Kendrick Helped Popularize It, But We Need To Talk About The Complicated Ethiopian History Of 'Negus'

Kendrick Lamar helped popularize it. Now we need to talk about the complicated Ethiopian history of “negus."

May 2007. The 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee is underway. A contestant, a young white boy with an atrocious bowl-cut, is asked how to spell the word negus. There is a definition at the bottom of the screen.

“A king - used as a title of the sovereign of Ethiopia.”

He repeats the word, which Ethiopians pronounce, nuh-goose. His version, very much Americanized, sounds much closer to what some might call a select melanin proficient group of friends – niggas. The video goes viral.


It's 2015: Fulton Avenue, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York City where French tourists come to take pictures of Biggie murals.

I’m on my way to drink cheap whiskey with the homies. It’s unreasonably warm for December. I unbutton my coat and take long strides past 99-cent stores and expensive cafes.

I bump into an acquaintance who is with a friend. We exchange the usual pleasantries.

His friend curiously eyes me and asks, “Hey, are you Ethiopian?”

“Yeah, yeah I am.” I respond.

“Oh!” says my homie, who is white. His face lights up with a smile.

“My Negus!” He says jubilantly, attempting Amharic, the language my tongue first kissed, and failing.

Niggas, is what I hear.

I shake my head slowly, the word ringing in my ears. Damn you, Kendrick, I think, my face on fire, awkwardly smile, say my goodbyes and quickly walk to the alcohol.

I’m a few shots in now, Kendrick's new civil rights anthem "Alright" is playing and I’m thinking about the stinging irony of a white man calling me a word that means king but when spoken in English, the official language of cultural imperialism, sounds so much like slave.

Recently, negus has been popping up everywhere. Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly helped to popularize the word. Yasiin Bey’s track-listing screenshot for his new and alleged last album, provided by Ferrari Sheppard, is tentatively titled: Negus 1. YC the Cynic and the late Capital Steez of the Pro Era crew both have songs called "Negus."

The sentiment is understandable, and I ain’t trying to knock the aforementioned artists nor black folks in the U.S. that use the word, as I feel their intentions to be true. They trying to reconnect to their African roots, a history that was methodically ripped from them. It’s lightweight a beautiful gesture to use the word. To proclaim, in a society that systematically and ruthlessly degrades black people, that we too are humans - naw fuck that. We kings. So, no shade towards them.

I get it, the want to offer negus as a linguistic forbearer to the colloquial nigga and it’s brutal hard R predecessor. Despite this want, the word originates, most likely, from the Latin niger and/or the spanish and portuguese negro—black. I can appreciate the want to reclaim the word, to give it further significance and justification as a term of endearment by attaching king to its meaning, and particularly in the historical context, the symbolic associations that the modern nation state of Ethiopia evokes—freedom from white supremacy, manifest destiny and its colonial roots.

But I do implore people to connect further with the Ethiopian history evoked when using the word, a history that is both beautiful and inspiring in relation to fighting European colonialism, yet marred by a myriad of injustices inflicted upon the masses of regular every-day Ethiopians by a long list of negus.

Queue drums and sage, twelve nag champas, third eye vibrating and wide open, ‘ashay, ashay’ affirmations, chakras aligned with the stars, white dots painted on faces, the elongated airy, I’m conscious, poet voice.

“My beautiful brothers and sisters, we come from Africa. We are from the land of lions and eternal sun. Africa. Africa. We were all kings and queens, gold flowed down our powerful rivers until…”

A screechy vinyl scratch cuts dude off.

Negus as nigga continues in a long line of fetishizing a historically inaccurate depiction of a monolithically same Africa. It diminishes the multiplicity, complex history, rich, diverse and vibrant culture of the continent, it’s not a country – in all of its beauty and pain. Although a difficult task, we need to do better in our understanding of the continent, which includes not throwing around pseudo facts or half truths, so to build a bridge of solidarity between Africa and its diasporic children in an effort to fight for social, racial and economic justice.

I want to stress that this goes both ways. Africans do similar things to African Americans in ways that dangerously teeter a twisted internalized hate that utilizes the rhetoric of the right and is projected, harshly and unfairly, upon black Americans.

Allow me to bring some insanely tall ancient California redwood tree all-enveloping shade. Enter the last officially recognized negus: Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, aka Lij Tafari Makonnen, aka Ras Teferi, aka Janhoy, aka Talaqu Meri, aka Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, aka Abba Teke, aka Jah, aka Jah Rastafari, aka HIM (His Imperial Majesty), aka king – negus, aka probably Guinness World Record holder for person and deity with the most akas, aka king of kings, aka Negusa Nagast aka Haile Selassie I.

Selassie, who is still revered by many Ethiopians and thought to be Jesus reincarnate by Rastafarians, is purported to have been a direct descendant of Queen Sheba and King Solomon and thus ordained on this antiquated and backward basis to be the Emperor of Ethiopia and to maintain absolute control of its ‘subjects’.

Selassie presided over a decadent feudal oligarchy with the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians frozen in a serf caste system of servitude and poverty with little to no chance of social mobility. Dissent was not tolerated and was met with torture and public hangings. As much of the country struggled to make ends meet Selassie’s gluttonous extravagance in the form of massive banquets in his large luxurious palace was appalling. He funneled fortunes into privately held foreign banks and hid a devastating famine that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of peasants from the urban middle class. Selassie’s Ethiopia maintained outright slavery, not abolishing it until after a moral epiphany induced by an Italian invasion during WW2. Selassie’s wealth was quite literally built on the backs of toiling peasants. Feudalism, is really not cool. Not then, and not now.

Some view Selassie as a benevolent ruler who stood up to fascist Italy—a bringer of reforms that pushed Ethiopia onto the path of modernization. Much respect and thanks to homeboy for fighting off the fascists and his eloquent speech pleading for assistance in driving back the invading Italians before the League of Nations but that and the public projects he initiated can not begin to make up for the crimes committed and his propagation of the inhumane system of feudalism well into the twentieth century. The reverence of Selassie by Ethiopians may be attributed to an unfounded nostalgia as unpopular regimes, not much better or perhaps worse, than Selassie's have since followed.

Negus isn’t what we should aspire to, no matter how convenient the lingual similarities between this title, which, I believe, denotes massive inequality, feudalism and suffering, and a word we often use (nigga), for better or worse, to address one another.

This past Monday, at the 58th Grammys, Lamar’s electrifying performance evoked African and African American unity in the face of a similarly shared oppression. On TPAB, which garnered eleven grammy nominations and five wins, Lamar has a track called "King Kunta." This track as well as much of the album links African Americans to Africa, the home from which they were stolen and transported to strange and hostile foreign lands to become slaves, their history and culture denied from them and their descendants.

The stellar performance was an example of a union that is not only possible but necessary for our collective fight for our humanity, justice, and liberation. We are kin, one in the same, and we have a lot to learn from one another. In a continent that is home to such a long list of people that have done amazing things to positively advance Africa and humanity, let’s not idolize those that have done otherwise, like Selassie. Let’s not easily forget. We need equality among one another, not rigid hierarchy. We need each other. We don’t need new kings.

News Brief

Sampha, Sade, Kendrick Lamar & SZA Have Been Shortlisted for the Oscars' Best Original Song Category

Here are the tracks that these amazing artists are receiving the well-deserved nod for.

As Oscar Sunday approaches on February 24, 2019, the Academy has been announcing the nominations and shortlists of who will be in the running to take home the golden statue.

The latest category to keep an eye out for is 'Best Original Song.' Sampha, Sade and Kendrick Lamar's collab with SZA have made the shortlist, The Fader reports. We'll have to wait until January to get the scoop on the final nomination.

Dive into the tracks that these amazing artists are receiving the shortlist nod for.

Keep reading... Show less

Seun Kuti, Bombino, Fatoumata Diawara, Soweto Gospel Choir & More Earn 2019 Grammy Nominations

And, yes, they're still calling it "world" music.

The 2019 Grammy nominations have been announced, and some of our African favorite artists have made the cut—though they've, once, again, mostly been constrained to the vague and reductive category of "world" music.

This year, four out of the five nominees for the category are of African descent, including Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80 for Black Times, Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara for her album Fento, Niger-born Tuareg musician Bombino for the album Deran, and the Soweto Choir, who performed at OkayAfrica and Global Citizen's Next 100 Summit in Johannesburg just last week, earned a nomination for their album Freedom.

We're rooting for all of these musicians, but it's be nice if they weren't all lumped into one category, considering they all have very different sounds. We also hoped that with the massive cultural impact of afrobeats, that one of the genre's big names would have made the cut. It's clear that the Grammys remain behind on fully recognizing the talent coming from the continent.

Keep reading... Show less

6 Things We Learned About African Migration to Europe in 2019 From a New UN Report

UNDP representatives presented their "Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe" report last night at Okay Space. Here's what we found out.

Yesterday, Okay Space hosted a discussion between UN luminaries Ahunna Eziakonwa, Mohamed Yahya and OkayAfrica CEO, Abiola Oke about the new UNDP report, Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe. The report examines young Africans who are leaving their homes to make the dangerous journey to Europe for economic opportunities—not solely for asylum or to escape persecution. The evening was both enlightening and sobering, and the main findings may be a little different than what you might expect.

Immigration to Europe from Africa is roughly 90 percent lower than what it was in 2015.

In 2015, slightly over 1 million Africans left for Europe. In 2018, it was just over 100,000. However, the percentage of those who drown on the journey has increased. In 2015, it was 1.6 percent of that million, while it grew to 2 percent in 2018. Meaning just over 2,000 people died enroute in 2018 alone. It is a disturbing factor that, four years on, more people are dying proportionately than when the large migrations began.

Even though most of Africa is rural, most of the youth leaving the continent for economic reasons are from the urban areas.

85 percent of those who the report identified came from urban cities or towns, though only 45 percent of Africans overall live in those urban areas. This means that most of them are coming from regions with "relatively low levels of deprivation." Analysts believe the rapid urbanization of many African cities could be a contributing factor. Benin City, Nigeria, for instance, has urbanized 122 percent in only ten years. These cities cannot actually support the people—and their ambitions and talents—who live there. It plateaus and does not allow for further upward mobility.

Only 2 percent of those who left say knowing the dangers would have deterred them.

This means 98 percent would do it again, despite the knowledge of fatalities and difficulties in crossing. The appeal of elsewhere is greater than death. This realization is crucial for all nations to better comprehend the true elements belying migration, particularly for those that this report is concerned with. Of the 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries interviewed for the report, almost all of them are willing to face death for economic opportunities abroad than stay home. As most of the migrants had relatively comfortable lives at home, they are not migrating to flee death or persecution as with asylum seekers. This prompts great questions and led the report to look at the issue from four angles: home life in Africa, motivations for leaving, life in Europe, motivations for returning.

58 percent of those who left were employed or in school in their home country.

Not only that, in almost every demographic and country, those who left had a considerably higher amount of education than their peers. From Malu, those leaving had an average of five years of education, compared to one year with peers in their age group and two years for the national average. In Cameroon, those leaving had an average 12 years, their peers had seven and the national average of six. Even when broken down by gender, both men and women who leave have about nine years of education while the national average is five and three, respectively.

Though the average African family size is five, most of those who leave have an average family size of 10.

When asked, migrants said their main motivation to leave is to send money home. This information is important as it may impact the motivations for needing to leave. The report reasons that an increase in population may also be playing a role in the motivations to leave. It was also reported that those who go abroad and find work send an average 90 percent of their earnings to their families. Essentially, they are leaving existing jobs to live on 10 percent of their new wage, highlighting that working below minimum wage in Europe is more prosperous.

Though 70 percent of those in Europe said they wanted to stay permanently, those who were working were more likely to want to return to their home country.

Conversely, the majority of those who did want to stay in Europe were not earning anything, 64 percent of them, and 67 percent did not have a legal right to work. Over half of those who did want to return home had a legal right to work. Analysts reason that those who did want to stay would likely change their mind once they had an income. This correlation speaks to a significant relationship between work and migration permanence. It also underlines the claim that migration for this group is focused solely on economic results as opposed to social factors.


What was most striking about the event, however, was the strong feeling communicated in the space about exchanges between Africans regarding what needs to be done. The discussion did not only surround the facts and figures alone, but also the humanity behind understanding why people migrate. At one point, when addressing the crowd of various influential people on the continent and in the diaspora, Eziakonwa said "What are we missing here? What are we doing by leaving young Africans out of the development discussion? Our programs are clearly failing our African youth."

Later, Yahya responded to a question by stating there was certainly a cultural barrier in which Africans do not often address, listen to or respect the youth. "I can say by looking at you that no one in this room would be given a true say," he said. "This is clearly part of the issue." When asked what can be done by others, the response was to work to change the narrative, to focus on prosperity rather than charity and to provide better access and platforms for African youth to share their stories so that the idea of who migrants are shifts. And so we, as Africans, can better know ourselves.

Check out some photos from last night below with photos from Polly Irungu. Follow and share in the changing of that narrative via #ScalingFencesUNDP and #MyJourney.

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Photo by Polly Irungu

Anjel Boris, Question Mark, 2019, Acrylic and posca on canvas, 133 by 7cm. Image courtesy of Out Of Africa and @artxlagos

What You Need to Know About ArtXLagos 2019

We talked to artistic director of ArtXLagos, Tayo Ogunbiyi, about Lagos's unique art scene and what's to expect from West Africa's biggest art party.

OkayAfrica is a media partner of ArtXLagos 2019.

In three years, ArtXLagos has successfully established itself as West Africa's premier art fair, cementing its reputation as a center of culture for the entire region. Since its founding by Tokoni Peterside in 2016, the art fair has attracted exhibitors, art buyers and members of the West African art scene and beyond—providing a platform for both emerging and established artists and playing a notable role in the global art ecosystem.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox