Date :Friday, September 4th, 2015 | Time : 06:25 |ID: 1043 | Print

Ethiopia: Prophetic Musical Activism – A Solution to Promoting Tolerance in Ethiopia

SHAFAQNA - Though “Ethiopian history is replete with tolerance” as Tagel Getahun, an advocate in law, rightly stated in Fortune’s Viewpoint titled, “Reality Supports Narrow Political Spectrum” (Volume 13, Number 683, June 02, 2013), unfortunately, we now witness religious intolerance emerging. This is on top of the extensive political polarisation the country has experienced for the last five decades.

The “with us or against us” of conspiracy theory has shaped the political mindset of the leaders of 1960s and 1970s student movements, who are still at the forefront of the leadership of the ruling party as well as most of those in the opposition camps.

Though Ethiopia is currently a constitutionally democratic country, as Tagel Getahun has correctly observed, “the ongoing consolidation process of democracy in Ethiopia is proceeding in a developing world fashion – typified by political intolerance”.

Contrary to the political experience, the fabric of Ethiopian society requires practicing tolerance. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic nation. The diversity of its people extends to political orientation, language and cultural legacies.

As it stands, the country is a federal state that wishes to become prosperous and democratic, under the condition of “unity in diversity” that the 20-year old constitution envisages achieving. For this to happen, political actors need to put aside the blame game and embrace tolerance. And as citizens of this nation, we have to stop the practice of intolerance, ethnic hatred and prejudice.

First in the process of such an effort, is educating citizens to be aware of what political tolerance entails and acquire the skills to exercise respect for one another. But this might not be realised only through the formal education of civics and ethical education from elementary schools to tertiary. It also demands support through informal education strategies. The role of art in general and music, in particular, is worth mentioning here.

But how many of us agree that musicians are as truly influential in our lives as we would agree that doctors, teachers and engineers are? How many of us know that music is, beyond doubt, a chronicle of what human beings have gone through and are still evolving to become?

The literature on the role of art in society that I reviewed, suggests that music is a powerful medium through which political messages can be conveyed. It is an art that has a profound effect in altering social and political behaviour because it exists in much closer relation to the fabric of society than is imagined.

But the question is, how?

Music has a power that shapes political thinking and actions of citizens either for positive energy or to the contrary. Political songs can either be used to reinforce deception, breed hatred and intolerance or bring unity, love and tolerance among citizens of a country.

Tom Block in his famous article the “Prophetic Activist Art: Art Activism Beyond Oppositionality”, analysed the positive and negative roles of art. In analysing the positive contribution of art to politics, Block underlined that the role of “prophetic activist art” is to advocate for the “greatest human ideals” instead of intolerant opposing goals in the following manner:

“It is imperative that activist artists not take sides in ongoing political conflicts… Activist art based in medieval prophecy must be for the greatest human ideals – truth, justice, peace – and against ignorance, war and abuse, instead of taking sides for or against a particular ethnicity, state group or political party… In this manner the activist message is based in positive energies, providing the impetus for healing, and not for further pain or vengefulness”.

Block is reminding us here about the function of art to consider the concept of “prophecy” for it sees the bigger picture of being a human. This corresponds to the idea of the deliberative function of music in politics as described by some other scholars. If musical art is produced in a deliberative way and inspirational values of life, it can have great stake in the process of nurturing tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

Contrary to the “prophetic activist art model”, Block also explained the oppositional function of art that was manifested in the 1960s, which he called “shock art”. This oppositional approach is still activist art but is not really “prophetic” in the sense that it does not stand for the common ideals and greater human values.

When a musician assumes shocking or oppositional role, he or she would surely extend the people’s hard political positions instead of encouraging them to brainstorm new ways of doing it or use their differences to formulate new alternatives. This idea can be compared to the concept of “associational political music”. Songs that can be exploited for political purposes are part of the associational music, and are oppositional.

After comparing the above two functions of art in politics and society, Block advised the contemporary art to adhere to the enlightenment times of “prophetic activist art model” with, of course, the incorporation of the “post-modern cult of the individual” concept. This binary approach requires musicians to work for the greater human values like finding truth, promoting peace, love, tolerance, fighting injustice, and at the same time to be pragmatic and have multiple perspectives.

It is an attempt at looking for a delicate balance of objective goal (greater human values) and subjective goal (individual context-based perspectives to the values) of particular art. This equates to the “deliberative” function of music that engages diversified communities to find their common identity through the work of art. Therefore, music needs to encourage citizens’ respect for each other, and politicians to see each other as alternatives instead of enemies.

Nonetheless, there is an argument against this deliberative use of music in politics. There are people who see music as not more than a means of communication to what is practically manifested. This thinking considers music as a mere description of reality without taking a deliberate mission to influence future political actions either positively or negatively.

In Ethiopia, music is part of the political practice. Some music clips treat exclusive internal political issues and others focus on national promotion and defense (nationalistic music). Regarding musical productions laced with internal political issues, some of them can be considered deliberative (prophetic) and some others oppositional and pragmatic.

There are music clips which promote peace and political tolerance (Mahamud Ahmed’s Selam), religious tolerance (Tewdros Kassahun’s Shemendefer), that appreciates ethnic and cultural differences (Tadese Mekete’s Biherbihereseboch-Hagere 1 and 2), and surely many more. Such musical works call for peace, love, unity and togetherness while endorsing the fact that difference is beauty.

One may consider that similar artistic productions are far-sighted and inspire the people of Ethiopia towards the greater human values as Block described, regardless of their differences in political orientation, religion, ethnic background and cultural legacy. One will find them to be instrumental to the process of building a democratic society.

On the other hand, there are examples of musical works which are oppositional and simply descriptions of the practical political reality, which is more often polarised. Tewodros Kassahun’s Yasteseriyal and Fasil Demoz’s Aresut are examples of this. There is also highly ideological state-sponsored group music, often broadcast by the state media, which try to indoctrinate the public with certain political thoughts by blocking other options. This is also a form of political intolerance.

We can argue that this oppositional function of music does not advance political tolerance. It may help to change or resist political order (regimes), but it may not mean such changes will always contribute to a sustainable democracy and peaceful coexistence.

There are also many more musicians and self-acclaimed comedians, who belittle and undermine ethnic groups and their histories and are not willing to differentiate between the history of popular struggle and a party. They spread false images and hateful political messages. Such musical productions are among the political songs loaded with oppositionality which, I believe, are contributing to widen political differences among communities in Ethiopia, instead of infusing harmony.

As it has been said earlier, the political reality of the country is not tolerant. So to use music to simply describe the reality – pragmatic function of music – would mean escalating the existing intolerance.

Therefore, taking the multi-party system and the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of Ethiopia, producing music with the “prophetic activist art” or the deliberative approach, seems to help foster tolerance. However, the application of this prophetic concept of music function requires musicians, as Block recommends, to have an intellectual touch, an important element which, unfortunately we often do not get.

Among the challenges that the Ethiopian music artists seem to have in going for the vision of greater human values is; they are probably not clear with their professional role in Ethiopian society, especially, when it comes to politics. Another challenge is their lack professionalism; many of them did not attend advanced courses in the sociology of music, liberal arts and other related areas. This coupled with the low reading culture, means that musicians may fail to understand the social and political trends and the need to critically scan their environment.

So upholding the idea of prophetic activism, beyond oppositionality, in producing music would enable the artists to see the bigger unifying factor instead of being influenced by politically polarised parties and other interest groups. However, taking only the universal ideals may not help Ethiopian artists to see the context. Therefore, they also need to work on their minds with the intention that they will add an intellectual perspective to their music productions. That way, hopefully, our musicians can raise citizens’ political awareness, powerfully connect communities, destroy stereotypes, challenge social injustice and inspire all to unlearn and have democratic minds, which finally are the tributaries to the promotion of tolerance.

If they work for the common goal of political and religious consciousness, Ethiopian music artists would have a golden chance of putting “unity in diversity” into a solid foundation, instead of fuelling political intolerance and dividing the people into the “we” and “they” category.

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