Hachalu Hundessa – Ethiopia’s murdered musician who sang for freedom

  • 2 July 2020

More than 80 people have been killed in two days of unrest in Ethiopia following the killing of prominent singer Hachalu Hundessa.

The 34-year-old had emerged as a powerful political voice of the Oromo ethnic group, and had made many enemies during his musical career.

Two suspects were arrested after he was shot dead while driving in the capital, Addis Ababa on Monday evening. However, police have not yet revealed a motive for the killing and no charges have been brought against the suspects.

Hachalu is due to be buried later today.

BBC Afaan Oromoo’s Bekele Atoma writes about the musician who was a thorn in the flesh of successive governments.

A former political prisoner who grew up looking after cattle, Hachalu rose to become one of Ethiopia’s biggest music stars, mesmerising fans with his songs about romance and political freedom – topics that he easily blended into his lyrics.

Hachalu’s father, who used to work in the electricity department in the city of Ambo, aspired for his son to become a doctor, but he showed little interest in medicine.

However, from an infant, Hachalu showed a passion for music and singing, with the encouragement of his mother, while he looked after cows on the family’s farmland on the outskirts of Ambo in the Oromia region, the heartland of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

“I used to sing whatever came to my head,” he recalled in a BBC Afaan Oromoo interview in 2017.

Jailed for five years

One of eight children, Hachalu was born in 1986 in Ambo – a city about 100km (60 miles) west of the capital, Addis Ababa.

It was at the forefront of the campaign by Oromos for self-rule in a nation where they felt repressed under a government that had banned opposition groups and jailed critics.

Hachalu went to school in Ambo, and joined student groups campaigning for freedom.

At the age of 17 in 2003, Hachalu was imprisoned for five years for his political activities.

His father kept his morale high in prison, telling him during visits that “prison makes a man stronger”.

Hachalu became increasingly politicised in prison, as he increased his knowledge about Ethiopia’s history, including its rule by emperors and autocrats.

Hachalu Hundessa
I did not know how to write lyrics and melodies until I was put behind bars”
Hachalu Hundessa
Ethiopian singer in 2017

Whilst incarcerated in Ambo prison he also developed his music skills.

“I did not know how to write lyrics and melodies until I was put behind bars. It is there that I learned,” he said in the 2017 interview.

During his time in jail, he wrote nine songs and released his first album Sanyii Mootii (Race of the King) in 2009, a year after walking free.

Refused to go into exile

The album turned him into a music star, and a political symbol of the Oromo people’s aspirations.

However, he played down his political role, saying: “I am not a politician, I am an artist. Singing about what my people are going through doesn’t make me a politician.”

Many other musicians and activists fled into exile fearing persecution under the rule of then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn but Hachalu remained in Ethiopia and encouraged the youth to stand up for their rights.

One of his songs was about how he fell in love with a girl who was proud of her identity and was willing to die for it.

‘Gallant warriors and horsemen’

His second album Waa’ee Keenya (Our Plight) was released in 2013 while he was on a tour in the US. It became the best-selling African album on Amazon at the time.

Two years later, he released a powerful single, Maalan Jira? (What existence is mine?), referring to the eviction of Oromos from Addis Ababa and its surrounding areas, after the government decided to expand the boundaries of the city.

For Hachalu, the 2015 displacements showed that history was repeating itself.

He shared the view of Oromo historians that what is currently known as Addis Ababa was once the home of the Tulama clans of the Oromo, and they were forced out by Emperor Menelik II.

In June, Hachalu angered the emperor’s supporters after he accused Menelik II of stealing the horses of Oromos – who see themselves as gallant warriors and horsemen – when he established Addis Ababa as his seat of power, and Ethiopia’s capital in 1886.

Hachalu’s songs became the anthem of the protest movement which emerged in 2015 to demand an end to the displacement of Oromos.

At a time of heightened protests at the end of 2017, Hachalu released another song.

“Do not wait for help to come from outside, a dream that doesn’t come true. Rise, make your horse ready and fight, you are the one close to the palace,” he sang, often to cheers from his fans.

‘Singer was fearless’

The protests snowballed into a campaign for greater political freedom, culminating with Ahmed Abiy becoming the first Oromo to take the post of prime minister in 2018 with a promise to release all political prisoners, unban opposition groups and hold democratic elections.