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A song by reggae star Teddy Afro confronts Ethiopia's prime minister

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ethiopians are experiencing a dire moment. They face escalating violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis, and many live in fear of giving voice to their political thoughts. But the African country's most popular musician, a reggae star, has released a song that confronts the prime minister head-on. Here's NPR's Eyder Peralta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Just days after hundreds of civilians were slaughtered in western Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed didn't attend funerals. He didn't offer condolences. Instead, he plants trees, and that leads the evening newscast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed confidently heralds Ethiopia's Green Legacy implementation.

PERALTA: The images show Abiy smiling as he digs into the earth to begin planting what he said were billions of trees. The country's elite don't question the math or the ceremony. They just clap.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY AFRO'S "NAIT")

PERALTA: For almost a year, Ethiopia's most popular singer had remained silent. But later that evening, he released "Nait," a song that never mentioned Prime Minister Abiy by name, but the implication is clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIT")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: "Blinded by ethnic hatred," he sings, "he forgot his promise. He plants trees today over tens of thousands of corpses. I'm in pain," Teddy Afro sings, "yet he invites me to enjoy it."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIT")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Teddy Afro tends to write in metaphors, using history, the Bible and the language of forgiveness to shame the ruthless leaders of this country. Back in 2005, another regime ruled Ethiopia. Meles Zenawi was the prime minister, and his brutality was legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAH YASTESERYAL")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: At the peak of that brutality, Teddy Afro released "Jah Yasterseryal." It was a plea for forgiveness from God, but it was also another thinly veiled critique of the regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAH YASTESERYAL")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: "We get a new king, but where is the change?" he sings. Shortly after the release, Teddy Afro was jailed on what many called trumped-up charges, and "Jah Yasteseryal" was banned from the airwaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JAH YASTESERYAL")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Meles died in 2012. And as a popular rebellion toppled his regime in 2018, Teddy Afro once again chronicled the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDDY AFRO'S "ETHIOPIA")

PERALTA: He put out "Ethiopia." It's a triumphant song that captured the euphoria of a young generation who had finally found their voice. At the time, it seemed that every taxi in the city, every shop, every cell phone, every home was playing it all at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ETHIOPIA")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: This was a magical moment in Ethiopia. For the first time, it was possible to speak freely. Long-exiled opposition leaders were welcomed. Peace was made with rebel leaders, and the country welcomed Abiy Ahmed, a new young prime minister who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ETHIOPIA")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: But that moment didn't last. Ethnic clashes erupted across the country. Abiy went to war with the former regime. And as that war dragged on, he went after his critics, throwing thousands in prison for opposing him. In his latest release, "Nait," Teddy Afro says he showed patience - that he stayed quiet for a long time. But, ultimately, the fever dream broke, and Teddy Afro lost hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIT")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: In the highlands of Ethiopia, they call singers Azmaris. Back in the days of the monarchy, they were often the only ones brave enough to speak truth - the only ones brave enough to stand up to the monarchs in the feudal society. They did it in the middle of the night in bars, with verses that were cobbled together quickly. Teddy Afro did it in the middle of the night on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIT")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: "Get away from me, Cain," he sings. "When the chaos ends, the truth will remain." Without naming the Prime Minister, Teddy Afro comes to a haunting realization that the same Prime Minister who had brought so much hope has also shattered the Ethiopian dream - that Abiy Ahmed is no different from the cruel kings who came before him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIT")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: "It's all so painful," he mourns.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIT")

TEDDY AFRO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Addis Ababa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.