Ethiopians of all stripes have found something they can agree on: the government’s treatment of Teddy Afro, the country’s biggest pop star, is woefully misguided.
On Sep. 3 police stopped the best-selling singer, whose real name is Tewodros Kassahun, from holding an album launch in a hotel in Addis Ababa, the capital. This is the latest in a long string of run-ins with the authorities, and came shortly after it was announced that a large concert scheduled for Ethiopian New Year’s Eve on Sep. 11 had been cancelled—on the grounds that a government-sponsored event was taking place at the venue on the same date. This is the third year in a row the pop star has been prevented from performing in the capital. In May, an interview he did with the state broadcaster was pulled.
Today, Teddy Afro is by far Ethiopia’s most famous musician. “Ethiopia”, his fifth studio album, shot to the top of Billboard’s World Album chart as it became the fastest-selling record in the country’s history. But his career has been beset by controversy. His 2005 hit single “Yasteseryal”, released in 2005, became the unofficial soundtrack to the anti-government protests which wracked the capital in the wake of hotly disputed elections that year, in large part due the unfavorable comparison he drew between the ruling party EPRDF and previous regimes. Then, in 2006, he was arrested and later imprisoned for a hit-and-run offense—a move his supporters have always claimed was politically motivated.
Many Ethiopians suspect the government of pursuing a campaign against Afro. But its reasons for doing so are decidedly unclear. By harassing him the authorities have mostly just succeeded in turning a singer into a martyr. Since 2005 his songs have contained only veiled criticisms of the regime. His public appearances are rare. And in any case he is by no means universally loved: many Ethiopians, especially ethnic Oromos who make up more than a third of the country’s population, accuse him of ethnic divisionism.
A boycott campaign was launched in 2013 after he was reported describing the nineteenth century imperial conquests of the country’s southern provinces by Emperor Menelik II as a “holy war”.
But though it may not much fear his political activism, the government worries his songs encourage nostalgia for the “old Ethiopia” associated with former emperors like Menelik and Haile Selassie. His recent albums have been packed with references to Ethiopian history, most notably the Battle of Adwa—when the Ethiopian army defeated the invading Italians in 1896—which he reenacted in an extravagant music video in 2012. Ideologically-loaded memorabilia, such as the old imperial flag, appear on the album cover of “Ethiopia”.
It also happens to be a sensitive time for the EPRDF. In early August it lifted a ten-month long state-of-emergency originally imposed to quash large-scale anti-government protests. But sporadic strikes and demonstrations have flared since then, as has ethnic violence in eastern parts of the country. Though it has embarked upon an aggressive anti-corruption drive in recent months the government has yet to implement the serious political reforms promised at the height of the unrest last year. Thousands of political prisoners—including several lesser known musicians and artists—have spent time behind bars, and many still languish there. Lashing out a pop star suggests nervousness, not strength.