Theory Teacher's Blog

Cyber Hip Hop in Diaspora… multicultural, multinational, glocal, transnational, post-national…

With some pride, I want to announce the new issue of Ogina: Oromo Arts in Disapora, the new “webzine” (on-line magazine) that I help to edit. This issue has been praised by Oromo websites and blogs here, here, here, and here. Naturally, it is very exciting for me to be a part of this adventure and to be a part of what I have previously in this blog called the “Oromo Renaissance.” As I mentioned there, most Americans don’t know who the Oromo are, even though they are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and this sudden flourishing of cultural activity has only recently become possible because of a more tolerant Ethiopian government and a newly globalized Oromo culture. The new issue of Ogina focuses on hip hop and spoken word poetry, and it features several artists, an interview with two of them, and an essay about how the internet changes the nature of culture and politics by creating a transnational public sphere.

What that essay by Qeerransoo Biyyaa argues is that Oromo hip hop is a glocal phenomenon because it brings together a global art form and a local political movement. However, Qeerransoo Biyyaa raises important questions about the internet as a tool for cultural and political communication. On the one hand it allows displaced Oromo refugees a means to share their cultural identity all over the world, but on the other hand, less than 1% of Oromo living in Ethiopia have access to a computer.

Making such observations, Qeerransoo Biyyaa raises some important theoretical questions about the very nature of culture itself as well as the nature of what the philosopher  Jürgen Habermas calls the “public sphere.” Such questions are clearly important to many Oromo in the United States and Canada who are refugees living in exile, and since my blog is a “theory teacher blog,” I want to draw attention to how he is using theory to make very practical observations about his culture and about the possibilty of political agency for his people.

But here I will raise yet another question. What is the best concept for describing the kind of cultural activity we are seeing here?

Before you continue reading this blog post, please take a moment to think about how many times you’ve heard the words “multicultural” or “multiculturalism.” Probably a lot, and since the early 1990s, it has become popular for Americans to say that we live in a multicultural society. Instead of the proverbial “melting pot” metaphor in which everyone is supposed to assimilate to a single national culture, we now celebrate the “salad bowl” of different cultures all mixed together. To celebrate our cultural diversity is to participate in the ideology of multiculturalism.

But is multiculturalism really the best concept? Certainly, in my view, it’s better than monoculturalism (a.k.a. national chauvenism) which argues for a homogenous culture and celebrates that one culture as somehow superior to all others. But multiculturalism’s celebration of diversity (as I have mentioned in my previous blog post on intercultural competency) can sometimes seem a little shallow. We’re all different, hooray? Is that it? Certainly there’s more to multiculturalism than that, and indeed there is. Theorists of multiculturalism are very serious about not only the importance of cultural recognition but also the problems of cultural recognition when it is understood as an end in itself. In other words, for many, the true end — or goal — of multiculturalism ought to be social justice, not the naive celebration of difference.

However, as many scholars and journalists have pointed out, all the while that people in the United States were celebrating their multicultural nation in the mid-1990s, large multinational corporations such as Nike and Wal-Mart were moving their factories overseas where they could find a cheaper and more powerless workforce to exploit. For the Oromo living in Ethiopia, such global trade was both good and bad. It was good because it opened up large markets for their biggest commercial product — coffee. But it was bad because the multinational corporations controlled the market and left the Oromo people politically powerless, economically dependent, and socially traumatized. In fact, an award winning movie Black Gold analyzed this problem and proposed fair trade coffee organizations such as Equal Exchange as a possible solution.

At the same time that we notice the rise of multinational corporations in a more globalized economy, we also notice another phenomenon. Not only are there more immigrants, but — because of new technologies such as the telephone, television, and the internet — immigrants are remaining more and more emotionally, culturally, and even politically attached to their homeland. Hence, just as multinational corporations are not based in any single nation-state but operate in many nations around the globe, so are diasporic communities such as the Oromo also multinational — living and operating as a single culture in many different nations. The concept “multicultural” doesn’t really capture this phenomenon, so today we use the word “transnational” to better explain the movement of commodities, capital, culture, and people across national borders. And what about communities such as the Oromo and Native Americans who have never felt fully at home within their own homeland and who have never been fully enfranchised by the national government to which they are subject? Aren’t they essentially transnational communities, even if they never emigrate?

However, though we may throw around terms such as transnationalglobal, and glocal, the nation-state has not disappeared (as the recent effort to strengthen the border between the United States and Mexico indicates.) The nation-state is still the primary political structure available to people through which to adjudicate legal disputes and deliberate on policy. But in terms of both cultural identity and business practices, it has become more confusing and complicated. Some people such as John Carlos Rowe argue that the word transnational is too weak. It doesn’t draw enough attention to the conflicting senses of identity and the challenges of governing multinational corporations and transnational communities. Since the old model assumed that the nation-state governs people and their business inside a nation, how do we govern people and businesses that seems to exist in more than one nation or between nations? Rowe favors the word “post-national” because, he argues, the very strangeness of that made-up word actually calls attention to itself as a fundamentally paradoxical situation.

So, which of these words — multicultural, transnational, glocal, multinational, transnational, global, or post-national — provides us with the best conceptual lens through which to see our world today?

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December 17, 2008 - Posted by | global, music, Oromia

5 Comments »

  1. Dear Dr Thomas,
    This analysis a well written piece. You’ve dealth with the issues at length and breadth. But I have one comment a few comments about your attibution of the flourishing Oromo cltural activity to the tolerance of the Ethiopian government.

    One statement in your recent blog is so disputable. In the first paragraph of your analysis you say this: ….sudden flourishing of cultural activity has only become possible because of a more tolerant Ethiopian government. The underlined clause is not true because since 1991 the violence against Oromos increased exponentially and I have seen by my own eyes ethnic cleanings being committed against civilians by government militias-the killings of over 400 Oromos and internal displacement of over 10, 000 only in May 2008 in Western Oromia, the imprisoning of over 100 Oromo intellegentia, business persons, students and farmers in the month of October 08, the 2003 genocide agaisnt the Anuak people, the scortching of villages in Ogaden and so on are facts that indicate the regime is not tolerant to contrary of your statement. I would attribute the increased cultural activity amongst the Oromos to the formation of diasporas who have been feeing these violence and also to the perseverance and struggle of the population at home. They have struggled hard and paid heavy sacrifices to unveil the history of repressed Oromos and others to the rest of humanity. However, there is still a huge ignorance in the west about the extent of political and economic exclusions of the Oromos people tens of other Southern States in Ethiopia.

    Well, you are entitled to your opinon, but I would revise that if I were you because there will be a lot people who will read it and take offense. I did not personally, I am just commenting because you may not be fully aware of the facts on the ground. The world our people live in is more like Darfur when to some what happens is nothing but a figures. The only difference is the just struggle of the Oromonot and ther est of the other fellows oppressed peoples in Ethiopia did not receive is because the regime successfully manipulated the west and mainly the US in to hid its attrocities. Oromos and others in Ethiopia appeal to the US government and the tax payers to stop supporting a brutal regime at the expense of the population with which deplomatic relations better be harnessed sooner than latter. The role of readers of your blog or US students in in exposing a brutal regime in Finfinnee Addis Ababa will be monumental.

    Oromia or Biyya Oromo (Oromo Land) was there before the conquest of Menilik II (ethnic Amhara) when the Oromos and Southerners were forcefully incorporated in the early 1880s. It is true both the langugage and state were created, not because the Melez-led Tigrian regime wanted that but because our people fought for it and it was impossible to reverse the outcome of the struggle. In 1991 political forces like the OLF were also part of the transitional government and they contributed a lot to invention of the Oromo Latin Alphabet and the nation itself. The 1990s was a time major war between Oromo and Tigre rebels. The war created a lot of immigrants-for example most people Minnesota were uprooted at that time and everyone has a family member who was hurt(killed) in the process. You can look at reports from human rights watch, US State Deapartment and Oromo Support Group and the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa on this. So, the credit can not go to the regime, plus there is more evidence that the regime is intolerant than tolerant.

    I deeply appreciate and respect your through understanding and care for inustice perpetrated against the Oromo people. Please keep writing, and we’ll read and comment.
    Fred Thomson

    Comment by Fred Thomson | December 19, 2008 | Reply

  2. Dear Fred, which I assume is a pseudonym. A rather amusing pseudonym if you google it.

    I didn’t mean to imply that the current Ethiopian regime wasn’t still violently oppressive. If you look at my previous blog post on the Oromo Renaissance, which is linked to this one, you’ll see that I recognize all of that there. I have read the books by Harold Marcus, Gadaa Melbaa, Asafa Jalata, Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibsaa that narrate the history of oppression since the building of the Suez canal in 1869. (And all this really began in 1869, not in the 1880s as you wrongly say–this is not just a conflict inside of Ethiopia the way that you narrate history, but a conflict produced by globalizing geopolitical forces, and this was the point of my blog which you claim to admire but seem not to understand.)

    So, yes, I know that the Ethiopian regime is still very oppressive, and I would agree with you that there are other impotant causes for the recent flourishing of Oromo cultural activity–notably the Oromo in Diaspora but also the new technologies and better political organization of the 1960s that enabled the Oromo to achieve an “ethnonational” consciousness as Jalata has demonstrated in his book “Ethiopia and Oromia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict.” I should have mentioned these causes as well. That was a bad mistake on my part.

    Nevertheless, I should explain what I mean by “tolerant”, because I think you are overstating your case. Consider a few facts that complicate your assertion. (1) Since the revolutions in the 1970s and 80s, there are now Oromo at high levels of government and some Oromo political parties; even though many may be puppets, not all of them are. (2) Since 1991, there are now signs in public that are in the Oromo language with the Roman alphabet. That didn’t exist before. (3) In 1991, they re-named the regions of Ethiopia and the largest is now called “Oromia” and the new system of government is federal rather than unitary, which means that Oromia is now a full-blown state; even if its power is not real because the Tigre regime maintains autocratic power, the name is still there;(4) I have heard that there are elementary schools where Oromo can now be taught alongside Amharic, which didn’t exist before. (5) And as I discussed in my previous blog, Dhaba Wayessa produced the first play in the Oromo language… and where did he produce it? In the National Theater. What do you make of these facts? My guess is that you have nothing to say about them because they don’t fit the standard OLF ideological narrative. I am not afraid to offend ideologues, because those who are honest and care about the truth know where my heart is.

    Consider too about the many causes of death and the sociological complexity of systemic violence, which is rather different than individual acts of violence. Certainly, militaristic acts of political oppression are one of the causes of death, but not the only one. Right now in Ethiopia more people are suffering and even dying because of iodine deficiency, malnutrition, HIV-AIDS, desertification, etc. The Oromo leadership living in diaspora rarely pays attention to these realities because its vision is narrowly ideological.

    So, you are right to point out other causes of the recent Oromo Renaissance, but I think you are wrong in other ways. Perhaps you merely misunderstood what I meant by tolerant. I think there is some cultural space now in Ethiopia for Oromo art and for articulations of Oromo identity. Also, George Bush will soon no longer be president, and we can hope that perhaps the United Nations will finally begin to put pressure on the Ethiopian government to actually become democratic in reality and not just in name. I don’t expect that to happen even with Obama in office, because the United States has in the past prefered to use African governments as tools for the well-being of American corporations rather than tools for the well-being of African people. But we can hope.

    Comment by steventhomas | December 20, 2008 | Reply

  3. It is great you took time to smartly explain what you meant by ‘tolerance’. The disease and malutrion you are talking about are weapons used by the TPLF-regime people as ways of mass control or as one of the horrendous systematic genocides ever committed. The western media has not been bold enough enough to hold the Ethiopian PM responsible for this diseases and violence, where as we hear lot of hoopla about the fact that Mugabe is responsible for the Cholera epidemic!! What a double standard! The reason for this seems to me that what happens in Zimabwe is affecting the Zimbawian white farmers of British heritage. As a believer in mankind rather than ‘black and white”, these lexcons are not in my knowlege set. I sympathize with the white farmers in Zimbabwe whose land was unjsutly confiscated as much as I do with Oromo farmers of experiecing massve uprootings without compensations.

    To me, it is good if people learn and start living this famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere”. This is powerful. I think some great foreign policy ideas can be generated from this famous quote but who will do that?? Obama? I don’t know! But believe in people than in governments wherever that maybe. People can influence their governments peacefully instead of just being dooped by whatever lies politicans tell them.

    Interestingly despite our difference and diversity, I should care and your students should care about injustice that happen far away elsewhere. I know Americans have the heart for freedom and love. Our aim is to make this world a better place, although our methods to do that can create difference of opionin and difference of interest.

    Your points 1 through 4 are progresses that you seem to attribute to the Ethiopian regime, instead of the the struggle of the Oromo people. Are you arguing some OPDO Oromos have succeeded in the regime, therefore there is wholistic freedom? If so why do you think they were unable to stop the attrocities including those on themselves? Here you are not talking about changes in the system. You are talking about individuals who made it in the regime. Even in Hitler’s Germany, there were maltitudes who were serving the Nazi goals even if they knew his ambitons were wrong and ultimately catastrophic. They are also Oromos who are in the system who are afraid to dissent from Zenawi ( a Nazi) although they know his policies are segregationist. They simply afraid to question his actions for their safety and also for fear of losing the lexury cars, houses and undeserved salries that they cannot otherwise make.
    Well, contrary to your assertion that I’m an ideologue working from a certain organizational point of view, I am actually giving my own independent personal views. Don’t judege by the looks! You seem to have OLF-fatigue. That is okay many do have it, but still no better option. Yes, Daba Wayessa produced his Dukkanaan Duuba when OLF was still in Finfinnee and part of the transitional government in the Ethiopian Theatre? And that was totally discontinued afterwards.

    I should say that I am impressed by the depth of your knowlege. I also read those books you mentioned; they are good ones. I think we agree on most of the points. Of course, two individuals cannot have exactly the same points of view on complex social issues and that is the beauty of public sphere-debating about issue as you said.
    Happy Holidays to you and everyone reading!!
    FT

    Comment by Fred Thomson | December 20, 2008 | Reply

  4. […] – notice the difference in preposition) the Oromo, whom I’ve blogged about before here and here  — a people who suffer because Ethiopia’s political alliance with the […]

    Pingback by Theorizing Spaces and the ICC « Theory Teacher’s Blog | April 8, 2009 | Reply

  5. […] webzine devoted to Oromo Arts in Diaspora. I have previously posted on Oromo issues in this blog here and here. Those who don’t know who the Oromo people are, see here. One of the basic tenants […]

    Pingback by Oromo Arts in Diaspora vs. HIV/AIDS « Theory Teacher’s Blog | May 5, 2009 | Reply


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