Yegna – Ethiopian Empowerment Pop
The Ethiopian girl band Yegna has several times been compared to the British 90’s girl pop group Spice Girls. This is a rather unflattering and simplistic comparison that does not tell you much about the many aspects of Yegna. Although both Yegna and Spice Girls were manufactured groups with 5 distinctive female members, this is pretty much were the similarities start and end. Because Yegna is a lot more than a pop group. It is also a radio drama, a talk show, a community, and a part of the ambitious Girl Hub aid project funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the Nike Foundation and aimed at empowering girls.
While Yegna has no empty mantra like the Spice Girls’ ‘Girl Power’, it is articulated as an effort to bring the ‘Girl Effect’ into action. And while Yegna and the wider Girl Hub project have received criticism from both serious and unserious sides for being ineffective and expensive, from an artistic and music critique perspective we only have admiration and praise for Yegna. The debut single Abet (‘We are here’ in Amharic) was a decent collaboration with Haile Roots with some encouraging lyrics and a compelling video. However, it was really Yegna’s second single Taitu (named after the famous Ethiopian Empress) that left us amazed. Taitu features the legendary Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke, and the video is extraordinary and portrays a moving journey from the Ethiopian countryside to the country’s most extravagant spot, the Sheraton hotel in Addis.
We got the chance to ask the Yegna team about the video, the group’s music and the 5 Yegna characters. Find out below what they had to tell us about this innovative pop empowerment project.
How did the idea to Yegna come about?
Yegna, meaning ‘ours’ in Amharic, is a radio drama, talk show and music. It was created after speaking to more than a thousand girls about the challenges they face in their everyday lives such as early marriage and pregnancy, violence, and school drop out. Many of these problems are reinforced by attitudes – for instance, more than 70% of women in Ethiopia think it’s acceptable for a woman to experience domestic violence at the hands of her husband. Yegna characters and storylines have been co-designed with behavioural change experts to help change those attitudes by role modelling positive behaviour
The 5 characters – Melat, Mimi, Emuye, Sara and Lemlem – appear very stereotypical: one is a caring country-girl, another sophisticated socialite, a third a swaggering street girl etc. Why did you decide on this approach?
Yegna tells the story of five girls from different backgrounds that all face individual challenges but come together to form a band and strong friendships. We wanted to create character archetypes that all girls could relate to. The Yegna radio drama uses role models, both male and female, to shift attitudes and behaviours towards girls. The storylines address issues such as violence against girls, access to education, child marriage and teenage pregnancy. The Yegna talk show encourages listeners to reflect on the realities of girls’ lives and sparks discussion between family and friends.
How are the topics that are discussed in the different episodes selected?
The writers of the drama regularly carry out a series of focus group discussions and interviews with girls, boys, parents and other community members in Addis and the Amhara region to listen to what people have to say about the issues facing girls. This helps the team create realistic storylines for the drama and themes for the talk show, that put girls’ voices at the centre.
Each episode includes a new song by the band. What are the sources of inspiration for their music and who produces the Yegna music?
Yegna music celebrates girls and their potential and acts as a hook into the drama. All of the Yegna songs are based on traditional Ethiopian music – but with a modern twist. Yegna’s debut single ‘Abet’ won single of the year at the listeners awards. The Yegna music is produced by Abegasu Kibrework Shiota, a well know Ethiopian music producer. Haile Roots, Jah Lude and Aster Aweke have all collaborated with Yegna.
The ‘Taitu’ video with Aster Aweke is fantastic and probably the best produced Ethiopian video to date. Tell us about the creation of the video.
Thank you! We created ‘Taitu’, in collaboration with one of Ethiopia’s biggest music stars Aster Aweke, to increase awareness of the Yegna brand and drive more listeners to the radio drama and talk show. Taitu is a tribute to Queen Taitu and to all the girls who share her courage and conviction. The video aims to inspire girls to dream big and achieve their dreams. ‘Taitu’ was shot entirely in Ethiopia and produced by Ethiopian company Mango Productions PLC. It was directed by Darren Grant, who has also created music videos for international stars such as Destiny’s Child.
The second series of Yegna recently finished. What should we expect from the third series?
In series three the drama will be exploring the issue of sexual harassment in schools. An issue we know affects as lot of girls. Plus there’ll be plenty more great music from the Yegna band.
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