Sister from Another Planet
The Voice of Meklit Hadero Is Like Nothing and Everything You Have Heard Before
Let's begin with the Station, a Beacon Hill cafe that's small, near the best Link station, and also the very place I'm writing these words on a cloudy day (yesterday was sunny and the sunset was spectacular). Early last year at this cafe, I met Gabriel Teodros—the local rapper, community activist, and humanist—to talk about an album he had then just dropped, Colored People's Time Machine, and his life in general (he had recently returned from visiting his mother's home country, Ethiopia). Teodros, however, was very excited to discuss a project that had consumed a good amount of his time and creative energy in 2011 called Earthbound—a very experimental and conceptual work of science/sonic fiction. It was a space opera recorded in Oakland using the sounds of actual stars or cosmic events recorded by NASA. It involved three artists, whose union was called CopperWire: Teodros, Burntface (a rapper/producer), and Meklit Hadero (a singer).
When Earthbound was released later that year, I was a bit baffled. I had imagined it would be very futuristic, like Drexciya's "Bubble Metropolis" or Model 500's Deep Space. I expected the sounds of rockets, computers, lasers, warp drives, warning signals, and the like. In short, and to use the words of Craig Mack, I thought CopperWire would "kick that old robotic, futuristic, George Jetson, crazy joint!" But what I heard instead was a very soulful, emotional, and earthy record. It was as if the three were traveling in a spaceship filled not with computer monitors and buttons, but with a biosphere (trees, mud, clouds). What kind of futurism was this? It did not make sense to me, until I read these words by the great and late biologist Lynn Margulis in the book Symbiotic Planet: "If people ever journey for extended periods in outer space, the endeavor will never be as machinate and barren as Star Trek. The vision of sterile engineering emancipating us from our planetmates is not only tasteless and boring, it borders on the hideous. No matter how much our own species preoccupies us, life is a far wider system. Life is an incredibly complex interdependence of matter and energy among millions of species beyond (and within) our own skin... Without 'the other,' we do not survive." This was exactly the kind of science/sonic fiction imagined by CopperWire. It was all about life supporting life, life-forms living with other life-forms, life beginning and ending with life (bacteria, bugs, birds).
Then there is Meklit Hadero, a Bay Area–based and Ethiopian-born jazz/soul singer who released a solo album in 2010 called On a Day Like This and has worked extensively with our very own and very talented jazz bassist Evan Flory-Barnes (in fact, she will be performing at Jazz Alley with Flory-Barnes and D'Vonne Lewis, which is half of the emerging local band Industrial Revelation). On the website for CopperWire, Hadero calls herself Ko Ai, a space creature who is a part of "a messenger species who exhibit the half-particle/half-wave dynamics of quantum physics, even at non-quantum sizes. Born in a supernova, Ko Ai now swims through electrical networks, audible acoustic and electromagnetic waves and digital signals. She is adept as a mermaid darting through the ocean. She is a new kind of elemental, and she has problematic revolutionary ideas." I love this description because it captures the strangeness of her voice, which draws from so many musical sources: triphop, hiphop, folk, gospel, indie rock, Ethiopian pop. Indeed, it's so mixed and enchanting and original that it seems to be beamed to Earth from another world, another race of people.
Also, though her voice is very organic and natural in feeling and expression, it is not motherly. In the book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Michele Wallace (a culture critic) describes the common American perception of black women being so motherly, so mammy-heavy, that you would expect to find roots growing from their feet. This is not Hadero. True, she sings about great compassion and sensitivity, but she has poetry, a way of phrasing that's cosmopolitan. There are no roots under her feet.