Rap? Meh. Poetry is the rage at the Ethiopian Beat Making Lab

The World

The spoken word scene in Ethiopia surprised me.

(This is a blog post by Pierce Freelon about the Beat Making Lab project. Read to the bottom to find more about our partnership with Beat Making Lab.)

I was invited to a performance at a theatre in Addis Ababa and was blown away by the crowd. In an open-air theater that could easily seat 800 people, the venue was at capacity — standing room only. People were spilling into the aisles as the poets took stage.

The spoken word artists performed with a talented live band. From what I was told, they were some of the best live musicians in the country. But the people weren't sandwiched into the theatre to hear the music. Everyone's eyes and ears were glued to the poets. 

I don't speak Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, but I could feel the power of their words. One poet, an elderly man, had the crowd wrapped around his dark, wrinkled fingers. He lured us to a slow pace with soft prose, then switched gears and had the crowd erupting with laughter. Even though I didn't get the joke, I found myself chuckling hysterically. The room was very diverse — with a variety of generations, genders, ethnicities and styles both on stage and in the crowd. 

On the day after the performance, during class, I asked if there were any poets among our group of aspiring beat makers. More than half of the hands in the classroom shot up. I gave them a writing assignment — to use poetry to reflect on their experiences with health issues in their community. This was part of the larger agenda of Intrahealth, our Beat Making Lab sponsors.

Our goal in Addis was to use music to engage youth in discussions about their health. I didn't anticipate spoken word being the artistic medium of choice. In many other countries, young people seem to gravitate towards rapping, singing, playing an instrument or making a beat. Addis was the first place where spoken word emerged as a frontrunner in terms of student experience and interest. 

One of our students, Marta, wrote a heart-wrenching piece about losing a child. Apple Juice Kid and our program coordinator/amazing vocalist, Munit Mesfin, co-produced a beat to Marta's poem, which is the center of this week's video.

Editor's Note: Over the next few weeks, we'll be checking in with the team at Beat Making Lab to find out how the project in Ethiopia is progressing. In mid-November, Levitin and Freelon will head back to Ethiopia to make a presentation about the project at the International Conference on Family Planning. It's the first time the pair has ever returned to a city where they set up a lab — and we'll be able to join them. Check back each of the next few Wednesdays for updates on the Beat Making Lab.

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