The musician’s latest album, with songs hailing Ethiopia’s glorious past, is the fastest-selling record in the country’s history. But his political views have made him enemies at home
ewodros Kassahun’s manager meets me on a quiet suburban road inside a gated compound. With their neoclassical mansions, manicured lawns and white picket fences, compounds such as this are a rarity in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and this one is as grand as it gets. Still, I’m underwhelmed as we turn in to the driveway of the house, which, by contrast with its neighbours, is relatively modest. This is, after all, the home of the biggest star in Ethiopian musical history: Teddy Afro.
He greets me in the living room, padding around in a tracksuit and socks. The house is in a bit of a mess, and he apologises – they’re clearing up the remains of an album launch party over the weekend. He and his manager are in high spirits. Three days earlier, they released Ethiopia, his fifth studio album; it had a record $650,000 recording budget, was the fastest-selling record in the country’s history, and topped Billboard’s world albums chart. Teddy’s relief is palpable – the release was beset by delays – as he settles into a chair and begins outlining his philosophy. “Art is closer to magic than logic,” he says, beaming cheerfully.
It is difficult to overstate Teddy Afro’s popularity and importance in Ethiopia today. “His level of celebrity is simply unprecedented,” says Heruy Arefe-Aine, the organiser of the country’s Ethiopian Music festival.
Ethiopia has long had a remarkably unified pop music culture – a national canon heard on buses and in bars across the country – but even in this context, Teddy stands out. He is the only artist of his generation to have risen to the level of Mahmoud Ahmed and Aster Aweke, the two greats of post-1960 Ethiopian pop, but at home at least he has comfortably outrun them both. Moreover, his significance reaches well beyond national borders: his popularity among the 2-million-strong Ethiopian diaspora, especially in the US, is unparalleled. The Ethio-Canadian R&B singer the Weeknd has cited him as a major influence.