Teddy Afro released
Teddy Afro released | August 13, 2009



ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia's pop icon Teddy Afro was on Thursday released from 16 months of imprisonment, Ethiopian Television has reported.

Teddy was convicted for a hit-and-run crime which the public strongly disputed as politically motivated. His songs of peace, love and unity, many of them national hits, are opposed to government policies based on the politics of ethnicity and division.

Teddy's sentence was commuted by eight months, ETV said, which was attributed to the "good behavior" he showed as an inmate.

Ethiopian singer may be jailed because of music

Teddy Afro This week we will take you all over Africa as part of our series emerging cultural voices. We begin today with Teddy Afro - one of the most popular singers in Ethiopia, though not necessarily popular with the government. Afro is in prison; the case involves the death of a man in a traffic accident. But some believe it is because Afro's said so much in his songs. Here's NPR's Grym Thompkins:


In public, Ethiopians have mastered the art of not saying much. This was true during Emperor Haileselassie's years on the throne, when life, liberty and happiness depended on staying in His Majesty's good graces. It was also true during the years of what was called the Derg, a military dictatorship that shot its critics on the street, then forebade family members from publicly mourning their dead.

And after 20 years of Ethiopia's current leadership, it is still true today. Tamerat Negera is the editor of a weekly newspaper in Addis Ababa. He says many of the government's many critics have landed in jail.

"There is a serious self-censorshiop in Ethiopia. So, what I mean, "You better know what're speaking. You better know!"

So when one does open his mouth here, even to sing, everybody pays attention. Teddy Afro is the stage name of Tewodros Kassahun, 33-year-old reggae singer who has released a handful of recordings. He is a hit at home and among Ethiopians worldwide. Afro's best known songs promote peace among Ethiopians of every ethnic and religious stripe. Remember that one Bob Marley classic "One Love"? Let's get together and feel all right. Kinda like that.

Mr. TAMRAT NEGERA (Editor, Addis Neger): There is a serious such censorship in Ethiopia, a serious such censorship. So I mean, you better know what you're speaking. You better know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: So when someone does open his mouth here, even to sing, everybody pays attention. Teddy Afro is the stage name of Tewodros Kassahun, a 33-year-old reggae singer who has released a handful of recordings. He's a hit at home and among Ethiopians worldwide. Afro's best-known songs promote peace among Ethiopians of every ethnic and religious stripe. Remember that Bob Marley classic "One Love"?

(Singing) Let's get together and feel all right - kind of like that, but with an Ethiopian stank on it. Here's Afro's song "Abogida," which means the "ABCD of Love."

(Soundbite of song, "Abogida")

Mr. TEDDY AFRO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

THOMPKINS: And then there's the song "Germoweneto(ph)," which is a valentine to the Emperor Haile Selassie. Despite Selassie's many failings, the song celebrates him as a father of Africa. Germoweneto means your majesty.

(Soundbite of song, "Germoweneto")

Mr. AFRO: (Singing in foreign language)

THOMPKINS: The song that seems to resonate most with Afro's fans is about forgiveness. It's called "Ja Yasterseryal," which translates to "God Redeems," and it encourages Ethiopians to forgive those who have done them wrong.

(Soundbite of song "Ja Yasterseryal")

Mr. AFRO: (Singing in foreign language)

THOMPKINS: As reggae pop themes go, this is familiar lovey-dovey stuff, right? Teddy Afro's repertoire seems a far cry from get up stand up, stand up for your rights. But when Lake Hoon(ph) hears an Afro song, he says he feels like doing just that.

LAKE HOON: For me, Teddy's our generation, and he's singing about the current situation in Ethiopia. So that's why he's touching a lot inside of us.

THOMPKINS: Lake Hoon and his friend Tahali(ph) have political asylum in political Kenya. They prefer that their family names not be used in this story. That's because in 2001, they participated in nationwide student demonstrations in Ethiopia, and in the government crackdown that followed, they and more than 3,000 students were arrested.

The authorities photographed and fingerprinted everyone, then recorded the names and addresses of their families. Tahali says that even here, in this spare one-room apartment in Nairobi, they are afraid of Ethiopia's security forces.

TAHALI: Even at this moment, we are not secure. Many Ethiopians came out and disappeared. So it is risky.

THOMPKINS: Back home, Teddy Afro's fans call him Ethiopia's Bob Marley. But he may have more in common with Madonna - equal parts entertainer, gadfly and marketing whiz. He sometimes writes provocative lyrics to fit the headlines. Afro wrote new words to that song about forgiveness as many of the nation's political opposition were in prison.

(Soundbite of song, "Ja Yasterseryal")

THOMPKINS: Ethiopia's opposition parties had won major victories in the nation's 2005 elections. But hundreds of leaders were then jailed in a government crackdown. Newspaper editor Tamrat Negera says "Ja Yasterseryal" became a rallying cry of descent.

(Soundbite of song, "Ja Yasterseryal")

Mr. AFRO: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. NEGERA: If you objectively listen to the music, it's both critical to the opposition and the government. But the general public listen to it as a critic of the government, and they embraced Teddy in a manner that has never been seen. Now Teddy now became - he became a social voice. But he underestimated how seriously the government will take him.

THOMPKINS: At present, Teddy Afro is unavailable for comment. He's been in jail for well more than a year on charges related to the death of a 25-year-old homeless man who was struck by a car. The government refuses comment on the case, saying it's a legal manner. But many here sense keen government interest. Again, Tamrat Negera.

Mr. NEGERA: So when the car accident happened, it was first published on a newspaper that is very much affiliated with the government. And everyone in town said they got him. They got him. They just got him in the box.

THOMPKINS: On a recent weekday morning outside the Supreme Court in Addis Ababa, things are looking pretty dreary. It won't stop raining. Teddy Afro has been sitting in a soggy-bottomed white van for more than an hour, awaiting his latest court appearance. But Afro's lawyer reports some favorable news. With time off for good behavior, Afro may be free as early as next month. But free may be too strong a word.

Nagosso Gidotta [Gidada] (ph) is a former leader of Ethiopia's current regime, who is now in the opposition. He says that once the government sees you as an enemy…

Mr. NAGOSSO GIDOTTA (Former leader, Ethiopia Regime): It doesn't let you die. It doesn't let you live. Either it imprisons you, or you'll be put in different kinds of problems so that you'll have to - a hard life and you'll - this is how it punishes. It doesn't kill, but kills you in another way.

THOMPKINS: Whether Afro can or will continue his career in Ethiopia remains a question. Recent laws in the country have further restricted free speech. And human rights groups content that the government could easily use the nation's new anti-terrorism law to move against its critics. A top government leader has strongly denied that claim. But nearly everyone here is uneasy about Teddy, about the future, about the price of saying too much.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Addis Ababa.

Source: National Public Radio



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