Cyber Hip Hop and the Transnational Oromo Public Sphere
By Qeerransoo Biyyaa
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I conceived of this topic after a few e-mail exchanges with the editors of Ogina.  When the editors asked me to contribute an essay on how the internet has affected Oromo culture, they told me they would also be featuring some hip hop artists and spoken word poets. I was surprised and amused and e-mailed him back saying, “I’m happy to contribute an article…, but I am not sure if Oromo hip hop or spoken word art even exists as a genre.” 

For a decade now, I have been following up almost every Oromo-related issue online and offline, and Steven Thomas, one of the Ogina editors, saw me speak on how the internet has transformed the public sphere at the Oromo Studies Association conference this past summer. But until now I hadn’t paid any attention to hip hop and freestyle art forms. Maybe that is because I just recently moved to the United States from Oromia and have not lived in Diaspora for too long, and these forms of Oromo arts are newly emerging in the transnational Oromo public sphere. The public sphere—according to the philosopher Jürgen Habermas—is the name for when private individuals come together as a public to engage in debate. The internet creates a special kind of public sphere that is in some ways more accessible, because people can communicate quickly across great distances, and in some ways less accessible, because most people in the world can’t afford computers. In my leisure, I sometimes plug in some online video and social networking sites such YouTube and MySpace to tune into some Oromo songs, films, and clips that can be accessed for free. I do this not just for entertainment, but also to try to understand what is going on in Oromo cyberspace.  There are plenty of traditional forms of music of secular and spiritual types.  But I was ignorant on the hip hop and free style forms before the Ogina editors sent me a follow up email with links to some really fascinating hip hop and poetry websites. They are all run by Oromo youth stars from the Diaspora.

The purpose of this essay is to analyze the agency of Oromo young artists in Diaspora in creating and circulating these forms of popular culture transnationally on the Internet. I will indicate how this forms media text came about and why it was pioneered in the diaspora as opposed the distant home, Oromia. It would be interesting to look at this topic from the theoretical perspectives of identity and public sphere.

Historical background of the new Oromo rap

Hip hop music or rap music as a genre started in the Bronx in New York City in the early 1970s predominantly among African-American, Caribbean, and Latino communities. Hip hop started to make a debut among Oromo Diaspora communities three decades later—after the genre had been globally well established. Oromo hip hop borrows format and rhythm from the mother genre, albeit it has its own particularity because it mainly communicates the political social and economic repression of Oromos in Ethiopia.  Although Oromo hip hop is disseminated from the cities of North America, it maintains its Horn of African ethnicity by using a mixture of Afaan Oromoo and English and by representing Oromo social realities.

When I did a YouTube search, I found dozens of results of Oromo hip hop stars broadcasting themselves.  In their YouTube broadcasts, the artists recount the history of the Oromo people, their culture and hardships under successive, tyrannical Ethiopian regimes and so on.  One rap video by a group of Oromo youth from Georgia in the United States has 11,259 hits and it has also made it to being viewed on the Eritrean Television Afaan Oromoo program, Qophii Gaaddisa Dhugaa.

To examine the themes in detail, I will further give some examples from two incredibly talented Oromo hip hop stars: Boonaa Mohammed  and Epidemic the Virus—both from Canada.

Boonaa Mohamed is pervasively present on the Internet through his website and MySpace page. Boonaa has released a CD for sale in 2007 and made several appearances on live spoken word poetry shows.  His CD, Boonafied, deals with diverse topics which include ‘sleep’, ‘Canada’, ‘Who am I??’.  Boonaa provides these reasons for becoming a spoken word artist: “I’m just a super-spiritual revolutionary solider equipped with a quick wit and a big mouth who is down to fight for what’s right... My poetry is strictly a form of therapy that I use to express my inner thoughts, beliefs and feelings”.  

Like Boonaa, Epidemic says he is an activist rapping to help bring about the freedom of the repressed and unrepresented 40 million plus Oromos in Ethiopia. Love and relationship forms another sub-theme of their songs.

Negotiating multiple glocal identities with new delivery technologies

Young artists Boonaa Mohammed and Epidemic keep Oromummaa/ Oromo identity as their primary identity, while also simultaneously occupying the terrain of the broader hip hop tradition. Hence, as they create their art, they are negotiating between local and global identities—a phenomenon that some philosophers such as Zygmunt Bauman call glocalization. They generate their narratives from the stories of oppression and persecutions their immigrant parents told them they underwent in Ethiopia. Using creatively crafted narratives, they passionately advocate for the respect of human rights in distant Oromia.

I have viewed their websites, MySpace pages, pictures, and multimedia content. The desire to express themselves to make a difference transpires from these. Hip hop-style dress codes, language use, bodily expressions, the beats and rhythms of music are among the tools these artists rely on to form identity bridges between the nascent Oromo hip hop culture and the developed global hip hop culture.

Some of these artists heavily rely on the public spheres of online video sites such as You Tube and social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. This indicates the tremendous potential for free expression and advocacy these tools offer. The artists have hundreds of friends on their MySpace and Facebook pages. They seem to be getting their messages out mainly to those in the Diaspora who have broadband internet access.

However, inside Ethiopia is a totally different story. The Ethiopian government has a track record of blocking off and censoring these revolutionary technologies. In addition, less than 1% percent of the population has access to the Internet in Ethiopia because of poverty and lack of infrastructure. These factors make the nascent Oromo rap music a phenomenon largely restricted to transnational Oromo Diaspora in the west.

Nevertheless, the use of free online technologies to disseminate this art form not only structurally transforms Oromo hip hop as a transnational cultural commodity, but also helps the involved parties to overcome obstacles of time and space.  This is true at least in the Diaspora.

While we know that Oromo hip hop and spoken word art are widely spread and well known to the Oromo youth in Diaspora, it is hard to tell how these forms of arts are likely to be received by the older generation of the Oromo Diaspora and population at home.  While the youth in urban areas will have some idea about rap music in Oromia, the older generation and the village folks will not have any idea whether this  genre is a song or not.  Nevertheless, regardless of anticipated resistance to this genre, Oromo hip hop artists must realize that they are doing excellent jobs in effectively communicating messages that help in the search of justice and freedom in Oromia. The question for us to continuing thinking about is how new artistic forms and new delivery technologies will structurally transform the transnational Oromo public sphere.

Qeerransoo Biyyaa is an independent Oromo journalist currently living in the United States.