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Going “main stream”?

I keep coming across articles about how certain trends are becoming part of the “mainstream” and I constantly struggle to understand what that really means. So many news articles and video pieces about Ethiopian food or music going mainstream has been on my mind. Main stream implies that there are other streams, like the stream I grew up in,  the stream of other cultures. So the question then becomes who picks the main one? Whose stream is the main one? What does that mean about the “other” streams? Is it a numbers question?

I constantly think about this as I go to Ethiopian restaurants in Europe or North America and find them fully booked with non-Ethiopian locals of the respective countries. And now with the craze over teff and its appeal to the in-style gluten free diets, hearing a Californian or someone from Toronto who have never thought of traveling to Ethiopia or even care much for the country order “misir wot” or “shiro” is a very interesting sight to see.  

I was thinking about all of this as I was preparing to go to a sold out Mulatu Astatqe concert last night in Oakland, California. As expected the majority, and by that I mean over 80 per cent, of the about 700 or so attendees were not Ethiopian, or even black. The crowd clapped and danced as he performed “yekermew sew” and “Netsanet” without necessarily knowing what either one meant or their translation in a language they understand.

 Growing up and living in Addis Ababa, I am among the millions that eat injera with wot and watched Mulatu play on Ethiopian Television for years. I find it beautiful that so many people who probably cannot place Ethiopia on a map are eating her food, discovering her culture and her music right where there are. Ethiopian culture has taken off. But there is something to be said about how expensive accessing these spaces is. Ethiopian food, art, live concerts do not come cheap, by the standards of the different countries in Europe or North America, so much so that the diaspora cannot afford them.

So, is that what going “mainstream” means? When the people who are from that culture are no longer the ones that go the places where their culture is going? I find this to be very scary, and to be honest I cannot remain a silent observer. On the one hand I think it is fantastic that Ethiopian artists, from our musicians to painters, sculptures and much more, are getting wider recognition for the beautiful work they are doing. The value of their artwork is increasing.

On the other hand, there is an Amharic saying that sums it up for me “በእጅ የያዙት ወርቅ እንደ መዳብ ይቆጠራል” which roughly means that we do not value what is at hand. We have taken our art and artists for granted, we have not given them their due respect and recognition. This often translated into their art not making as much money as it is worth. With the “mainstream” recognition, Ethiopian art is being exported beyond the country’s borders and having an impact on those that have never had the chance to experience the “Ethiopian stream”.

What makes culture so beautiful is that it moves and changes and morphs into new waves by clashing and mixing and gently grazing with other cultures. So let me leave you with the question that I keep asking myself, can you separate art from the culture and the people that birthed it?