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Celebrating the cultural in-between: Fellows Friday with musician Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero’s voice is earthy and soulful, sinuous and untethered, and she’s about to unleash a new album on the world. She has just launched  a crowdfunding campaign for her second solo recording, We Are Alive, and is currently touring the East Coast of the United States.We caught up with her between shows to ask about her musical vision and her latest news, including an exciting new initiative promoting food sustainability in the Nile basin.

You’re often billed as Ethiopian-American singer. Did you grow up in Ethiopia? Tell us about your journey to becoming a singer-songwriter.

I grew up all over the place. I was born in Ethiopia, and left when I was about 2. We went to Germany briefly and from there to DC, Iowa, Brooklyn, Florida, Seattle, now ten years in San Francisco! I like to say that my upbringing was a good training for life as a touring musician.

I studied political science at Yale, but I always thought of a liberal arts education as developing a relationship to language, writing, and complexity, learning to take streams of thought from multiple disciplines and develop your own opinions about the world, to engage with information and culture in a present-time way. Even though I’m no longer in the field of political science, those meta-ideas are ones I put into play every day.

After college, and after a few years in Seattle, I moved to San Francisco and found the Red Poppy Art House. That tiny little arts and culture hub was my introduction to artists and musicians from around the world who were thinking big and making work with substance. I started organizing there, and ended up co-directing the space for two and a half years. The community around me really supported me in making the transition to being a full-time artist.

Do you identify strongly as both African and American? 

Yes, absolutely — I feel deeply African and deeply American. I was born in Ethiopia, my parents are Ethiopian, so I grew up in many ways steeped in that culture. At the same time, I was raised in Brooklyn, equally surrounded by early hip-hop, street-level jazz, and Ethiopian classics. I like to say I walk the road of hyphens. That’s actually where I’m most comfortable, in between and celebrating it. I grew up always wondering where home was, especially because we moved so much. It became a wonderful driving question in my music, especially early on.

I remember the first time I went to Ethiopia as an adult. It was me and my mother. Growing up, she always referred to Ethiopia as “back home.” Then when we were in Addis Ababa together that first trip, she kept referring to the States as “back home.” It was then that I realized just how fluid that phrase and idea were. It didn’t mean a place — it meant a state of being. And that freed me in a way to both accept the searching, and let go of it too. Culture is funny – there are no firm lines, only fine ones.

Above: Watch “Leaving Soon” — a music video from Meklit Hadero’s first album, On A Day Like This.

You’ve just launched a Pledge campaign for your new album. What is it about, and how is it different from your previous work?

We recorded in November and the new album, titled “We Are Alive,” will be out March 18. The PledgeMusic campaign just launched earlier this week. We really had fun creating the campaign and got as creative as we could with the perks, including visual art, homemade covers, songs written just for you, all sorts of stuff!

The concept that ties the whole thing together is simple. As hard as life gets, and as sweet as it gets, we are alive. It is the through line in all our experiences. It’s an anthem that celebrates the ups and the downs as equal parts. Sugar and salt. Rock, paper, scissors. After my first solo album, On A Day Like This, I spent a lot of time on side projects. You see, every artist has their whole life to write their first solo record, and they usually have a year and a half to write their second one. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I wanted to take a few years to explore and experiment. We Are Alive brings all that time of experimentation together into one cohesive sound. I’m really proud of how this turned out. It feels really good.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>