Ethiopian celebrity, culture and business in the era of social media
Ethiopian ideas of fame are nowhere near the pernicious and convoluted nature of celebrity in the rest of the world but the trend seems to be changing more recently. This transformation is undoubtedly related to our internet culture and the role social media is beginning to play in popular culture.
The growing number of television networks meant doors opened for more content creators and brought focus to actors, musicians, performers and public individuals with unprecedented attention paid to their personal lives.
Being a famous actor, director, author or singer in the past several decades put people in the public eye but may not have disrupted these people’s lives to an extreme degree. If one was so compelled to express love, or dislike, to a famous person they would have to call a radio show or, a now unfathomable action, send them a letter. More often, a celebrity may get recognized on the street, the fan insisting on buying the celebrity lunch then settling on a coffee, the interaction steeped in the awkward and uniquely Ethiopian game of performing politeness.
TV talk shows introduce a more diverse number of people to a wider audience. Fame or celebrity may not be explicitly stated but there are many more people than before that qualify to join the club.
An excellent example of a TV personality propelling many to celebrity status, or at least giving them 15 minutes of airtime is Seifu Fantahun. Obviously modeled on late night American TV programs, Seifu Show walks a line between being informative, entertaining and mildly unfunny.
An element of Seifu’s Show that is fascinating to witness is in the monologue at the top of the show. He presents a series of memes, sometimes related on a topical issue, then thanks the people behind the meme. Real life getting mocked or satirized online then going full circle by seeping back to mainstream media is quite the phenomenon.
Online commentary enters the mainstream and the producers assume the thoughts reflected online work the same way people consume television. Social media functions as an echo chamber, reflecting the commenters' views back to them. We make huge assumptions when we think what we see online is a true reflection of our society. Social media is a space to air all kinds of thoughts - mainstream, edgy or on the fringe - but it doesn’t replace public dialogue.
Comedy can rely on showing the stark difference between traditional assumptions and contemporary reality and the majority of humor found online right now attempts this feat. But contemporary reality is still deeply entrenched in traditional values, a fact that may not be an issue when the creative work remains online but becomes cringeworthy when it enters mainstream media.
The mushrooming of youtubers that have dedicated channels to dissecting popular culture are found at this crossroad. They pose as arbiters to the culture war as globalization, westernization, or whatever other overwhelmingly powerful force ushers in (often unwelcome) change.
Social media has completely altered our interactions with celebrities and transformed the nature of celebrity itself. The vitriol Saron Ayelign continues to receive from these commentators and several online personalities serves as an example of social media fueling attention through controversy.
To those who have never heard of Saron, are not aware of the actress and model’s interactions with the media that have made her notorious, the issue is one of culture. Her offenses - saying she didn’t like eating shiro, dancing provocatively in a music video, her English, and her alleged mixed heritage - continue to be newsworthy several months after the initial statements. All the comments about her can be summed up as stating her actions and statements do not represent Ethiopian identity.
There are dozens of youtube videos dedicated to her, looking at her instagram posts, going through interviews she’s given and magnifying an offhand comment to an exaggerated extent. She’s often the punching bag of primarily male untalented comedians, an easy prey certain to get chuckle. Even when accounts like EthioTroll are lighthearted, the comment section reveals absolute hatred and disdain. Those asking why a 19 year old is being bullied get the same silencing treatment.
Youtube account Sheger Vlogs first says Saron was a good actor in the two films she was in then cast aspersion by claiming no one knew how she got the roles in the first place. Aser Tad, another youtuber, claims he’s tired of featuring Saron in his videos and criticises her for being in the public eye so much but is simultaneously giving her a lot of coverage on his channel. The most frequently heard comment of certain things in the media being ‘outside our culture’ completely forgets that culture changes and it has changed enough for these events to enter the purview of mainstream media.
To Saron’s credit, she has understood the value of fame, whatever the nature, and has used it to propel her career forward. She is endlessly quotable and in many ways, she’s in on the joke too. She went on to joke that the price of shiro went up following her statement, clearly trolling the trolls.
Controversy sells - whether this content appeals to a younger generation or not, as long as it’s racking up views as thousands of people get wrapped up in the drama and ensuing outrange over what’s deemed ‘culturally inappropriate’, the people behind the music and the video will continue to profit. Notoriety is currency too.
When musician Ezzy Esayas was questioned why he chose to include skimpily clad women in his music video his response was that it appealed to a younger generation. Anything transgressive can be said or done because there will be an audience for it, young or not. The things we love or love to hate still grip our attention and controversy will continue to be profitable.
The best thing about the internet is democratized access to a variety of content and giving a platform to a diverse group of individuals that wouldn’t normally have the space in mainstream media outlets. Youtube and tiktok are opening doors for truly innovative creators and giving hope to many young people that there are places available to them for self expression and growth.
However, the ways social media continues to affect our normal lives even without adopting the online persona or brand can be dangerous. This is all without mentioning the misinformation, disinformation and propaganda that plagues political discourse online and offline. Youtubers and meme accounts continue to garner our attention by nitpicking the tiniest idiosyncrasies, focusing on slips of the tongue and mispronunciations and making money. Ethiopian humor can be more interesting than that and we should give our attention to more deserving creators.