Haacaaluu Hundeessaa: A towering musician and an Oromo icon

Haacaaluu inspired a whole generation of Oromos to fight for their rights. His tragic death is an incalculable loss.

Haacaaluu Hundeessaa
Ethiopian musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was assassinated on June 29 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia [File: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri]

There are not many artists in East Africa who get to witness their own stellar achievement in their lifetime. Haacaaluu Hundeessa, the undisputed king of contemporary Oromo music of resistance (also known as Geerarsa), did. Such was the explosive impact of Haacaaluu’s songs that many within his Oromo community saw him as indispensable to their struggle for political emancipation.

Haacaaluu inspired the Qubee generation (ethnic Oromos born after Ethiopia was restructured along ethno-linguistic lines in 1991 and educated in their mother tongue) and his music served as a rallying anthem during the 2015-2018 Oromo protests and beyond. His intensely political lyrics both refined and clarified the enduring nature of state-sponsored Oromo marginalisation.

When Haacaaluu was assassinated by unidentified assailants on June 29 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia lost not just a strikingly talented musician, but also a political and cultural icon. His assassination sent shockwaves across the country, particularly in Oromia, the Oromo-majority region of Ethiopia, and triggered major protests in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

At least 160 people have been killed in the ensuing clashes and more than 1,000 arrested, including leading figures of the Oromo opposition parties, such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, Shigut Geleta, and others.

Amid the violence, millions of Ethiopians are mourning the death of a towering artistic figure who inspired a peaceful political struggle against repression and paved the way for major political change.

From humble beginnings to international fame

Born in 1986 in Ambo, a storied city in the Oromia state about 100km west of Addis Ababa, Haacaaluu was the fifth son of Hundeessa Bonsa, an electricity department employee, and Gudatu Hora, a stay-at-home mum. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Haacaaluu showed little interest in academic studies.

From early on, he had a passion for art and music. With the support of his mother, Haacaaluu honed his craft at a young age while looking after cattle on the outskirts of Ambo.

He came of age at a time when the ruling elites saw the Oromo as a potential threat and Oromos from all walks of life were subjected to widespread repression based on actual or imputed opposition to the government. The state violence triggered growing resistance within the community

Haacaaluu attended school in Ambo, a city that came to symbolise and represent the tenacity and unyielding determination of the Oromo protest movement of 2015-2018. In high school, Haacaaluu joined a school club where he began singing and participating in a clandestine student movement at a time when high schools and colleges became dissident political spaces and came under intense government surveillance and policing.

In 2003, at the age of 17, he was accused of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an Oromo nationalist organisation which at that time was banned, and was sent to jail.

Prison did not break Haacaaluu’s determination. It shaped him into the towering musical genius and the cultural and political icon that he became. It helped him understand the precarity and vulnerabilities associated with his identity, it gave him time to read Ethiopian history, it made him a revolutionary agent and a voice for change. Having never been charged, he was released after five years.

In 2009, Haacaaluu burst onto Ethiopia’s music scene with his first album, Sanyii Mootii (Royalty). He wrote most of the lyrics in prison, and the record-breaking album propelled the 22-year-old to national stardom.

In June 2015, he released his mesmerising single track, Maalan Jira (What existence is mine), in which he condenses the history and story of the Oromo people with an astonishing depth. The song was a kind of an ethnographic foray into the precarious existence of the Oromo within the Ethiopian state where the conditions for cultural intelligibility – of visibility and audibility – were determined according to templates hostile to the Oromo. Referring to experiences of dispossession and landgrabs that led to the eviction of more than 150,000 Oromo farmers from around Addis Ababa, he sang:

Diiganii gaara sanaa gaara diigamuu hin mallee

Nu baasaan addaan baanee

Nu addaan bahu hin mallee

[They demolished that landscape that was never meant to be demolished

They separated us, we are separated

We were not meant to be separated]

Rooted in a kind of existential crisis, Maalan Jira was a powerful indictment of the disquieting Oromo experience and the fundamental structural anomaly built into the very fabric of the Ethiopian state. Maalan Jira is a poetic expression of experiences of precarity, a tune that silently, yet profoundly, animated the fledging nation-wide protest movement. 

Released a few months after the Ethiopian government launched the Addis Ababa Integrated Masterplan, which would have expanded the territorial limits of the city into neighbouring Oromia towns and villages, and four months before the start of the Oromo protests, Maalan Jira served as the soundtrack of the Oromo revolution that eventually forced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn out of office.

In October of 2017, Haacaaluu released Jirra (We are Here), a sequel to Maalan Jira. The new song was a statement of endurance, resilience and self-affirmation. It highlighted the culture-shifting transformations taking root within the Oromo community and the Ethiopian political landscape. It was a redemptive thrill that affirms the collective optimism of the Oromo people, a definitive confirmation that this is no longer a culture in jeopardy or a society in decline, but one in the middle of a robust ascendancy.

In December 2017, Haacaaluu delivered a monumental performance at the Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa, attended by high-ranking public officials from the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), including Abiy Ahmed and current defence minister, Lemma Megersa.

As soon as Haacaaluu occupied the stage, the scene immediately felt magical. His first simple utterances, ashamaa (hello), ashamaa, ashamaa, radiated a rush of emotions like a burst of spiritual energy in those who understand the Gerarsa repertoire and its unconscious grammar.

As he walked the stage like a lion walking around his pride, Haacaaluu evoked an outpouring of emotional exuberance, rarely experienced by the Oromo, agitating and stirring something deep in his adoring audience. In an emphatic node to the emergent potential to collectively overcome precarity, he asked the audience, “Jirtuu? Jirtuu? Jirtuu?” (Are you here? Are you here?), electrifying the whole concert hall.

That performance and the public response to it strengthened the hands of the Oromo wing of the EPRDF and ushered in political change. Less than four months later, Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo himself, was sworn in as the new prime minister of Ethiopia.    

An Oromo icon

Haacaaluu became the embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Oromos. He was not just a great musician who could unwaveringly maintain near-perfect pitch even in the highest register, he was also a rhetorical genius of incalculable imaginative and creative power.

He used his artistic tools to engage in the most profound and edifying reflections on issues of identity, dispossession, precarity, marginalisation and love. Without exception, his songs encapsulate some of the most complex, subtle and painful narrations about the reality of the Oromo experience within the Ethiopian state: the political repression, the cultural subordination, and the economic deprivation the Oromo have been suffering for decades.

Haacaaluu did not just speak truth to power, he sang truth to power. And the people sang with him. He made many people, especially those in power, awfully uncomfortable. And so he made many enemies. In his last interview, he spoke about how he lived with constant death threats. He gave details of how he narrowly escaped the wrath of the security forces after the December 2017 performance.

He also expressed his disappointment at the direction the country has taken and the inability of the government to answer even the most basic of Oromo demands. He said he was working on several songs about the current situation in the country. Like many Oromos, Haacaaluu had initially supported Abiy’s government and his promise of change. 

Haacaaluu’s musical genius helped bring Abiy to power, but his administration’s mishandling of the funeral may now serve as a catalyst for his undoing. Haacaaluu deserved a heroic send-off but the government’s decision to rush his funeral and bury him in Ambo was an affront to his remarkable legacy and a sign of contempt for the Oromo people.

The arrest of prominent Oromo leaders with considerable followings added more fuel to the fire. Amid simmering anger, the country finds itself in a dangerous situation which could bring about more violence and instability.

As Ethiopia’s leadership struggles to contain the crisis, the people continue to mourn. Haacaaluu’s death is an incalculable loss to the Oromo community. He is truly irreplaceable – in the most powerful sense of that word. He was someone who sensed the political wind and had the unique ability to give poetic expression to the distinct experiences of the Oromo with terminal clarity. His songs enchanted the Oromo audience, provided aesthetic and emotional transcendence, and summoned their common deliberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.