Songs are a cultural staple in many children’s lives growing up, but what we often don’t explore is the inappropriate and dis-empowering language that some of these songs carry. In popular children’s songs such as Ete Mete and Beza Bebega, we see how subliminal messages of abuse become normalized. This promotes a culture of objectifying women and children and silencing victims of harassment or sexual abuse. There are also children’s songs that discuss tragic stories that may not be suitable for children. Songs such as Ere Amsale and Abebayehosh discuss hunger and poverty- topics that are quite dark. Abebayehosh also has an underlying note of sexism as it ends with blessing elders to have a son or a boy. Are these the type of things we want our children to chant?
After we shared the popular children's song Beza Bebega and it's meaning, many first reactions to this topic were shock and disbelief. One follower commented that “I genuinely thought the song was about love.” That is a big part of the issue right there. It’s up to our communities to condemn abusive language no matter how innocently we dress it up. These nursery rhymes romanticize harmful behaviors such as stalking, harassment, adultification, and possessiveness. They portray these issues as a natural progression of “love,” teaching our kids at a young age that girls and women don’t have autonomy over their bodies. If a man does anything in the name of “love,” it is automatically okay.
Many Ethiopian communities’ conversations about sexual assault, rape, harassment, or similar topics are taboo. They are deemed as “western issues” that are not relevant to Ethiopian culture. These atrocities are swept under the rug while survivors are left to feel shameful and carry this burden (they did not cause) in silence. Avoiding such meaningful conversations perpetuates a culture of victim-blaming and a sense of isolation for survivors of abuse and assault. Furthermore, when we sing these songs, we encourage a culture that protects abusers. It defends this behavior by glorifying men who prey on women in the name of “love.” Yes, these are fictional narratives, but what happens when our children grow up and imitate these abusive traits?
Music and stories do have positive and negative effects on children. As adults, we know that music can brighten our mood, excite, and inspire us. So why would children be any different? They too can experience the power of music. Children need positive, inspiring, and empowering songs that will encourage them to love, feel empowered, and dream big. We have not done enough research to know how these children's songs and stories have affected us, but we have no doubt that they did. A great example of an Ethiopian children’s song that is positive and empowering for children is Ye Kubaya Chewata (See video below), and we look forward to a future of seeing more songs like this. Let us reimagine how children’s songs and nursery rhymes could positively impact the next generation.