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The late singer-songwriter Haacaaluu Hundeessaa walked around as if he were carrying the weight of the Oromo nation on his shoulders. Haacaaluu was a true performer. Even the simple act of walking was a performative exercise for him.
In 2018, after I returned to Ethiopia from exile, Haacaaluu and I sat down for lunch in the capital, Addis Ababa. I asked him why he strolled in a way that commanded attention. When onlookers see me, he said, they don’t just see Haacaaluu the singer; they see the Oromo nation. That is why, he said, he sauntered around in a graceful manner that represented, honored, and dignified the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Haacaaluu pranced on and off stage with that acute sense of self-awareness.
His killing on June 29, 2020, touched off a complex political crisis in Ethiopia.
A new documentary titled “Spear through the Heart” chronicles Haacaaluu’s life, influence, and contributions to Oromo music and culture, and his people’s struggle for justice. The film’s global release will be held at the Fridley High School auditorium, 6000 W. Moore Lake Dr N.E., Fridley, Minnesota, on August 28, 2022. The event is from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is $20.
As the 48-minute film underscores, Haacaaluu embodied the best of Oromo and Oromummaa, a collective pan-Oromo identity rooted in common heritage and a vision of deliberative Oromo Gadaa democracy. A master storyteller, he articulated the yearning for freedom in ways that connected with the old and young alike. As the film poignantly reminds us, Haacaaluu honed his art as a teen and political prisoner at Karchale Ambo, a rickety jail in his indomitable hometown of Ambo.
He rose to stardom during the grassroots #OromoProtests movement from 2014 to 2018. The nonviolent revolt, which was sparked in 2014 in opposition to the Addis Ababa urban master plan, coalesced around calls to end the cultural, political, and economic marginalization of the Oromo.
Haacaaluu, whose name is also spelled Hachalu Hundessa, often insisted that he was not a politician. However, his music spoke to a generation in revolt, becoming the soundtrack of a protest movement that toppled a long-reigning authoritarian regime in 2018. The Oromo protests ended in early 2018 with the ascent of Abiy Ahmed as a prime minister, ushering in the first ever peaceful transfer of power in Ethiopia’s history from one sitting head of government to the next.
In the process, Haacaaluu elevated the place of Oromo music in Ethiopia. He was unflinching in his conviction and pursuit of truth and justice. He expressed his people’s truth without fear or favor, no matter the audience or the platform. He knew the risks of his revolutionary music making. In fact, Haacaaluu often spoke of the honor of dying or, more aptly, martyrdom while fighting against tyranny and joining the legions who died struggling for Oromo rights.
Writing Oromo resistance into history
“Spear through the Heart” dwells on the power and influence of Haacaaluu’s music, but it also showcases his unforgettable voice and versatile range. The story is narrated over his music and footage of the singer commanding the stage.
In the film, we learn how Haacaaluu tapped into the rich repertoire of Oromo folk songs and revolutionary culture. He repurposed folk music using modern instruments and embedded Oromo history, culture, and collective memory in his songs to articulate and amplify his people’s grievances, experiences, and stories. In this way, Haacaaluu was an ethnographer whose music curated and historicized Oromo resistance.
Haacaaluu is most known for his Geerarsa, a genre of Oromo music performed as spoken word poetry to extol bravery, heroic deeds or as a praise song for a dead hero. “Spear through the Heart” is a fitting praise film for the king of Geerarsa.
It is a well-produced and well-narrated film that aims to honor Haacaaluu’s legacy. It is the first full-length work chronicling the singer’s life, prodigious career, generosity of spirit, and the indisputable place he earned in Oromo history.
The film is based on interviews with a cross-section of Haacaaluu’s fans from around the world. Most of those interviewed in the film are Oromo-American youth from Minnesota, encapsulating the reach, impact, and inspiration of Haacaaluu’s music. The all-time great Oromo singer Ali Birra is featured prominently in the film and opines about how Haacaaluu was an irreplaceable gift from God.
Haacaaluu’s murder left a gaping hole in the heart of the entire Oromo nation. The film captures a palpable pain and sorrow in the face and words of his widow, Fantu Damisew Diro. The film’s title captures this haunting, collective sorrow still felt two years after his shocking assassination.
Haacaaluu’s murder sparked widespread protests across the Oromia state. At least 289 people died and authorities arrested more than 9,000 people, including prominent Oromo opposition leaders, in the ensuing crisis. The murder remains unsolved and his family and fans continue to demand an indepedent investigation.
Fantu, now a single mother of three, was Haacaaluu’s high school sweetheart. Haacaaluu idolized her. In his first album, Haacaaluu had a tender song called “Oolmaan kee,” or “Your sacrifice,” dedicated to Fantu. In the song, Haacaaluu narrates how much she has suffered because of him. He despairs that he may never be able to repay her for the love and care she gave to him. He promises to love her unconditionally until the end of time.
“Spear through the Heart” is dedicated to Fantu and Haacaaluu’s daughters. Despite the crushing loss she has experienced, Fantu has stood tall to honor Haacaaluu’s memory and seek justice for him. Toward the end of this heart-wrenching film, Fantu agonizes that she never told Haacaaluu how great he was while still alive. She rededicates “Oolmaan kee” to him in heaven. It is excruciating to listen to her words and watch her face change as she recounts the heavy loss.
If there is any solace in this tragedy, it is Fantu’s strength and courage in the face of an unspeakable tragedy that should give his fans the impetus to preserve Haacaaluu’s legacy and ensure that he receives justice.
Bruno Sorrentino’s film, executive produced by Awol Allo, is haunting and difficult to watch. It offers a fulsome portrait of Haacaaluu as truthful as his music.
How to watch the documentary
What: The global release of “Spear through the Heart” and a panel discussion on Haacaaluu Hundeessaa’s legacy. Members of the Oromia Youth Association in Minnesota will also present a cultural performance at the event.
Where: Fridley High School auditorium, 6000 W. Moore Lake Dr N.E., Fridley, Minnesota.
When: August 28, 2022, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.