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Millions on the Margins: Music, Ethnicity, and Censorship Among the Oromo of Ethiopia


This dissertation will demonstrate how music among the Oromo people of present day Ethiopia functions as a system for the preservation and negotiation of a uniquely Oromo identity, as well as a vehicle for resistance against the hegemony long ago established by outside ethnic groups. I will demonstrate how a long history of censorship of Oromo music by various ruling elites has made censorship one of the major features of Oromo social and aesthetic processes. This dissertation will therefore investigate the dynamic of the processes and dialogues through which Oromo identity becomes manifested, and in which music plays a deep role. In Ethiopia, a nation officially "independent" of European colonialism, "Ethiopian" culture was always equated with that of an ethnic minority. Not until the fall of Haile Selassie were the voices of other histories and previously peripheral groups given a chance to participate in the dialogue of Ethiopian statehood. I will use my ethnographic research from the US to Ethiopia to explore the relationship between performance art and state power in Ethiopia. Marginalized under Selassie, embraced and then shunned under the Derg and the current regime of Meles Zenawi, Oromo music demonstrates these complicated relationships. Oromos use music to "remember" past histories, bolster a sense of community among Oromo speaking groups, and fuel anti-colonial nationalism directed not at a European invader, but a black African one. Oromo music is used by the current regime in Ethiopia to present a face of multiculturalism. Yet while the government selectively preserves Oromo culture, Oromo musicians continue to be imprisoned, intimidated, and disappeared for making certain kinds of music. Because of this, various forms of censorship (both external and internal) have become a part of the Oromo music making process. Ethnic identity in general, and Oromo identity in particular, is performative. Music, like the ethnic identity it is used to bolster, is a performative act that creates a space for a polyvocal and heterogeneous dialogue through which Oromo identity is constituted. What can the relationship between Oromo music and the Ethiopian state tell us about ethno-nationalism, censorship, and memory? What does the selective preservation on the part of both Oromo and the Ethiopian government tell us about the role of performance in maintaining history and ethnic identity?

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