Minnesota’s Oromo community demands justice after musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa is killed in Ethiopia

'He is our icon. He is a father figure,' says a protest leader in St. Paul

People at the State Capitol raise their hands during a protest.
Two hundred protesters from Minnesota's Oromo community gathered at the State Capitol Tuesday to protest the killing of musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa in Ethiopia.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Minnesota’s Oromo community is mourning Hachalu Hundessa and demanding justice for the musician and activist who was shot and killed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Monday night. He was 34.

Two hundred protesters gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, calling for justice for Hundessa. 

“I can’t express in words how much he meant to my generation,” said Dahir Wako, who helped lead the protest in St. Paul. “He is our icon. He is a father figure.”

Hundessa was considered “the soundtrack of the Oromo revolution,” Awol Allo, a professor at Keele University in England, told the New York Times. His songs, which encouraged Oromo people to stand up against repression, became protest anthems in a years-long popular uprising that resulted in the resignation of the previous prime minister in 2018.

Details surrounding Hundessa’s killing were initially scarce, though Reuters quoted police as saying it was a planned attack. The artist’s slaying drew widespread condemnation from Ethiopians inside and outside the country, including the prime minister, the New York Times reported.

News reports said thousands of Hundessa’s fans came to the hospital where his body was taken, and protests broke out across the country. There were three explosions in Addis Ababa, the capital, according to Reuters. At least nine protesters were killed and more than 70 others injured. Internet service was shut down across the country as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has previously been criticized for his response to protests, called for calm.

Najat Hamza, who helped organize the demonstration in St. Paul, said she was protesting because of continued persecution of the Oromo people.

“Yesterday we were all minding our business when we got the news of our artist being shot down in the capital,” she said. “They shot him down and then everything went to hell, basically.”

It was difficult to see youth protesters attacked, political leaders arrested, and a community media source shut down, she added. “This is complete chaos.”

Hundessa performed at the Epic Event Center in Minneapolis in 2013. Data from Spotify shows that Minneapolis has the second-most monthly streamers of his music of any city after Toronto. 

Minnesota politicians including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter tweeted their condolences for Hundessa.

“Smart, witty, jovial, defiant, and articulate, he is the consummate man of the people,” Mohammed Ademo wrote in a profile for OPride, a news and analysis website for the Oromo diaspora, naming Hundessa the Oromo Person of the Year in 2017. “He walks with the full dignity and weight of the nation, for whose suffering and yearning he is singing, on his outsized shoulders. And [he] is a genius when it comes to connecting with the Oromo, especially the youth, with his lyrics.”

The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but have long been subject to cultural repression, arrests, forced disappearances, torture, and state killings. Hundessa was arrested while still in high school and spent five years in jail. Instead of breaking his spirit, the experience deepened his commitment to the struggle and understanding of Oromo oppression. His first album consisted of songs he had mostly written in prison.

Abiy, who is Oromo, received the Nobel Peace Prize last year for beginning to restore freedoms in Ethiopia and restarting peace talks with Eritrea. But he has received criticism for how his regime has handled protests. One of his leading critics, Jawar Mohammed, who founded the Oromia Media Network while a Minnesota resident, has in the past blasted the prime minister for blocking the Internet and crackdowns on protests. 

Hundessa appeared in an interview last week with the Oromia Media Network, the New York Times reported, where he was critical of Abiy’s leadership.

Federal police in Ethiopia arrested Jawar, a political rival of Abiy, when his bodyguards refused to disarm on Tuesday, Reuters reported. After police raided the Oromia Media Network’s headquarters, the network sent broadcasts via satellite from Minnesota.

Protesters at the Capitol in St. Paul said that people all over the diaspora were calling for justice for both Hundessa and the Oromo people.

“We are protesting the government to do something about it, because a lot of people have been imprisoned, a lot of people have been tortured, a lot of people have been abused,” said Tiyu Tahiro at the Capitol in St. Paul. “This is not democratic. This is not freedom.”

Jaida Grey Eagle contributed reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach and Jaida Grey Eagle are corps members with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.