Singer-songwriter, composer and podcast host Meklit Hadero on migration and its role in global culture
Meklit Hadero saunters into Oakland’s Lake Chalet looking like a superheroine. Specifically, she resembles Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the Batman TV series, but with a slightly Afrofuturist vibe, like a regal personage from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. She wears a black top with puffy shoulders, black leather pants, a blue belt, gold earrings, a gold chain and a fancy bracelet. Completing the outfit are her medium-sized Afro and oversized sunglasses.
Meklit’s current situation is somewhat of a vortex of activity. “It’s been a wild spring of shows and residences all across the country, plus our podcast on music and migration finally launching last week via PRX and our monthly stories debuted on The World as of yesterday,” she noted.
It’s tempting to call Meklit—who goes by her first name, a la Cher, Madonna or Iman—a modern-day Renaissance woman, except that the term doesn’t completely describe her persona.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Meklit immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee, spent time in Brooklyn and studied political science at Yale before moving to the Bay Area. She’s lived in Oakland, but currently resides in San Francisco.
Essentially, Meklit is a singer, songwriter and storyteller. She calls her style of music, which has encompassed a versatile range from acoustic folk to worldly hybrids to electronica-tinged hip-hop, “Ethio-jazz”—a nod to her roots in Ethiopian traditional music and her love of the Black American-originated genre. If one can imagine Mulatu Astatke covering The Roots, with an expressive, inflective female vocal performance that simultaneously sounds both ancient and brand-new, that has pretty much described her version of “You Got Me.”
Meklit is a seasoned recording musician and live performer, who has been a cultural activist for decades, working on all sorts of creative projects and collaborations that have taken her around the country and across the world. She’s also a mother of a three year old, a podcast producer, a successful grant writer, and, truth be told, somewhat of a visionary who is subtly reshaping the world into a more inclusive place, connected through music, art and life experiences.
Her curriculum vitae pulses with impressive entries: She was a co-founder (with ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis) of the Nile Project, a cross-cultural collaboration with musicians, scholars and educators representing 11 countries the Nile River runs through, that used musical tours and scholarly discussions to create a multinational network focused on sustainability. She’s been both a senior TED fellow and a global TED fellow, and is a current National Geographic explorer.
In addition, she held the position of Chief of Program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, following in the footsteps of Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Meklit was the musical director for UnderCover Presents’ reimagining of Lauren Hill’s Miseducation album. She’s the former artistic director of the Red Poppy Art House, a former artist-in-residence at the Institute of African American Affairs, a curator and member of the DeYoung Museum’s inaugural Artists’ Council and part of the creative team behind YBCA’s “Home (Away From Home),” an art installation and music festival featuring Ethiopian and Eritrean artists addressing themes of separation and connectivity.
As if that weren’t enough, she’s also been a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, an artist consultant for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and an ambassador and artistic director for Brighter Sounds Manchester’s “Both Sides Now” project, supporting women songwriters.
Also a composer, she created “When the People Move, The Music Moves Too” (originally titled “This Was Made Here”), a project heavily inspired by the 1960s and ’70s works of Astatke that fused the golden age of Ethiopian popular music with 21st century sensibilities derived from the North American immigrant experience. She also wrote the score for the Brava Theater production, Over the Mountain.
Meklit’s arrangements reveal a deep understanding of composition and the layering of instrumental interludes and passages, as well as the interplay between voice and musical instruments. Almost any sound in the world is seemingly fair game; elements of traditional folk and modern jazz mingle freely with derivatives and variants ranging from neo-soul to global funk.
In addition to what she calls her “culture projects,” she’s released three solo albums to date, and collaborated on an Afrofuturist-themed project, Copper Wire. Her latest project is an album of traditional Ethiopian songs, which will be released next year on Smithsonian Folkways. And her upcoming appearance at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on May 27 will be the world live premiere of music from the upcoming album. Needless to say, there’s excitement in her voice when she talks about the project.
“On every solo album I’ve done, I’ve done one song in Amharic,” she says. 2014’s We Are Alive spotlighted a jazzy, blues-tinged version of the traditional song “Kemekem”; 2010’s On A Day Like This included a breezy version of “Abbay Mado,” accented by wafting trumpet and lilting handclaps; 2017’s When the People Move, The Music Moves Too featured the sublime “Yerakeh Yeresal,” its winding groove propelled by whirling flute and resonant violin. On each of these songs, Meklit’s supple voice embraces her native tongue like a lover’s caress, although she humbly downplays her command of the East African language.
Amharic, she explains, has a “beautiful, incredible poetic tradition that’s very complex. And my Amharic does not rise to that level. I am, like, functional in Amharic. But I love the poetry, and I love the traditional songs. And so I had always made a point of including at least one (traditional song).” Singing in Amharic, she says, “accesses a totally different part of my voice, which I really love. It accesses a different kind of emotional core. It just gives me a different kind of depth, and I really appreciate that.”
Her rerecordings of traditional music have become popular in Ethiopia, she says, making her a celebrity in her homeland. “My music is out there on TV daily. The ‘Kemekem’ video was on TV for, like, years, daily. People would see me driving by and start singing the song to me. A bus full of girls, you know, teenage girls. It would seem to me like it’s the most special thing in the world,” she says. These experiences taught her, in no uncertain terms, that “the power of these songs is very strong.
“I’ve always thought about folk songs, in the sense of, like, millions of people have put their love into these folk songs. And so when you sing them, you somehow are accessing (that love). There’s some kind of resonance of those voices when you sing it. That’s folk songs for me.”
It’s a point of personal pride—and a reaffirmation of her cultural identity—that her music resonates in Ethiopia. After years of weaving traditional influences into a quilt of worldly, jazz-infused folk music, she finally decided to make an entire album of traditional songs—not just in Amharic, but in many Ethiopian languages.
Choosing the album’s songs was a bit of a quest, she says, noting that due to the rise of evangelical Christianity in southern Ethiopia,” people from that region are actually not singing their traditional music anymore… it’s not easy to find this music.”
For the song “Geefata” from the upcoming album—a traditional tune from her father’s tribe she describes as “a big celebration song”—Meklit became somewhat of a cultural anthropologist, searching high and low for recordings. Eventually she uncovered a version that had been performed at the Thousand Stars Festival.
“I scoured the recording of this festival minute by minute, until I found a song for my father’s tribe. I sent it to my father, and we went back and forth and back and forth. He translated everything for me and we worked on it (together),” she recalls. The result, she says, is “my love song for Ethiopian traditional music,” which she’s looking forward to performing in front of an audience for the first time.”
Her new album marks a return to touring, which had slowed down during the pandemic. The timing initially worked for her, as it allowed her to raise her infant son and work full-time at YBCA. But when things began to get moving again within the music community, she found herself with many new projects and new opportunities. Something had to give, so she quit her job last November; since then, she’s been doing shows and working on the second season of her podcast, Movement, which examines the relationship between culture and migration.
According to Meklit, “the idea was to make a new kind of space for talking about migration, that centered culture, that centered culture makers, culture keepers, culture innovators, and that would not be a place where migration was all about trauma or xenophobia or a political wedge issue. But where immigrants, migrants and refugees could tell our stories on our own terms. You know, I came to the U.S. as a refugee when I was a kid, and the music that I make. I make—Ethio-jazz, European jazz—I think of it as migration music.”
Naturally, there’s a long story behind Movement, which had been in development for five years before launching as a monthly series this past April. The project was originally pitched to Al-Jazeera in 2017. “We brought this idea to them, this music and migration podcast where we would interview immigrant migrant and refugee musicians,” says Meklit.
After unsuccessfully pitching NPR and Audible, Meklit built a relationship with PRX, which saw Movement as a possible fit for their public radio newsmagazine, The World—coincidentally hosted by her good friend, Marco Werman. Meklit pitched Werman on the idea, and got the opposite reaction from NPR’s: “He said, oh my God, imagine all we could talk about, like Filipinos and hip-hop, we could talk about flamenco, we could talk about… you know, it was a million stories. It was a way to think about culture in the context of what was happening in the world. And they were like, how can we work together?”
Movement debuted in 2020 as a one-hour special on The World, featuring Meklit, Sudanese- American artist Sinkane, Mexican singer-songwriter Diana Gameros, and Syrian producer and visual artist Samer Saem Eldahr, all telling stories about their experiences with migration. Since then, additional episodes have been featured on The World, with PRX as distribution partner and Meklit as host.
The series’ current season began with Sudanese-American hip-hop artist Oddisee, and went on to feature Cuban percussionist Jesus Diaz and Brooklyn-based Cuban/Puerto Rican-American singer Xenia Rubinos. The next episode, Meklit says, will feature a legendary Venezuelan artist who is just now returning to the stage after working in construction for many years.
Meklit says this year’s season of Movement is “killer,” but she’s already looking forward to the next season, which will be less artist-driven and more story-driven.
Movement is also a live show, featuring Meklit and directed by acclaimed Indian-American theater director Sophiyaa Nayar, which combines a live concert experience with first-person storytelling, visuals and sound design. Says Meklit, “The live shows, we’re very blessed to find partnerships with folks like Stanford Live, Lincoln Center, UCLA, the University of Washington, NYU Abu Dhabi, who commissioned us to create this project .So I wrote a show and tell my own stories, my own migration stories. And we also work with local immigrant, migrant and refugee musicians everywhere we go.
“So in New York, we were working with Alsarah, the Sudanese musician and an emcee, (and) an Egyptian emcee called Felukah. At the University of Washington, we worked with a Haitian musician, a Cuban musician and an artist from Guam. At UCLA, we’re working with a Mexican artist called San Cha the Cambodian lead singer of Dengue Fever Chhom Nimol and the Palestinian oud virtuoso Clarissa Bitar, and so many more,” she continues.
Besides relating the immigrant experience through culture, Movement allows Meklit to do what she enjoys most: musical collaborations, talking to people and sharing stories. There’s a sense that she’s doing important work that goes far beyond the predictably knee-jerk, dog-whistle bristle when migration is mentioned, revealing it to be something at the core of the human experience and a driver of culture throughout the world.
“Thinking about my own music, it’s also about forced migration, historical migration; it’s the obvious story of jazz and blues and hip-hop and the forced migration of African peoples to this country in slavery,” she says.
“And then, like I think about that music’s return to the African continent as Ethio-jazz. And then my coming to the U.S. as a refugee, and my own exploration of Ethiopian jazz,” Meklit continues. “And so those circles are just constantly, constantly, constantly turning, and it’s really important to understand the roots, to highlight them, to name them, and to be in relation and to stay in relation. And so yeah, that’s why I call my music migration music, because it has all of that in it.”