Jemberu Demeke Is Injecting Ethiopian Influences Into Hip-Hop


We are in a time when Ethiopian music is being redefined: record labels are setting sights on the global music export market, while artists fearlessly pioneer fresh musical styles by blending Ethiopian scales with international ones.

Leading this charge is Meedo Records, home to a cadre of youthful artists. Among them is Jedidya Wondwossen, known as Jemberu Demeke, who recently unveiled his second album, titled እሳቱ 'ሰ' (Esatu Se), which features a musical style he dubs ‘tonic fusion.’ We caught up with Jemberu to delve into his latest musical offering.

Jemberu was enjoying a well-earned respite at home, having just concluded a hectic week of album launches and a weekend performance coinciding with the nationwide celebration of Adwa Victory Day.

I was curious about his decision to name his album after the Amharic alphabet letter ’-‘Esatu Se.’ To offer context, in the Amharic alphabet, both Amharic letters ’ and ሠ, though visually distinct, are pronounced as ‘Se.’ However, their names differ: the former is known as ‘the Flameful Se’ while the latter as ‘Se the King.’ I wanted to know why he leaned towards the flame.

“Many people confuse the two letters, and I find that intriguing,” remarked Jemberu. “Just as there's confusion between the visual representations of the two 'Se's, I enjoy confronting misconceptions about my artistic persona.” Jemberu described how he refuses to be confined to a single genre or style; instead, he's committed to exploring his multifaceted character, expressing each facet authentically.

Jemberu embraces this ambiguity over the letter 'Esatu Se' as an opportunity to assert his versatility. He states that his new album is a testament to character development, addressing themes of identity, misrepresentation, and the complexity of artistic expression.

“I aim to demonstrate how I can adapt my character and musical expression in diverse contexts,” he explains. For Jemberu, Esatu Se represents just one facet of his character, reflective of his current artistic journey. “I am in a stage where I am brimming with energy, youthful passion, and the fiery spirit akin to the letter,” he adds.

Raised in a religious household, Jemberu looks back on his early years devoid of musical exposure. It was during his high school and undergrad years that his artistic journey started to set roots. "I gravitated towards hip-hop and began crafting rap songs in English," recalls Jemberu. "I guess you could say I was merely mirroring what I was immersed in the most: American hip-hop." Yet, as he progressed into college, he confessed his songs “somehow felt hollow; they didn’t feel real."

Emphasizing the potency of language, Jemberu speaks about the struggle of finding his voice amidst a landscape dominated by Western influences. How he found solace and authenticity in embracing his cultural roots. “Rapping in English, I realized, was limiting my ability to connect with my audience as well as express my experience vividly," explains Jemberu, “I began to introspect, and delve into my native language once I joined a cultural club at university.”

The experience was so captivating that it marked the beginning of Jemberu’s exploration of Ethiopian literature, poetry, and musical scales. “We have such richness in our heritage that we can share with the world,” exclaims Jemberu, “if only as artists, we dare to push our boundaries and dig deep into what our society has to offer.” As he refines his skills in Amharic songwriting, Jemberu describes it as akin to coming home, saying, "It felt real, truly.

With laughter, he admits how he became so engrossed in writing songs in Amharic at the time that he set aside English for a while. "I embraced my stage name ጀምበሩ 'Jemberu,' meaning sunset — abandoning 'JD' in favor of my newfound passion for the Amharic language." Today, It is evident that he has embraced his language as it is reflected in his persona and creative output. Nonetheless, this doesn't signify a complete departure from the English language for him; rather, it reflects the freedom and ease he now experiences in working with both languages.

The launch of Esatu Se was preceded by the release of a music video for the track "Libe Komo." One look at the video and it becomes clear that Jemberu and his team were keen on experimenting not only with different musical styles but also with visual aesthetics. "We wanted to ensure it was enjoyable, somewhat goofy, and distinctive to effectively portray the character through various elements such as colors, action, and movement." Regarding the sound, Jemberu elaborates, "The track is a fusion of genres such as reggaeton and 'phonk' with influences from Ethiopian music."

Jemberu's unyielding passion for Ethiopian music has serendipitously led to an opportunity to collaborate with the legendary Mulatu Astatke, the pioneer of Ethio-jazz. The original track "I Faram Gami, I Faram" (ዓይፈራም ጋሜ: ዓይፈራም) was crafted by Mulatu in New York 50 years ago. Jemberu recounts how he and his colleague Laeke built upon Mulatu's work, reframing it for their generation. "I see this as the inception of 'Tonic Fusion' as we infused our own narrative and connected it with the timeless allure of the past,” he elucidates.

Young and ‘full of fire’ as he is, Jemberu cheerfully invites us to explore his newly released album while teasing his upcoming project, which features Mulatu Astatke and many more exciting talents.

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