Ethiopian-American Artists Make Their Mark Author Dinaw Mengestu is among a generation of Ethiopian Americans whose families fled the East African nation in the 1970s and '80s. Now their writing, music and art are adding a new chapter to the epic of American immigration.
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Ethiopian-American Artists Make Their Mark

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Ethiopian-American Artists Make Their Mark

Ethiopian-American Artists Make Their Mark

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A wave of immigrants is making its mark on the arts. These are young people whose families fled Ethiopia in the 1970s and who came of age in the United States. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that their writing, their music and their art are adding a new chapter to the epic of American immigration.

NEDA ULABY: There's an Ethiopian restaurant near downtown Washington, D.C., one of dozens redolent with the smell of pepper and ginger and buzzing with talk in Amharic, the Ethiopian tongue.

Dinaw Mengestu is an author. He's 29 years old and here to discuss his first novel. It's called "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears," and it came this month to warm reviews. Mengestu is thinking about on the journey that born him here.

Mr. DINAW MENGESTU (Author, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears"): I was born in Addis Ababa in 1978 and left Ethiopia when I was two years old in December of 1980, and then spent the next seven years in Peoria, Illinois. Now Mengestu teaches at Georgetown University and lives in New York City.

ULABY: Incongruous as this path may seem, Mengestu says it began with the bloody revolutions that followed the overthrow of Ethiopia's emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974. Tens of thousands were imprisoned and executed. Mengestu's novel follows a character who, after his father is killed, makes his way to the District of Columbia. He befriends two other Africa exiles and they hang out at a bar where they play one jukebox tune over and over.

Mr. MENGESTU: When the (unintelligible) starts, the three of us lean forward and sing along - but you won't fool the children of the revolution, no you won't fool the children of the revolution.

(Soundbite of song "Children of the Revolution")

T.REX (Music Group): (Singing) You won't fool the children of the revolution, no you won't fool the children of the revolution.

Mr. MENGESTU: Over and over until the song ends. At which point we've all finished our drinks and are ready for another. The first time we heard that song we were sitting two booths farther back. We still worked at the Capitol Hotel. Joseph and Kenneth were sharing an apartment just a few blocks away from the bar. The song played, and Joseph sit up drunkenly and declared, that is us. We are the children of the revolution.

ULABY: Mengestu drew on family history to imagine the past of his main character. Sepha Stephanos eventually opens a grocery in a gentrifying D.C. neighborhood and begins a relationship with a white academic and her biracial child.

At least 22,000 Ethiopians call the District of Columbia home. About half a million live in the United States. Some survived the horrors of the 1970s and 80s, and now their children are trying to make sense both of that period, which they never experienced first hand, and being young and black and African and American here.

Gabriel Teodros is a hip-hop musician who lives in Seattle.

Mr. GABRIEL TEODROS (Musician): Like you hear a lot of songs that talk about, yeah, we're all from Africa. But you don't hear too many songs that say, yeah, we're from Africa but we just came from Africa.

ULABY: Teodros talks about just that in his album "Love Work." It came out late last month.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TEODROS: That is, Ethiopian man. Yeah, me too.

Unidentified Woman: No you're not. (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. TEODROS: (Foreign language spoken)

(Singing) Even though I don't speak in my mother tongue, let there be no confusion bout where I come from. You couldn't tell, huh, we all be...

ULABY: Teodros identifies as part of a rising movement of young writers, artists, and musicians who are figuring out how to explain the various worlds they traverse and the sometimes odd cultural interconnections they find. Take, Teodros says, Jamaica's Rastafarian culture, the trappings of which are popular here. It literally venerates Ethiopia's former emperor.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) What a prophet for Selassie me. (Unintelligible).

Mr. TEODROS: What do Ethiopians think when they come to this country and they see all these people who really don't have too much knowledge about what's going on in Ethiopia, like rocking Haile Selassie on a shirt or wearing red, yellow and green? I think for the most part, like when Ethiopians see that, they're either like flattered, like wow, these people think Ethiopia's really cool, they're representing for it, or they feel that it's cultural appropriation. Like, why do you have the emperor's face on your shirt?

ULABY: Teodros complains that most Americans just associate Ethiopia with famine. But this generation has the pride of being from a place that remained largely independent while other African countries endured decades of European colonization.

Ms. JULIE MEHRETU (Artist): If you go to Addis Ababa, it's not like any other African city that you go to.

ULABY: Julie Mehretu is a painter born in Addis Ababa. She's 36 and an art world star. Her work is coveted by collectors and fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mehretu was brought up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and she's lived in New York and Senegal.

Ms. MEHRETU: You go to Dakar and you have boulevards that come from Paris. In Nairobi you can get away from the poverty in the city. You have these ghettoes where most poor people live in and you have the very wealthy areas, which is a colonial tendency. You don't have that in Addis Ababa.

ULABY: What you have in Addis Ababa is a truly indigenous city. Julie Mehretu's father teaches geography. And in her huge paintings Mehretu layers together fragments of maps and architectural drawings into a shattered whole with shapes and markings that seem to have a meaning of their own, says Mik Awake. He covers arts and letters for an Ethiopian-American magazine called Tadias.

Mr. MIK AWAKE (Reporter, Tadias): There's this whole language she's more or less invented that draws not just from one tradition or another, Ethiopian or American, but it's just this completely new and incredibly ambitious take on the world as a kind of gathering place where all these different symbols, divorced of any kind of direct connection, meet, converge and separate.

ULABY: The power of people in history and their ability to claim space may be a recurrent idea in Ethiopian-American art, letters and music, says Awake. He says like every first generation in America that's preceded them, this one has new answers to the question of who Americans are.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: And you can read and hear excerpts from the book, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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