Deconstructing Teddy Afro
Haile Tessema, Sept. 15, 2017
There are two extreme views of Teddy Afro or Tewodros Kassahun (the names will be used interchangeably), which tend to either canonize or demonize him. And the singer appears to enjoy both typecasting as they simultaneously lead to the same end: fame, prestige, the sale of albums and concert tickets within and outside the country, which evidently turns into money and wealth.
However, putting some factual and circumstantial evidences together over the years, it’s become apparent to me that Tewodros is neither a saint nor a demon; not for or against something in true sense of the term. And here is why:
1) During a North America tour following the release of his ያስተሰርያል (Yasteserial) album in 1997 E.C., a friend of Tewodros who lived in the Bay Area took him to an Ethiopian restaurant, but the owner wasn’t there. So, the friend – who happened to be an acquaintance of the restaurateur – called and shared what he described as the greatest news in the restaurant’s history: that the famous singer was dining at his restaurant, followed by a call to come immediately.
Yet, the man didn’t show up at all never mind immediately. Astonished, Tewodros’ friend later asked why. To which the restaurateur, who happened to be of Tigrai origin, replied that – after his brothers and sisters fought for freedom for 17 long years and many shed their precious blood – he didn’t appreciate Tewodros’ ያስተሰርያል song, which he believed made a mockery of martyrs.
And the response the friend gave was: “ቴዲን እኔ ነኝ እማውቀው እና ልንገርህ ያን ዘፈን የዘፈነው በሆይ ሆይ እና ኢህአዴግ የሚወድቅ መስሎት ካሸናፊው ጎራ ለመሆን እንጂ በፖለቲካው አቋም ኖሮት አይደለም።”
(I happen to know Teddy, and he didn’t sing that song out of political conviction, but rather assuming that EPRDF [the ruling party] was on the verge of collapse, he was just positioning himself to be on the winning side).
2) During the night of the ill-fated car accident that killed a young homeless man, there was a caller – identifying himself as a taxi driver – who gave info to the police on the phone of seeing a BMW hitting a person; provided the plate number, and promised to appear in person to give his eyewitness testimony in detail. Nevertheless, when police made it public that the vehicle involved was that of Tewodros Kassaun, the taxi driver was a no-show, and his whereabouts couldn’t be traced.
For the inquiring minds that ask the fair question as to where the two police officers who testified against Tewodros came from then? My answer to that is, I don’t really know with a footnote that it’s not uncommon for law enforcement to fight “እሾህን በእሾህ” (fire with fire) to get a conviction on a suspect, especially when convinced that the person they have in custody is the real perpetrator. That’s similar to defense presenting an alibi – at times wrongly – as it was the case with Tewodros’ defense team which brought an alibi who falsely testified that he was outside the country when the accident occurred although the singer contradicted that by saying he was out with friends.
What’s more, Tewodros’ neighbor by the name Anteneh Feleke (a footballer who at the time resided at CMC) told someone that – after banging his car into CMC’s fence in the wee hours of the night – Tewodros came running to his unit, and nervously confessed to a hit-and-run incident near Sheraton Hotel. Nonetheless, buying into the fear that the govt. would exploit the accident to incarcerate the singer and throw away the keys, Anteneh failed to pass this incriminating tip to police.
Ironically, it was Tewodros who ended up politicizing the loss of a young man’s life to avoid the legitimate charge of criminal negligence by shrewdly playing the media to garner public sympathy and support, hence the “ይሄን ብላቴና ለምን አይተዉትም?!” (Why don’t they leave the kid alone?!) outcry became widespread. The self-defense that is based on sheer dishonesty would haunt anyone with an iota of conscience. Yet, Tewodros likely rationalizes his actions by externalizing the guilt, i.e. he had to do what he had to do in order to free himself from the govt.’s politically driven revenge.
One can argue that this doesn’t make him a devil as he is not the first suspect to try to get off criminal charges by any available means. But he certainly is not the saint he and his gullible followers try to depict either. To begin with, a saint wouldn’t run away after hitting someone. Furthermore, he wouldn’t continue to lie about his misdeed, especially after ultimately paying his dues to society. Most importantly, a saint would make the initiative to approach the family of the deceased to extend his condolence and pay restitution for life lost.
Instead, as his fame and money earning potential is evidently more important to him than moral values, Tewodros chose a different venue. Indeed, what he did right after leaving prison was organize a concert for the homeless and panhandlers at Addis Ababa Stadium. And this is not over imaginative, but rather connecting the dots. After all, the issue of homelessness was not known to be close to Tewodros’ heart prior to his incarceration. In fact, his well-publicized attachment was to Abebech Gobena children’s charity.
However, his team, led by his former manager Addisu Gessese, assisted by Samson Mammo of Ethio Channel newspaper, didn’t waste time to go knocking on the door of Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Office (MOLSA) at Kazanchis with explicit request for Tewodros to raise funds for the homeless. Then MOLSA hooked him up with a charitable organization called Elshadai that is well-known for helping the homeless, youth living on the street and panhandlers for which he eventually succeeded to garner over a million birr (he handed a small check to Abebech Gobena at the concert).
And this circumstantial evidence goes to show that he is not a demon either because a demon would not feel guilty at all or wouldn’t try to right the wrong – albeit in an indirect way and with a symbolic gesture.
3) Shortly before Tewodros went to prison, it’s to be recalled that Seifu Fantahun had a radio program called “ለምን ይዋሻል?” (Why tell a lie?), whereby the radio show host played a song from within or outside the country followed by a famous Ethiopian song. He then let callers decide by expressing their opinion if there was similarity between the two. The purpose was to expose plagiarism in music. And there was plenty of it! Some famous singers were hanged out to dry. So much so that veteran singer Ephrem Tamru, for instance, felt compelled to call from the U.S. to put the record straight that the music in question and its lyrics were given to him, and that he didn’t do it knowingly.
Lo and behold, came Tewodros’ turn, thus Seifu announced that the songs to be scrutinized in his next program would be that of Teddy Afro. Soon after, the pop artist – acting more like an international con-artist than international freedom fighter Che Guevara (to whom, he is absurdly compared by some) – had apparently plagiarized music for a number of his songs from as far as Che’s continent, Latin America. So, recognizing the biggest threat to his reputation and music business, Tewodros – who by then had learned a thing or two about “a good offence is the best defense” tactic – cried foul, and threatened to hit the radio show host with a lawsuit.
That wouldn’t have been a problem for Seifu as he would successfully have defended his allegation. However, the challenge for the radio show host was the court of public opinion, which Tewodros manipulated by once again cunningly playing the victim card.
Alas, the Teddy Afro segment, along with the informative and interesting “ለምን ይዋሻል?” show, was cancelled. Adding insult to injury, Seifu was demonized, while Tewodros was yet again perceived as a saint under attack – this time around by friendly fire.
Sure enough, while this is not a characteristic of a saint by any stretch of the imagination, a devil’s advocate could argue in Tewodros’ defense that he simply was trying to protect his music and entertainment empire.
4) To Tewodros backers’ dismay – especially the extremist diaspora – not only did he and his wife pay their respect to the late Meles Zenawi during public viewing of his casket, but the singer cancelled his concert in Europe due to the public grieving that was taking place in the country.
Thus, looking at his record discussed above, it wouldn’t be malicious to deduce that Tewodros didn’t do that out of human decency, at least not entirely. Rather, paying respect to the late P.M. was a popular thing to do, and everyone was doing it. So, he didn’t want to be left out. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t be overly suspicious to presume that he probably was worried what supporters of Meles – who were heartbroken by their leader’s passing – would potentially do if he failed to show empathy.
Conversely, had the public reaction to the late PM’s death been cold or even lukewarm, it’s highly unlikely that Tewodros would’ve gone out of his way to pay his respect never mind cancel a lucrative concert.
Still, this may make him a conniving opportunist, but not necessarily a devil incarnate.
5) Non-gospel singers are not necessarily expected to live up to what they sing, and should of course not be held accountable to their lyrics. Yet, when someone like Tewodros portrays himself as more than just a singer/entertainer; enjoys the “ንጉስ፣ ነብይ፣ የፍቅር ሐዋርያ፣ ሎሬት” (king, prophet, apostle of love, laureate) labeling, and is often compared to his namesake Emperor Tewodros, Bob Marley, Ernesto Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, the biblical Moses etc., he becomes a fair game for scrutiny. On that note, let’s look a couple of his songs and statements to see if he lives up to the highest standard promoters and followers exalt him to:
a) In one of his famous singles, Tewodros sings:
“ዋሽቶ ለመኖር አፌ አይችልም ከቶ፤ ታምኖ ይኖራል እንጂ ያለውን በልቶ፤
ደልቶኝ የሞላ ኑሮ መኖር ባልጠላም፤ ገንዘብ ለማግኘት ብዬ አላጣም ሰላም …”
(My mouth can never tell a lie; would rather be true to myself and survive on what’s available.
Although I don’t mind leading a comfortable life; I wouldn’t lose my peace of mind to make money.)
The “never say never” rule appears to apply here. As established above, Tewodros has of course told a blatant lie in a time when truth mattered most for justice to prevail and for a poor homeless man’s family to get restituted. Sadly, not only did he choose lie over truth, but he also has deceitfully played the victim card to this very day, which – besides fame – is induced by love of mammon. And it makes one wonder how could he not lose peace of mind over this unless vanity has taken its toll on him or is inherently unrepentant?
b) Tewodros is often heard preaching love and unity among Ethiopians. To that end, the “ፍቅር ያሸንፋል” (love conquers) biblical scripture from the chapter of love, Corinthians 13 (ቆሮንቶስ ም. 13), has become his catchphrase. Also, during his Jan. 19, 2014 interview with Addis Admas newspaper, the singer was quoted as saying, “ከታሪክ ከወረስነው ቂም ይልቅ የምናወርሰው ፍቅር ይበልጣል” (the love we pass on [to the next generation] is greater than the grudge/hatred we inherited from our history.)
No one can argue with that. The question is, how come a good number of people don’t buy his love message? That’s because – as “the medium is the message” – they don’t view the singer as genuine medium as he, time after time, has proven to be indifferent to the historical suffering of majority as well as minority ethnic groups in Ethiopia. All the same, he is obsessed with perpetually praising emperors, while never holding them accountable for any of their transgressions.
Subsequently, as supposed to an apostle of love and harmony, he is seen by many as an agent of hate and division. And it would be hard to say that he is unaware of his actions as the blunder is not only on historical facts, but – as seen below – also current events.
On his latest album, Tewodros sings, “ጎንደር … ያንዲት ኢትዮጵያ ዋልታና ማገር” (Gondar, Ethiopia’s pole/pillar and wall/roof): Tewodros is not the first singer to give tribute to Gondar. Just to use one example among many, Madingo Afework sang, “ትወደስ ጎንደር ትወደስ” (Praise be to Gondar). And no one had a problem with that.
In point of fact, I don’t see a problem with Tewodros calling Gondar Ethiopia’s ዋልታና ማገር per se. Rather, what makes it spiteful is the timing. Indeed, for the “የፍቅር ሐዋርያ” (“apostle of peace”) to remain silent on the ethnic persecution and forceful displacement of thousands of Tegaru (Tigraians) from Gondar, yet praise that very same place where persecution occurred in the aftermath, gives the impression that the singer is either full of hatred towards Tegaru or indifferent to their suffering.
Truth be told, if it were the other way around, i.e. if Amharas were victims of the same or similar persecution in Tigrai, it’s plausible that Tewodros wouldn’t waste time to write a song that condemns the wrongdoing.
Still, the underlying reason may not necessarily be that Tewodros hates Tegaru. Nor is his confessed undying love for his version of Ethiopia (some would interpret that as the people of Amhara) a given. What’s for certain, however, is Tewodros’ grandiose sense of importance and his obsessive love for fame, prestige and mammon. Simply put, Tewodros is a narcissist to whom self-love is more important than harmony among people and a country’s future.
Consequently, as his fan-base happens to be primarily in the Amharic speaking Ethiopia from which adoration bordering on worship flows, what is happening is that Tewodros is always trying to appeal to his cult-like followers by coming up with songs they would love to hear.
All said and done, what needs to happen in order to bring the curtain down, and have closure on this tired and long overdue Teddy Afro sociopolitical musical drama is:
a) Tewodros Kassahun has to examine himself, and see if it’s ethical or worth it to go on preaching love and unity, yet be the most polarizing figure in the history of Ethiopia’s art and entertainment industry. Actually, now that he has built a family with two children, it’s high time that his concern be less about Tewodros and more about the future of Ethiopian children including his own.
(While he is at it – as it’s never too late to make amends – it would be great for Tewodros to humble himself, and contact the family of his hit-and-run victim; extend his belated condolence for the loss of their loved one and an apology for not coming clean sooner.)
b) Teddy Afro fans need to come to terms that he is not a messiah, but rather a singer and entertainer who found a niche by playacting love and harmony in his songs and performances. So, while of course free to enjoy his music, perceiving him as some kind of spiritual leader who would lead Ethiopia to the promise land and to whom as if the biblical, “Touch not my anointing and do my prophet no harm”(1 Chronicles 16:22) rule applies is not helping in any way.
In fact, if anything, it’s encouraging him to self-absorbedly and arrogantly continue on his divisive and destructive path.
c) It really is embarrassing for the government – the highest public institution in the country beneath parliament – to be seen getting in a tit-for-tat with a singer/entertainer. Author Alemayehu Gelagai is quoted as saying, “ኢህአዴግ ፀብ አይንቅም” (No fight is too small for EPRDF). But it shouldn’t be that way as the government is too big for the self-cloned character called Teddy Afro.
When Ghion Hotel was chosen for Tewodros’ planned concert while his hit-and-run charge was in the courts, a team of three from the event organizer, Serawit Multimedia, approached Mohammed Drirr – who was Minister of Culture and Tourism at the time – for advice as Ghion is, of course, state-owned.
And Mohammed Drirr made it clear that he didn’t see any problem with Tewodros’ planned event with his trademark humor: “እንደኔ ግዮን ቀርቶ ሼሁ ከፈቀዱለት ኮንሰርቱን ሸራተንም ቢያቀርብ ችግር የለውም” (Leave alone Ghion, I don’t see a problem if he presents his concert at the Sheraton so long as the Sheikh [Al Amoudi] allows him to). As the team thanked the Minister and headed for the door, he quipped: “ከኮንሠርት መልስ ወደ ቤት ሲነዳ በፍጥነት እንዳያሽከረክር ብቻ ምከሩት” (Just make sure that he doesn’t speed when driving home from the concert).
That’s the spirit! Mohammed Drirr realized that govt. had bigger problems to tackle than get itself trapped in the Teddy Afro quagmire. Likewise, the current government officials at city, regional and federal levels should see Tewodros Kassahun for what he really is: a singer and entertainer. So, let him sing; entertain; celebrate the release of his album in a fanfare; travel wherever and whenever he wants to. Failing that is playing into the hands of the singer who has mastered the art of playing victimhood to promote his one and only agenda, which is none other than Teddy Afro.
d) A similar rule applies to critics and opponents of Tewodros in the general public: While there’s nothing wrong in fairly and objectively critiquing his music and lyrics, it’s not wise to make the singer a topic of personal and social media discussion on a regular basis or a target for attack unless there is a similar obsession with the singer and entertainer albeit from a different angle.
Further, as Tewodros has long realized the “there’s no bad publicity” show business rule, no doubt he cherishes every moment that he finds himself in the mainstream as well as social media to feed his never satisfied addiction to self-importance. So why contribute to that at cost to society?
To that end, I promise myself and readers of this piece that – other than having to answer if need be to questions and ideas that may arise from this fact-based opinion piece – this will be my first and last public statement on Tewodros Kassahun and his alter ego called Teddy Afro.