Born in Ethiopia: How Ra.sse.las Keeps His Dream Alive

He had arrived in Canada as a minor, with no French language speaking ability, in French-dominated Montreal. But he has grown to become one of diaspora African musicians to listen to.

He is now a musician and a licensed health insurance agent who has carved a niche for himself in the hip hop music scene in North America through a blend of hip hop infused with scintillating Ethiopian beat. Rasselas recently performed at the Habari Africa Festival at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (July 18 – 20, 2014), where caught up with him. Here is an excerpt of the chat ...


In the beginning …

Rasselas Asfaw was only 15 when he first arrived Quebec, Canada. He was astounded by the world around him. The cars, the buildings, the people all looked different from what he was used to seeing back in Ethiopia. This was a different world and right there, he decided that the shock was not going to deter him from being who he wanted to be.

Rasselas was born and raised in Ethiopia, until his teens. His pursuit of a musical career was influenced by his father’s love for music. Rasselas’ father’s eclectic collection of music spanned the world, giving the aspiring young artiste an invaluable global exposure to something he was extremely passionate about.

Of course a lot went into creating great music, and Rasselas was not unaware of this fact. Thankfully, hardwork was something Rasselas was very familiar with; he had watched his father, an engineer, rise through the ranks in the prestigious Ethiopian Airways. If great work ethics and passion had gotten his father such success, then surely, he was not going to shy away from applying the same principles to his musical career.

“The moment I got here, I started listening to the radio, getting to know the city and where the music was. Montreal, though not a very big musical platform, gave me a good start.”

Settling down in Canada …

Almost immediately, Rasselas joined a community initiative made up of Ethiopian children residing in the city. He was slightly older than the other kids but that did not discourage him. He enthusiastically introduced his style of music to the other children who quickly embraced his talents. They made great music by fusing the traditional sounds of Ethiopia and Rasselas’ hip-hop offerings.

After the many successes, the group started to fall apart: “not everybody was in it for the long term but I had plans to take it further, make it my career so I continued mixing the traditional music with my hip hop style.”

‘Injera Music’, a new album by Rasselas, is a testament to what results can come out of persevering and staying true to one’s dreams.

Rasselas’ successes in the music industry did face challenges. In his young mind, moving to Canada meant moving closer to the epicenter of hip hop. He however, did not anticipate how difficult fitting in with the locals of his new home would be.  “Meeting people and getting to know the Canadian culture was a challenge and so many things I said were misunderstood.”

Inevitably, Rasselas found himself at war with his identity but as he grew older, he realized one thing, people could accept him for who he really was and he says “as an Ethiopian, this is the biggest lesson I have learned…do not be ashamed of who you are.”

Rasselas’ appreciation for his Ethiopian heritage can be heard in his music in various forms including beats, language of delivery or in the voices of the Ethiopian artistes he collaborates with.

Life outside of Music …

When Rasselas first arrived Quebec, he complained about the language barrier and was hesitant to learn but his parents “who are very strict when it comes to education whether it’s in French or English” encouraged him along the way.

Rasselas finished his high school education with admirable grades and then went on to college where he studied accounting.

Right now, he joggles working a day job with his musical career but despite how difficult this can be, he says he writes better when he has other life experiences: “work experience inspires me to write. So every time I go to work, I see things that I write about. Somehow, I am able to handle all of it; work, time for family, time at the studio or at networking events…all of these are responsibilities that I have but where there is a will, there is a way.”

The birth of Injera Music Label …

No doubt, with Rasselas, there is a will and he along with his musical colleagues is driven by the singular will to succeed. One huge element pivotal to their current and future successes is Injera Music Label. 

Injera Music Label is the brainchild of Rasselas and his team. Rasselas believes the label has given him great opportunities that he would not otherwise have had: “we do not have to wait for anybody; we were kids waiting for the big companies and after waiting for so long, you say to yourself ‘this is something I can do’ … we decided to buy our own equipment and work our way towards what we wanted.”

Pictures courtesy Rasselas

A community builder …

Rasselas values the power of giving back to the community and he hopes someday to go back to Ethiopia for some musical work and to set some community development plans in action: “I would love to go back home to make a difference and help the country progress.”

He encourages youth in his community to work hard, seek out mentors and embrace all learning opportunities. Rasselas has experienced challenges but he is not given to making excuses; in fact, he is averse to the idea and sees excuses as an escapist route from giving one’s all: “when you are in a situation and not sure of how to get out of it, do not create excuses. There are people that create excuses and people who actually do the work … which one are you?"

Watch Rasselas' 'clap clap' video ...

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