Like most of my peers, I spent a great deal of my childhood fixated on the television screen yearning to learn more about the latest pop culture figures and the trends. For this piece, I had to sit down and really scour my mind in order to narrow my list to only three pop culture figures. However, when I began to reflect specifically on those that had an impact on my identity during my childhood, my list became shorter and I was finally able to narrow it down to the following three.
Deemed the “Queen of talk shows”, Oprah Winfrey had an immense impact on my childhood and continues to do so even presently. I was introduced to Oprah around the age of ten. I remember “The Oprah Winfrey show” would start at around 4:30pm on weekdays. My sisters and I would rush from school and turn on the television eager to be informed on something new. From racism in America, the plight of LGBTQ people in India to health care challenges in Ethiopia; I learnt about the intricate details of human challenges through her show.
Even with her current podcast and “Super Soul Sunday” program, she is never afraid to ask the daring questions that everyone thinks about but can’t ask. Her emotional intelligence also facilitates intimate conversations with her guests that leave me feeling both reflective and inspired. Some of the stories on her shows definitely shocked me and left me scared as a child as I was bombarded with challenging information about matters such as rare diseases, poverty, sexual assault and gender-based violence. Nevertheless, her shows continue to raise my knowledge and consciousness leaving me more empathetic and willing to express my thoughts and emotions more honestly. It was also a bonus seeing a beautiful and strong black woman with the courage to share her stories, even the difficult ones, yet still remain hopeful and generous enough to motivate a young girl like me to be a better version of myself, always.
Judy Blume was revolutionary to me. Growing up, I barely had an elaborate sex education or “the sex talk”. Sex was simply an activity to abstain from until marriage. Masturbation was a sin. Menstruation was only to be whispered about behind closed doors with fellow girls and women. Blume, on the other hand, did not shy away from such topics in her novels. I was in the seventh grade when I discovered her books. I recall some of the naughty boys giggling in the library when looking at certain books. My curious best friend was determined to find out what was entertaining these boys. She discovered the secret and one day whispered in my ear, “they are reading books about sex written by this author called Judy Blume”. We both burst out laughing and proceeded to the library to take a peek at some of her work such as “Forever”. At first, I was overwhelmed with all the details about sexual relationships but slowly adapted to the matter of fact and nonjudgmental tone displayed by Blume’s writing techniques. I not only learnt more about intimacy and sex but through her protagonists’ contemplations, I also attained more knowledge on the importance of having safe sex. Blume was my first real teacher on the subject. She helped me make sense of the natural and human phenomena that was suppressed. Blume taught me that more information is better than no information in order to avoid false assumptions and end up in riskier situations. For these reasons, I was able to understand, especially in hindsight, how literature stimulates nuanced perspectives.
Teddy Afro is definitely one of the most celebrated and influential artists in Ethiopia. His songs stir up heavy emotions and nostalgia in me. I was aware of Teddy Afro songs earlier but it was his album “Yasteseriyal” that captivated me in 2005 when I was twelve years old. Teddy Afro’s majestic voice coupled with his profound lyrics about love, unity, patriotism enabled him to have this unique ability to touch both the youth and elders. His songs such as “Dhalak” (an island in Eritrea), “Sile Fikir” (about love) and “Tikur sew” (black person) strengthened the connection to my Ethiopian roots and reinforced the bond between my family and I. Born in Uganda and raised in Rwanda, I spent all of my life outside of Ethiopia. When “Yasteseriyal” came out in 2005 I was twelve and my family and I took a trip to Ethiopia. It was my first time visiting since I was five years old. Listening to Teddy Afro when I was in Ethiopia during a formative stage of my adolescent years allowed me to be more in touch with the culture, people and Ethiopia’s rich history. Teddy Afro also romanticized Ethiopia’s political history by singing songs about our former royals such as Haile Selassie and enhanced the conversations on the vicious political climate that followed after the abolition of the monarchy. In hindsight, I realize that Ethiopia’s past is much more multidimensional than a single by Teddy Afro. Nonetheless, Teddy Afro songs inspired me to explore other Ethiopian artists and writers leading me to be more informed and in tune with my Ethiopian identity.
After narrowing my list to the above three, I realized that only one of them is African and moreover male. Though I’m grateful for the above influences, it also opened my eyes to the fact that I spent numerous times consuming western media and literature, and it caused a certain sadness knowing that my list did not include any African women. Fortunately, my knowledge and self-awareness have expanded and if you were to ask me to list three pop culture figures who impact me today, the list would be slightly different.