The release of one of the most acclaimed artist Teddy Afro’s album, entitled “Ethiopia,” definitely is one of the stories that “broke the Internet” (went viral) among Ethiopians and the Ethiopian diaspora.
Various memes, pictures of the artist, verses from the lyrics and reflections from his fans are some of the content social media pages of Ethiopians and those in the diaspora are composed of.
The virtual commotion seems to be shared on the ground, specifically when one considers what is happening on the streets of Addis. Following the release of the album, vendors have been trolling the major thoroughfares displaying the front cover of the album adorned with a photo of the vocalist as they try to lure residents – pedestrian or otherwise – into buying a copy.
The phenomenon created a temporary job opportunity for street vendors who praise the artist with remarks such as Yegna Jegna (our hero). Amusingly, there was a tent around Mexico Square with a framed picture of the artist hanging visibly and huge speakers amplifying the music to passersby. Especially in the morning last Tuesday, demand for the album was high, and the price of a copy went up to 100 birr. Whereas other albums normally sell for 25 birr, the going rate for Teddy’s album is 50 birr.
Some city residents The Reporter approached said that there were amazing scenes such as that of a vendor approaching a taxi full of commuters. The taxi stopped instantly and all of its occupants purchased a copy of the album without hesitation. In addition to the fanfare, the soundscape of Addis changed this week with taxis, private cars, video stores, bars and other establishments playing his music.
Without exaggeration, the situation is somewhat bizarre in that on top of playing Teddy Afro’s music in a loud stereo, the horn honking and chants of “Teddy Jegna” seem to come across as over-the-top reactions for those who do not have a taste for music or are not his fans. In a café located around Atlas Hotel called Mamo Kacha, The Reporter observed a person sending songs from the album via Bluetooth that he purchased online to friends. In addition to the exchange of music, many people also changed their social media picture into Teddy Afro or that of Teddy Afro with Emperor Tewodros.
This communal participation started with the news of the album release. The single “Ethiopia”, which was highly shared on social media, got more than 2,800,000 viewers.
On the one hand, the song “Ethiopia” was criticized for preaching the grand narrative of Ethiopian nationalism without deconstructing the historical injustice, thereby denying the existence of oppression.
Especially this criticism came from some Oromo “elites” who claimed the grand narrative of Ethiopian nationalism is one of glorification of an “oppressive empire state”. On the other hand, others praised him for calling for unity in an ethnically-divided Ethiopia.
His fans actually go to the extreme length of giving him royal titles, comparing him to the country’s former rulers, including Emperor Tewodros.
His fans do not stop at praising and defending his music talent and lyrical brilliance; but sometimes in a fit of frenzy can go so far as insulting and threatening people who dare criticize him. There were unfair comments that took any critique of Teddy Afro as betrayal, and as a sign of being less than patriotic. This puts him in the picture in the current controversy on the question of nation and nationalities.
Among his devoted fans, there is no gray area when it comes to Teddy Afro's music and it appears that there is no room for constructive criticism when it comes to the works of this particular artist. Due to such a polarized atmosphere, music critics keep mum and refrain from giving their professional opinions. A couple of music critics openly said they faced various kinds of threat from devotees of Teddy for daring to take a critical look at his works. Scared of the trolling and name-calling, they actually eschewed making any kind of comment about his music.
Renowned bloggers are requested to say “good” vs. “bad” things about his music and they pass judgment depending on their political views.
Within the two days, self-proclaimed critics are dissecting the lyrics, the music arrangement and the inspiration for his songs. Some of the comments include he has committed acts of plagiarism from famous artists, including Paul Simon and Alpha Blondy.
Despite some claiming that the song “Adey” was copied from a song by Alpha Blondy, the album’s music arranger, Abel Paulos, contradicts that and says it was merely inspired by it. Another song was actually credited to Paul Simon by another arranger, but not in the case of Alpha Blondy.
“We did not sample the song (of Alpha Blondy), but rather we used two keys which do not even qualify it for sampling," Abel notes.
In addition to that, Abel says taking inspiration is a common phenomenon when it comes to reggae music. Talking about the process of producing the album, Abel says they used live instruments, including legendary musicians from Roha Band like Jovani Rico on bass guitar and Selam Seyoum on lead guitar.
Abel, the arranger of nine songs of this album, previously arranged for vocalists such as Tsedenia Gebremarkos on her album “Yefikir Girma”, Abinet Agonafir’s songs such as "Astaraki", "Yachin Ken" and Gossaye Tesfaye.
Calling it "historical and his proudest moment," Abel says that Teddy was highly involved in the production of the album.
“Without compromising my creative freedom, he consulted me at every stage. However, many arrangers in the past complain that Teddy dictates what should be in the music. My experience was to the contrary," Abel adds.
With such memorable songs as “Haileselassie”, “Tarik Tessera”, “Yasteseryal”and “Tikur Sew,” Teddy is widely recognized as an artist who transformed the Ethiopian music scene. Especially after the historical election of 2005, his songs seem to be a voice for those criticizing the status quo.
His music is highly politicized and his every word is analyzed for juicy political tidbits.
One of those examples is the release of his album, which was supposed to be released on Octave day of Easter, was put on hold. One of the reasons given by his fans was Teddy's resistance to release his album while the state of emergency is still in effect. Contrary to this, his manager, Getachew Manguday, says the release of his album was postponed because of delays in printing the album covers. With a less-than efficient album-distribution system, and music shops struggling to survive due to the ever-declining sale of albums, Teddy Afro’s album distribution seems to proceed smoothly. According to Getachew, they devised a mechanism where the artist sold the album to a company called “Joyous,” that is now responsible for the distribution. Though Getachew did not want to disclose the amount of money the artist made through the sale, there are rumors that it was a seven-digit-figure deal.
According to Getachew, the artist tirelessly worked on the album for the past two years and he is happy with the result. Plans are under way for the artist to hit the road and hold concerts in Ethiopia and overseas.