Exquisite, engulfed in the fabric of stars and enriched by the lands she touches, Ethiopian American performer Meklit Hadero, or simply Meklit, has done more in her life than people will ever dream of.
Before her performances at The Clarice Performing Arts Center on Oct. 14, The Writer’s Bloc interviewed her as she waited for her flight from San Francisco to D.C. We talked about the state of the world and what it means to be an immigrant and have a hybrid identity.
Karla: How has your tour been so far?
Meklit: Everything is going well! I mean, how should I say this? My life, is kind of constantly about performing, meeting with different communities and doing all kinds of workshops with young people.
For example, after the performance at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, I went up to Seattle to perform at the Ethiopian communities in Seattle at their annual event, and then now I am headed over to you guys, and then next week, I am going to Manchester to do a program with pretty much all of the youth music programs in Manchester. We are going to do a big collaborative song process and culminate it with the performance with the BBC Philharmonic.
So, it’s going great! But it’s also kind of just, oh this is what life is, music, thinking about questions that music helps us to ask and meeting with different communities and young people all over the country and the world.
K: You talked about that it gives you a unique perspective–I know that last year, in your TED Talk, you talked about the beauty of mundane sounds. Is nature a way for you to detox, calm down, a way of self-care, or do you have other ways in terms of self-care that you do?
M: Yes, there are other ways. Probably the biggest thing is cooking; it is really important to me. It’s funny, but sometimes I think coffee is, as well. Every time I am making coffee sometimes, I roast it in the traditional Ethiopian style, and it’s just one of these acts that feels very connected and rooted.
I think it’s about eating well but it is also about slowing down. Life is extremely, extremely busy, but it is important to slow down, so food and coffee are a big part of my self-care. I work-out every day; I have to because, as my mother says, I jump around for two hours onstage for a living. So, if I don’t work out, I can’t possibly have enough energy to do that. I also meditate, and that’s important because, in a way, it’s kind of about music, as well, because when you are onstage, you’re constantly battling your inner dialogue you know?
Everybody has an inner dialogue and it can be from “Is it ok?” to like, “I really wanted to change that horn part and I didn’t do it,” and then suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the inner dialogue is; as soon as it gets going you are outside of the music and it’s important to have some kind of practice that can help you stay grounded in the moment. So, it’s kind of like everything that I do to help me practice music is also helps me in life, so they’re kind of the same thing.
K: You mentioned the word “rooted.” I think that’s a key word for you because you are rooted in many places–San Francisco, Ethiopia, Brooklyn–do you feel that your music reflects all of these places? Or does it create its own dimension, its own world?
M: When you listen to someone’s music, you are kind of listening to the inside of their mind. So, in a way it is about seeing the dimension. I hope that when someone listens to my music, you do get the dimension that I kind of exist in, which is something that is very hybrid and intersectional, but I try very much — I feel that those three cities in particular, I call them my “sonic homelands.” They’re my sonic touch zones and they are absolutely the spaces that have influenced the sounds that I am trying to put out into the world. It is all about those three places coming together. Music comes from life.
K: I think it’s really beautiful that you’ve created this new vocabulary such as “sonic homelands.” Speaking of new projects, “This Was Made Here” is the name of your new project! Can you explain the reason behind the title or kind of the essence of it?
M: Absolutely! I think when I was deciding what this body of music would be called, I was thinking of, kind of what we were talking about before, is this idea of the intersection of sonic homelands but the idea of it being a very American experience. That in fact, our country, this country, is build on those intersections. Whether it was migration by choice, or forced migration, whether it was the African-American traditions of music that have become blues, jazz and hip-hop but born out of a experience that stems from slavery, that is still migration.
So, I think the experience of migration, you know, if you are not Native American, you’re an immigrant from somewhere, you are from somewhere else. You found your roots here, you renamed, reimagined a culture here, so that’s a very American story. So I was thinking about the ways that as we travel, as we go through those ships and those migrations, you know how do we take responsibility for what assimilation means? How do we choose our hybridity, how do we create the culture that we want to see as 21st century citizens?
In a time when migration is going to become a greater part of our international story, whether it’s because of everything that is happening now politically or whether it’s because of climate change, which people are saying that climate change is going to create huge migrations of people in the future. This is going to be affecting culture. So, the idea of “This Was Made Here” is me saying, “Hey, this music that I want to create, this music is about Brooklyn, it’s about San Francisco, Ethiopia, is inside one human being.” I want to make music that could only have come from that experience.
K: You’re giving it a name, a place and a sound, and that place is music.
M: But also, that everybody — millions of people — will be going through the same thing, and they are going to have different answers to those questions. I really can’t wait to hear what those answers are like. What are they going to sound like?
K: Do you integrate the chaos and what’s happening around the world into your music?
M: I don’t think that I integrate the chaos into the music. What I am trying to do is to create a sound that expresses the perspective that is very open arms; it is very open arms and a wide perspective that includes a lot of people, and I am also, in a way, for me music is about joy and it’s about the validity of your experience and it’s also about the ability to draw strength from a narrative that is very outside a mainstream narrative. But it’s also about how are we going to get through this with our spirits intact? We gotta sing it and we gotta dance through it and we have to be together through it and that’s what music is.
There’s a song on the record, a song on the body of music that’s called “You Are My Luck,” and at first, this song is very much describing a love situation, so like this person “you are my luck” so this person has brought me joy and all of these things. But then at the bridge, the idea changes and it becomes about the fact that these are monsoon storm times and I don’t want to find shelter from the intensity in love but through love, I want to have the strength to do what I need to do in the world, to deal with it. Let’s draw strength from our joy so we can do what we need to do to survive and thrive through the chaos.
K: My last question is what advice would you give to immigrants and refugees who feel that they don’t have a place to call home?
M: Know that you are not alone. Know that your hybridity and through your knowing multiple ways of thinking and ways of being in the world, like that’s actually a huge offering in the world; it’s not something that makes you weaker, it’s something that makes you stronger. It’s that kind of thinking that we need to get us through what we are all going to be facing in this crazy 21st century so you’re not alone, you are the way of thinking that we need.
Featured Photo Credit: Meklit and Picasso Guitar 2. Photo by Ibra Acke. Artistic Direction Wangechi Mutu.
Karla Casique is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.