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TED2012 Fellowship applications are now open! Apply here.
Interactive Fellows Friday Feature:
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Meklit asks:
What is the role of artists in shaping culture and a healthy society?
Starting Saturday, click here to respond!
Tell us about your upcoming tour.
Life on the road is a pretty constant thing these days. As we speak, I’m in Big Sur National Park after just having played by the seashore at Esalen Institute’s International Arts Festival. Next week, my band and I are heading eastward for a short tour called HOME FROM HOME from July 10-15. We’re playing at Johnny D’s in Boston, Real Art Ways in Hartford, the Festival International Nuits D’Afrique in Montreal, and Concerts on the Oval in Stuyvesant town in New York City. We’re playing music from my last album, as well as new songs written and learned on the East African road, and we’ll also be showing some beautiful footage from the filmmakers who were with us in Ethiopia. Can’t wait!
What have you been up to since becoming a TEDGlobal 2009 Fellow?
Lots! I finished recording my album “On a Day Like This,” literally two days before heading to TED Global in 2009. The album came out in April of 2010 and since then, my music has blossomed in quite a wonderful way. The album was really well received by the press in the States and internationally, and I’ve been touring and performing consistently since then.
At this very moment, I’m in a bit of a compositional place, and I just finished recording a duet album with an Oakland-based soul singer called Quinn Deveaux. I’m also in super prep mode getting ready to head into the studio with two members of the Arba Minch Collective: Gabriel Teodros and Ellias Fullmore (Burntface).
A month ago, the Arba Minch Collective just came back from its second trip to Ethiopia. We’re a group of North American artist-organizers from the Ethiopian diaspora, dedicated to making annual trips to Ethiopia to connect with traditional and contemporary artists there.
How was this year’s trip with the Collective different than last year’s?
Last year, we were traveling through the southern part of Ethiopia, and meeting with all kinds of Ethiopian anthropologists and cultural organizers. That trip was far more of an assessment, far more observational. And it was really about the cultures of the South of the country. This trip was much more about performing. We were in Ethiopia for 14 days and we played 10 shows. It was a really great experience for my band, that allowed us to grow as an ensemble. Having the collective perform in those circumstances — collaborating with the band as well as collaborating with local musicians — was just a wonderful experience.
We did everything from playing at an orphanage for HIV-positive kids, to playing clubs in Addis Ababa, to playing in outdoor venues that were a part of passing street life. We played free shows in the central square of Harrar and also the central square of Gondar, right at the feet of the ancient castles there. We played free shows as much as possible. We definitely learned just as much on this trip, though it was just very, very different.
How has the Arba Minch Collective grown from the trip?
It’s interesting, because we’re still defining ourselves as a collective. We’ve been around for about two and a half years now. It’s growing on both sides of the water. In March we had a retreat in Toronto, where there is a really strong core of organizers from the Ethiopian diaspora. The retreat allowed us to start connecting with organizers who are working outside of the arts. So that’s one hub that’s beginning to grow, on the North America side of things.
On the Ethiopia side, one big question that has come up for us is the role of the diaspora in Ethiopia. It can be a very controversial role. People emigrate to North America, and then they return to Ethiopia with resources. But often diaspora folks can drive prices up, and cause a host of changes, so it’s a complex relationship. What’s the responsible way of relating to what’s going on in Ethiopia?
Part of the reason we’re committed to going to Ethiopia every year or so is because things are changing so fast. It’s a challenge to have your relationship stay relevant. Every time we go, we see the infrastructure shifting so much, and the cultural life shifting at the same speed.
Right now there’s a real burgeoning in the arts and culture scene. In the 1980s, under Communism, there was a curfew put on the people, and they couldn’t go out at night. Musicians couldn’t play, so the music and cultural life started declining. At the same time, there was an influx of this very specific type of Russian synthesizer that flooded the market. So in recordings that come from that era, many traditional instruments got replaced with this highly synthesized sound.
Around the early 2000s, things really started to change, and now there’s a whole new cultural life blossoming. There are no more curfews, there’s a resurgence in playing traditional instruments in popular music, and there’s a growing base of venues for music and visual arts. Part of what we’re doing in the collective is really trying to connect to that upswing: to connect with those artists and movers and shakers there who are innovating, while really staying true to the roots of the culture.
We don’t really have any answers in terms of how we as diaspora relate to what development is. But what our real role is, is to go back as learners, to stay relevant, and to help these broader diaspora communities ask these questions and have these dialogues in public ways. Having the arts as a platform for that is helpful for openness, and it allows people to engage.
It seems you entered the art scene in 2004 and had overnight success. Were you part of the arts scene at all before that time?
I graduated from Yale with a political science degree in 2002 and I did all kinds of things after that. I worked for an economic development non-profit, for an acupuncturist, and when I landed in San Francisco, I worked for a foundation. It was 2004 before I started really stepping in to the arts. My first move into the world of music was taking singing lessons. They were a revelation.
I wrote my first song while on a trip to Japan with a roommate in 2005. I still remember it, though I’ll never sing it to anyone!
In a way, jumping in to music was such a surprise, because for every step I took towards music, music took 10 steps towards me. Things really did start happening right away. I don’t fully understand how or why it has been such a bright road, but I am deeply grateful.
As a kid, I always wanted to be a singer. But I think with the arts, it’s tough because we don’t have real role models. When you look at public figures of artists, it’s either people who are hyper successful and seem completely untouchable — like rock stars — or we see artists who are really struggling, yet relatively self-absorbed and unengaged with the world around them. So there’s not a lot of middle ground in terms of what an engaged artist look like. What does an artist who is doing compelling work, but also living a compelling life in the world — impacting the world, and being impacted by it — look like? We don’t have a lot of role models for that.
When I moved to San Francisco, I started meeting people who were actually like that, and that’s when things took off for me. Your community helps so much to bring you along.
What has the TED Fellowship meant to you along this journey?
The biggest way it’s impacted my life has been through the networks of the Fellows themselves. The Fellows are amazing!
In a more general sense, TED is a huge inspiration in terms of reaching your own borders around where you think your work can go. Whenever I watch TED talks, whenever I connect with the Fellows who are doing all of this remarkable work around the world, it keeps me so sparked about what’s possible. That lifeline of fire is vitally important.
When does your next album come out?
My work on a lot of levels is about multiplicity. I’m basically in the middle of about four album projects which are all completely different. As I mentioned, I just finished recording an album with Oakland-based soul singer Quinn Deveaux. We’re starting on the mixing process this week. Exciting!
I’m also working on an album with two members of the Arba Minch collective: Gabriel Teodros and Ellias Fullmore, whose hip-hop name is Burntface. They’re both MCs, so we’re mostly writing with beats, but creating the beats with acoustic instruments as well as electronic samples. We’ve got one song from that project finished and we actually made a music video for it at the site of the ancient castles in Gondar, Ethiopia.
These two projects will come out simultaneously in January of 2012.
I have another album I’m working on with an ensemble called Nefasha Ayer. That’s a project that’s been around since 2007, so we already have a full body of music written. The songs are all about exploring the space of in between, about the way that we are most alive in our complexity — whether that comes from being born in one culture and raised in another, or the way that all human beings exist between multiple inner pillars.
That music was written with Todd Brown, the founder of the Red Poppy Art House. I was director of the Poppy with Todd for 2 and a half years, and I actually left that position 2 and a half years ago. We wrote that music while we were working together to build the Red Poppy as a physical home for those same ideas. That project will probably be out in late 2012.
Finally, I’m working on the songs for another solo album, which I probably won’t record until the end of summer 2012.
There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.
You do what you want to do, by doing what you want to do. Meaning, you get the experience you need, by doing the work. So the important thing is to start doing the work.
The other thing is, when you have a big idea, sometimes if you really knew everything it would take to do it, you would never do it, because it’s always going to take more than you think. So there’s this aspect of really needing to just jump in. That also means you’re probably going to make a lot of mistakes. But you’ll be learning from them, and growing from them as well.
Finally, I’d say to do what you can to help others on their path. It really comes back to you. For me, running the Red Poppy Art House was really all about creating a space for artists from multiple cultures to find each other and flourish from the meeting, as well as to have a place that helps artists to actually live as artists. Through that work, I inadvertently found the musicians who have become my band, the fans that support my music, and the inspiration that comes from interacting with artists of so many disciplines.
With the success of your music career and all that entails, have you felt like you’ve had enough time to engage in your community outreach projects?
My life balance between art and community has shifted immensely, in a way that was quite surprising to me. I’m just away from San Francisco so much, so it’s hard to be the anchor for those types of projects there.
At the same time, I’ve been able to do that type of work in different capacities. Right before I left for Ethiopia, I was an artist-in-residence at New York University’s Institute for African American Affairs. The artist-in-residency program there is really about allowing the students to learn in a different way, directly from artists. Over the course of a month, we were engaging both creative work as well as the intellectual exploration of these questions of identity that I’m addressing in my music. I curated a panel series with the other artists-in-residence, including an event called the Tizita Chronicles, using the Ethiopian musical concept of Tizita to look at Collective Cultural Memory.
I was also able to curate an after-school series at Lincoln Center’s Atrium through their Meet the Artist Program. The series was all about presenting artists whose work was engaging in the ideas that we were looking at in the residency panel series at NYU. Our main participants were young people from the arts high schools and public schools in the area and these amazing students from the West Side YMCA.
So though I’ve been away from San Francisco, it’s been great to be able to take what I’ve learned here and do it on the road, too.
And I’m still involved in the Red Poppy Art House, though it’s grown a lot since I left. But for me, it’s still a huge source of inspiration, because the staff there and the artists that run the space continue to deepen their relationship to the neighborhood, as well as to broader and broader networks of artists. I find myself continuing to learn so much by how the Poppy operates within the Mission District of San Francisco. The Poppy is still the thing that connects my heart to the city in a very real way. Every time I come back, it’s my landing pad and still my home.
You often explore questions of identity in your music. Was there a particular moment in our life that crystalized the complexity of living between cultures?
When I was 21, I went to Ethiopia for the first time, with my mom. Just me and her. For my whole life until then, my mother was very, very clear about Ethiopia. She would always call it “back home,” almost never referring to the country by its name.
When we went to Ethiopia for the first time, upon landing, suddenly — almost instantaneously — when she would talk about the United States, she would say, “Oh, when we go back home….”
And it hit me like lightning. “Oh, there is no such thing.” Home is completely situational, defined by a constant sense of return. We change so fast without knowing it. Our ability to adjust and to be complex may be far below our conscious knowledge, but that’s what we live … that’s how we are. And that was the moment I really got it.