Artist Focus: Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero

Ethiopian born musician and songwriter Meklit Hadero will lead the next Brighter Sound Artistic Residency at Band on the Wall, from 11th to 15th May. During the week she will work with musicians aged 16-25, collaborating and experimenting with new material, before performing at the end of the week. Here’s a recent interview with Brighter Sound talking to Meklit about her inspiration as a musician, her senior fellowship at TED Global and her collaborative history.

What inspired you to become a professional musician?

I started making music seriously in 2004, when I had just moved to the Bay Area. It was something I had wanted to do all my life but it came slowly and in small ways. First, voice lessons, then becoming part of a community of organizers for the Mission Arts and Performance Project (MAPP), then performing at MAPP, then my own shows, then more shows. So, I began because I knew I had to do it for the sake of my own soul and my own joy in life. But I kept going because it was working. A kind of momentum began to build with every bit of energy and time investment. Every step I took towards music, music took ten steps towards me. It took about three years to realize I could really do this in life, and it took six years before I was doing it full time. I think we have a lot of myths from the media that people just start out great…. and maybe have all the support from the beginning. And yes, sometimes that happens. But other times, it builds slowly and steadily. You get good along the way; you grow while the crowd is watching. And it takes courage. But it sure is fun! 

What or who were your major influences as you were starting out your career?

Well I think influences work in interesting ways. It’s not just about people that came before you, though of course that is part of the story. But a city can be an influence, a work of visual art, a state of mind. I believe that Addis Ababa, Brooklyn and San Francisco have made huge impacts on my music. They are my sonic homelands. I also like to say that my voice teachers were some of my greatest influences, because they taught me that the range and capacity of the human voice can be limitless.

The sculptor James Turrell has been a major influence on me as well. He makes these chambers of light and sky, one of which is found at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. In 2009 I was commissioned to create work based on Turrell’s piece Three Gems. When you walk into the sculpture, you get a sense of lift and sinking into yourself. I thought, “that’s the feeling I want to create in my music!!!”

In terms of the line of musicians that shaped me, people like Mulatu Astatke, Bjork, David Byrne, Aster Aweke, Cesaria Evora come to mind. And then also my friends and community, for example, all the musicians in the Nile Project have become huge influences, especially the women: Alsarah, Dina El Wedidi, Selamnesh Zemene, Sophie Nzayisenga, Kasiva Mutua.

Can you tell us a bit about your position as a TED Global and Senior Fellow?

It is amazing to be a part of a network of world changing innovators, where you learn so much from other young folks thinking outside-the-box, making real impacts in every field imaginable, and you have a couch to sleep in pretty much any city you can imagine! I was part of the very first class of Global Fellows in 2009 and was able to attend the conference in Oxford, as well as receive amazing training in speaking and communicating about ideas. I also gave my first TED talk about the Arba Minch Collective, a group of Ethiopian Diaspora artists I had founded in order to make regular trips to Ethiopia to stay connected with the burgeoning world of arts and culture there.

In 2012 I became a Senior Fellow and attended four TED conferences focusing on the Nile Project, an initiative I co-founded with Egyptian Ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis. The Nile Project brings together musicians from the eleven countries of the Nile to learn from one another and to share and create music together. We see ourselves as creating a model for the type of communication we would like to see in East Africa, both around how we share water, see our ecologies, and connect culturally. In 2012, I gave my second TED talk about the Nile Project.

You’ve collaborated with a wide range of artists – what is it that fired your interest and made you want to work with them?

With the Nile Project, I was interested in learning from and connecting with musicians from across Eastern Africa, specifically in a way that could positively impact the world around us. The musicians in the project are heavy hitters, beautiful souls, and innovating within tradition in such an exciting way.

In 2012, I released two collaborative albums: CopperWire’s Eartbound – an Ethiopian hip-hop space opera, and Meklit & Quinn – exploring the soul roots of rock music. With CopperWire, I was interested in being more theatrical, delving into ideas of how we think about the future, and using the powerful metaphors of space travel and intergalactic distances to explore very real questions of cultural connection. With Meklit & Quinn, which was many cover songs, I was making a statement about my American side, looking at the roots of popular culture and singing songs that we loved.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out forging your musical career?

Practice everyday no matter what… even if you can only do a short time. It’s the small moments that lead to the big leaps.

If you are a singer or a melodicist, learn some percussion. If you are a percussionist, learn some melody! Reach across into other musical ways of thinking – you will be surprised at how much opens. And you will always have a way out when you feel stuck.

Creativity is partially about volume. Make a lot of songs, and you’ll eventually hit on something good.

People around you always want to tell you which direction they think you should go. Find a few voices you trust, and listen to their genuine feedback. Outside of that, be very discerning about who you allow to tell you what you should and should not be making. You are in it for the long-haul, which means you must be able to live with and be happy about your choices.

Find a way to connect with your deepest values, your purpose, your insight. The best art has continuity between inner and outer. Half the work is finding gems of experience and meaning, the other half is learning to communicate it through your voice, your hands, your body.

Invest in and support the community of artists and musicians around you. If you do, you will open doors you had no idea were there, and the support you find in return will be a buoy when you need it most.

What is the thing you’re most looking forward to about being Brighter Sound’s Artistic Director in Residence?

I’m looking forward to so many things: getting to know the community of songwriters, instrumentalists, musicians, thinkers, do-ers, movers, shakers in the UK. I’m looking forward to engaging in a process of experimenting together, learning from one another, and exploring ways of getting music out into the world that have not been tried before. We all know the music industry is in a crisis moment, yet there is more great music than ever. I think the new solutions to our industry woes is going to come from people putting their heads together and trying out ways of making meaningful music in new contexts. Can’t wait to dive in!