‘Music is like gold’: Hip-hop in Amharic finds its voice in Ethiopia

At the same time, “rapping in Amharic limits the extent of your audience to Ethiopia, maybe some other East African countries,” said 33-year-old rapper Woah, best known for “Walya” about Ethiopia’s fanatically beloved national football team. “My plan is to rap in Amharic to get popularity at home. And then I can try abroad.”

Amharic is a grammatically complex and subtle language with a rich tradition of allegory, eloquent communication and sophisticated wordplay. But today’s government, much criticized for repressing free speech, won’t tolerate criticism or what it thinks is criticism — no matter how deftly presented.

“I really don’t know why the government has a problem with our rap,” said 27-year-old rapper Yoni Yoye, who cites American rappers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Flo Rida as major influences. He’s best known for his rap hit alongside Mc Mike “Gondergna,” about 19th-century Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros and the culture of the ancient city of Gonder.

“On state TV, I got criticized for my song,” Yoni Yoye said. “They don’t seem to realize that musical entertainment can be good for the country, playing an ambassadorial role, and that rap is a way of reaching the younger generation.”

He explained how he can’t rap about everything he wants to. “People are afraid. If I tried to rap about certain issues, my friends and family would stop me,” he said.

Plenty of Ethiopian singers who have been overtly political suffer harassment for it. Many have had to leave the country, continuing to make music in exile, often in the United States.

But even if the situation were different, being overtly political wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of his agenda, Yoni Yoye said. There are plenty of other issues to give voice to. He is working on a new album in which he raps about the corrupting influence of too much money, problems in rural areas and Ethiopian mothers’ struggles and deserving more respect. “These things make me mad,” he said.

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