World Music Matters

Hachalu Hundessa: the Oromo singer who helped transform politics in Ethiopia

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"Everyday I walk in this city, I know I walk alongside death," singer Hachalu Hundessa said just days before he was shot dead in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on 28 June. We hear how the 34-year old protest singer became the voice of the Oromo ethnic group. "He was the soundtrack of the 2018 revolution that brought change to Ethiopia" Awol Allo told RFI.  

Hacaalu Hundessaa helped unite the Oromos through his music
Hacaalu Hundessaa helped unite the Oromos through his music © Hundessaa Facebook

The murder of Hachalu Hundessa last Monday sent thousands of Oromo out onto the streets in protest. More than one hundred have died in the unrest.

There have been protests and mourning not just in the capital Addis and elsewhere in Ethiopia, but also in Minnesota, US, where a large Oromo diaspora settled after fleeing political repression and discrimination back home.

Like many Oromo artists, Hachalu could have fled, but chose to stay. Prophetically, just a week before his death, he told journalists he was well aware of the risks he was taking.

"He said: ‘What I am afraid of is a meaningless death, a death that has no purpose. I’m not afraid because I have a clarity of purpose in terms of what I want to achieve’," UK-based academic and Oromo rights activist Awol Allo told RFI.

Hachalu’s main focus as a singer was highlighting and defending the Oromo cause and it earned him many enemies.

"One of the things that makes it so complex, so painful, is the fact that Oromo is a majority group (in Ethiopia) but subordinated economically, marginalised culturally and repressed politically," Allo continued.

Hachalu used "his incredible imaginative power, verbal invention and poetic expression to very ably articulate some of those issues".

"It’s almost impossible to think of anyone else who has used the power of art, the power of music (like he did) to push a transformative political agenda forward."

Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa (r.) with law scholar and rights activist Awol Allo, Addis Ababa January 2019
Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa (r.) with law scholar and rights activist Awol Allo, Addis Ababa January 2019 © Awol Allo

Romantic and deeply political songs

Hachalu began writing songs aged 17 when he was imprisoned for five years for his political activities.

He released his first album Sanyii Mootii (Race of the King) in 2009, a year after leaving prison. The title track is about falling in love with an Oromo woman who is proud of her identity and prepared to die for it.

His second album Waa’ee Keenya (Our Plight) came out in 2013 while he was touring the US and became a top African seller on Amazon.

Soundtrack of a revolution

Hachalu played a key role in the Oromo protests from 2015 to 2018 which led to the fall of the Ethiopian government.

"He was one of the most important voices in the Oromo protests and ultimately forced the resignation of the then prime minister [Hailemariam Desalegn] and the appointment of the current prime minister Abiy Ahmed," Allo said. "From that point of view he was basically the soundtrack of that revolution that brought change."

The soundtrack began with his first big hit Maalan Jira? (What existence is mine?) in 2015.

"It’s essentially a song about dispossession and the government’s policy of land grab around the city of Addis Ababa," said Allo, "displacing hundreds of thousands of farmers.

"What the video to the song shows is the gradual displacement and eviction, one by one, of young people who live there with their families then ultimately becoming day labourers on their own land."

By 2017 the political situation was evolving and his following hit, Jira (We are here), reflected that growing sense of hope.

While the song was written just before Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, became prime minister in 2018 "the message was that ‘we have come so far, things have changed so much on the ground and this is a moment of hope’".

Art and music - a repository for Oromo history

Protest song has always been a part of Oromo culture.

"As a community that has been historically marginalised and subordinated and denied the opportunity to receive modern education, Oromo art has always served as a repository of Oromo experiences and history", Allo explained.

"So if you really want to learn about the history of the Oromo you go into these songs, songs of resistance," Allo continued. "It’s in the reservoir of these songs that you find the true and authentic experience of the Oromo people. It’s not in the official archives, in the history and geography books of the Ethopian state."

Oromo artists make ready use of a style known as geerarsa, a kind of flow, not unlike rap, which is used to whip up an audience.

"Geerarsa is a kind of free style narration of certain experiences, mainly used to mobilise people, to galvanise support for a particular cause. It’s a deeply-entrenched part of our culture," Allo explained.

The now legendary ‘Millenium’ benefit concert Hachalu gave in Addis December 2017 for the rehabilitation of some 700,000 internally displaced Oromo shows his ability to set audiences alight.

He paces the stage chanting: ‘You can no longer pin us down, we are too big, too hopeful, too resilient, too fired up’.

Crying for Oromo unity

Hachalu also had an extraordinary capacity to unite the huge and politically heterogenous Oromo community.

"We’re a very large community of 50 plus million people so you obviously have a lot of views about how people should organise and mobilise, there are differences," Allo said.

"But the thing for which Hachalu is credited the most is that he’s preaching unity, crying of Oromo unity. It’s almost impossible right now to think of somebody who could fill his shoes."


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