interpretation of historical events and figures have generational consequences. For the Oromo and other nations in the south, Teddy’s actions amount to exculpating Hitler of the Holocaust.
It is time that Teddy is stopped. Such revisionist historiography and hagiography has no place in our time. It took decades of sustained struggle to correct the falsified Ethiopian history written by court historians, not least those who worked for Menelik. It is unthinkable to assume a return to an era where history is written to fulfill the interests of those who seek to maintain the status quo.
A tour for love and beer
It is against the backdrop of this shocking comment that Teddy announced a national tour ostensibly dubbed, “The Journey of Love“, sponsored by Bedele Brewery SC, the maker of one of Ethiopia’s premium beers, Bedele Special.
The state-owned Bedele Brewery was acquired along with Harar Brewery by the Dutch-based beer giant Heineken NV in 2011 for $160 million. Encouraged by population growth, urbanization, and rising incomes, Heineken is building a third brewery closer to Addis Ababa which the company says will be operational in 2014.
Established in 1993, Bedele Brewery is located in Oromia region, Illubabor Zone about 483 km west of Finfinne. Bedele Special is the single most common of Ethiopia’s premium beers among Oromo consumers. Heineken’s other key brands include Bedele Regular, Harar Beer, Hakim Stout, and Sofi malta. All of Heineken’s breweries and the Assela malt factory, which supplies most of the malted barley for the company, are located in Oromia. The Oromo people make up 40 percent of Ethiopia’s total population. In an effort to boost its sales, it is possible that the beer maker was purposely misled by Teddy and his managers. But with its exclusive sponsorship of Teddy’s 2014 tour, the Bedele-Heineken conglomerate now faces two stark choices: to lose whatever consumer base it has in Oromia or withdraw the offer to Teddy immediately. It is also worth considering the potential for violence as one of the unintended consequences of such insensitive tour.
For Heineken, this could mean a short term loss for long term gains or a long term loss for a potential short term gains. By choosing the former, the beer maker can prove that it stands for good business practices. But going forward with the current sponsorship amid a looming protest holds an ominous prospect for the company. As such protests go, there is a precedent in Oromia that the Bedele Brewery SC should consider while mulling over what actions to take next. In late 1990s, Saudi billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi’s MOHA Soft Drinks Industry SC, which owns Pepsi Cola, refused to write billboard advertisements in the Oromo language. The backlash was so bad that in some parts of Oromia bars stopped carrying Pepsi products. It is a known fact that to this date, there are thousands of Oromos who do not consume Pepsi products.
Teddy’s darker sides
Teddy, 37, first gained notoriety with his second album, Abugida, which helped him become a successful star with growing fan base at a very young age. He is also known for a 2008 manslaughter charge for which he served 16 months of a six-year sentence. His most recent album, Tikur Sew – which lionizes Ethiopian emperor Menelik II as a unifier – has further polarized even his one-time ardent fans. Teddy is loved and respected for his talent but equally hated for his saint-like admiration of Ethiopia’s past rulers. Therefore, it seems appropriate to layout the darker shades of an artist now engaged in dangerous history-rewriting.
Teddy has been arrogating and passing on melodies from Middle Eastern, Chinese, Sudanese, and Indian music as his own. Teddy’s plagiarism first became public when entertainer Seifu Fantahun questioned the authenticity of the rising star’s music on his now defunct FM 97.1 radio show ‘Lemin Yiwashal’ – literally, why do people lie?
The aim of the show was exposing artists who appropriate other people’s work either by imitating or sampling without the owner’s consent. Fantahun revealed that Teddy copied melodies from international songs crediting himself as the composer on some of his songs. As he did with other artists, Fantahun invited Teddy to come on the show and defend his record. Unlike other artists who came on the show and gave explanation or apologized for what some said was an oversight, Teddy refused to answer Fantahun’s questions brushing it off as a “village gossip” and threatened to sue him for defamation. His actions pushed the producers to uncover more of Teddy’s illegal and unethical practices. The show hosts played the songs Teddy copied from others to support their allegations. Fantahun’s producers returned with many other bold allegations including one where Teddy paid close to nothing for a blind young boy who acts in his famed music clip for Lambadina.
A lot of writers soon came forward claiming that some of Teddy’s songs were actually their work for which he never compensated them and saying that Teddy even modified the songs without their consent. Others said Teddy bought them coffee in exchange for the lyrics but never credited them for writing it on his album covers. According to reports in the local media, growing up in Addis Ababa, Teddy liked collecting poems from street boys alike without ever telling them why. The writers claimed approaching Teddy after he became rich and famous to ask for compensation but said he declined their plea. These and a plethora of other allegations were later substantiated by newspapers like Addis Neger and Addis Admas. In one embarrassing instance, the state-owned Ethiopian TV run an old video clip of Menyahel Tilahun Gessesse’s song ‘Yemayawkut Hager’ which Teddy had previously passed on as his own work.
Manslaughter and bribery
In April 2008, Teddy was arrested accused of killing a 40-year-old homeless man in a 2006 hit-and-run incident in Addis Ababa. On Dec. 5, 2008, a federal judge sentenced Teddy to six years imprisonment and a fine of 18,000 Birr. On Feb. 19, 2009, in what was widely rumored as a bribery case, Teddy’s prison sentence was reduced to two years. Six months later, Teddy walked free from prison eight months early on account of good behavior. One would believe this narrative if the hundreds of thousands of good-mannered innocent prisoners could also be allowed to see the light of day in the same manner.
It was obvious that Teddy committed the crime as he himself acknowledged driving home while intoxicated – around the same time and on that very route where the incident occurred – from a late night party. Teddy did not come forward with the truth until the police investigation caught up to him almost two years after the incident. At first, Teddy denied killing the man but acknowledged he was driving the same car the investigators and eyewitnesses said was involved in the accident. His arrest and sentence divided Teddy’s fans between those who disliked his immoral acts and those who blamed the government for framing the singer.
The facts remain, however. Teddy killed an innocent homeless man and walked free by bribing corrupt prison officials.
A sycophant revisionist
Teddy first hit the political firestorm with a song for Haileselassie in which he lauds Ethiopia’s last monarch as God’s elect and “father of Africa.” Teddy’s most recent album Tikur Sew, in which he venerates emperor Menelik as black king, revealed the depth of his ignorance or in Lulie’s words, “his unexamined and narrow knowledge of history.”
Like-minded Ethiopianists who worship these despotic emperors see Teddy as a hero and unifier, while the majority of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia are disgusted by his attempts to glorify criminals. It goes without saying that Teddy is not a historian. Many Ethiopian artists have sung about politics and continue to produce powerful political lyrics. What makes Teddy different is his deliberate efforts to revive an old political system whose leaders were responsible for man-made vicious cycles of poverty, brutal wars, and psychological abuse of citizens that continues to haunt the country’s history. Millions have given their precious lives in a taxing struggle to change this system. Teddy’s ongoing efforts to rewrite history must be understood in this context, challenged with facts, and stopped.
Teddy as “unifier”
The Oromo and other nations in Ethiopia know too well what unity means in the Amhara-centric Ethiopian context. It is the Amharas and those who subscribe to the elusive Ethiopian unity paradigm who never understood what they mean by unity. They misconstrue this ostentatious unity to promote their assimilationist Amharanization agenda. Proponents of this dogmatic unity dream of an Ethiopia where everyone speaks Amharic, dance to eskista beat, and dignifies despots like Haile Selassie and Menelik – leaving no room for diversity and appreciation of other cultures. It is this simplistic notion of unity that Teddy often preaches. For this, Amhara ideologues and his unquestioning fans who as Lulie says, “swallow whatever comes out of him without chewing,” praise him.
It would be a grave mistake to assume that this type of unexamined regard for Teddy is limited to uninformed young fans. Take for example, programs on Amhara-centric media organizations like the Virginia-based TV network ESAT. On Oct. 30, 2012, in a segment on ESAT’s Kignit show about Teddy, journalist Dereje Habtewold declared, “love wins, Teddy is one of the few Ethiopian musicians who sing about social issues not just romantic love.” “Teddy is author of all his songs – both lyrics and melodies – and that one hardly finds songs about hate or bitterness in Teddy’s albums.”
Habtewold lauded Teddy as a symbolize of hope, love and unity, and for honoring Ethiopian heroes – past and present – in a way unheard of in that country. Thoughtless comments like Habtewold’s are insulting even to Amharic singers such as Tilahun Gessesse and Mahmoud Ahmed who have sung about every social issue imaginable during their long careers. Contrary to Habtewold’s assertions, no person with even a rudimentary knowledge of history would ever glorify genociders as “heroes.”
There is no doubt that Habtewold knew about Teddy’s track record as serial plagiarist, but throughout the entire segment he repeated egregious claims rife with factual errors ad nauseum, primarily because it fit the network’s unity mantra. Few years ago, these same crowd chastised Teddy for marrying an ethnic Tigre woman. But, characteristically, they made a u-turn and praised him when he sang about Menelik.
To the effect that Amharas seasonal praise and character-assassination know no bounds, Habtewold even pounced at other artists like Neway Debebe – a one-time favorite of diaspora activists who moved back to Ethiopia and fell out of favor – using these same tired old tactics.
Since they deviate from the Amharazation project, it is also obvious that Habtewold’s Ethiopia does not recognize hundreds of artists who sing in any of more than 80 languages found in that country. Forget renowned Oromo artists like Ali Birra, Elfinesh Qano, and countless others who have dedicated their entire lives to singing about social justice, freedom, family values, love, nature and the preservation of Oromo cultural heritage. It was the selfless sacrifice of these artists that saved Oromo language, art and culture from extinction when successive rulers – not least Habtewold and Teddy’s heroes – banned the Oromo language and rewrote our history. I do not expect Habtewold and his likes to praise our artists for they sing about Oromo heroes who perished during the war of conquest at the battles of Gulale, Aanole, Calanqo, and innumerable other places. However, it is important to note that the forces of unity who lionize self-hating emperors like Menelik day in and day out are Amharas with an Ethiopian mask.
“Menelik’s holy war”
Even if one forgets about Teddy’s reckless crusade comment to Enqu magazine, praising Menelik as an African hero is a gross distortion of facts. First, Menelik acquired armaments and advice from western powers in order to fulfill his greater Abyssinia project. At its height, Menelik’s holy war to “unify Ethiopia” reduced the Oromo population from 10 million to 5 million.
Second, as American diplomat Robert Skinner captured in A Century of American-Ethiopian Relations, Menelik told a Haitian Benito Sylvain, who traveled to Ethiopia to solicit the help of Africa’s then “only independent country” for his pan-African movement, he’s not “black.” Contrary to Teddy’s make-believe hagiography, Menelik proudly told the Haitian emissary, “I wish you the greatest possible success…but in coming to me to take the leadership [on black empowerment], you are knocking at the wrong door.”
“You know, I am not Negro at all: I am a Caucasian.”
These are but glimpses into Teddy’s darker shades. If we are to judge people based on the conduct of their character, it is in this context that Teddy should be understood. Those whose primary preoccupation is pushing their hidden agendas under the banner of fake unity disregard this side of Teddy. His naive fans scream at the sight of Teddy holding up an imperial flag with a lion of Judah emblem at the center as a symbol of Ethiopia’s “glorious past.” That maybe their individual rights, but lionizing a person for what he is not is foolish and inexcusable ignorance.
Coca Cola and 2014 World Cup
Finally, news broke last month that Teddy was chosen by Coca Cola Company to make a theme song during next year’s World Cup in Brazil. Coca Cola is looking to bolster its sales in Ethiopia’s soft drinks market by choosing Teddy as its ambassador. However, like Bedele-Heineken, if Coca Cola goes through with the contract, it stands to face a major backlash from millions of customers like Pepsi did in late 1990s.
At this juncture, our collective voice and response to these events becomes crucial. It is our responsibility to challenge Teddy’s distorted knowledge of history. It is also our obligation to inform these companies what Teddy’s already tainted image among their customers could mean for their businesses. We can start by sharing bits and pieces stories about Teddy’s unethical ways.
But beyond that, we must bring our voices together and let these companies know not only who Teddy really is but also who their customers are. One of the cardinal rules for any business is good partnership. A lasting and successful business partnership should be with a community of people, not polarizing celebrities like Teddy. Both Heineken and Coca Cola have a choice. We can help them make an informed decision.
*The writer, Tigist Geme, is a Washington, D.C.-based activist and citizen journalist. This article has been updated.