Ras Nebyu: Diasporic “Uptown Lion Walking”

Ras Nebyu (born Mebraknegodguwad Mahtemework) is a DC-based artist who identifies as part of the Ethiopian diaspora. Although Nebyu was born and raised in America, he grew up with his Ethiopian father and grandmother, and was exposed throughout his life to Ethiopian culture through the greater diaspora in DC. Nebyu’s identity within the diaspora is clear in his music, which he uses as a platform to discuss salient issues within both the DC community and his Ethiopian diaspora community.

In an interview with OkayAfrica, Nebyu cites his parents’ Pan-Africanist beliefs as a major influence on his own perspective and position within hip hop. He explains that while he’s hesitant to typecast himself as a “conscious” emcee, he’s very deliberate about the topics he chooses to address in his music, and his rhymes point to this Pan-African intentionality. In his newest album, “Uptown Lion Walking”, he pays homage to his intersectional identity, discussing the pervasive nature of gentrification in DC while reflecting upon his African ancestry.

“Black Favre”, a song from Uptown Lion Walking, epitomizes Nebyu’s viewpoint as an African American diaspora artist through both music video visuals and lyrical content. As a diaspora artist, Nebyu engages with a sense of place and belonging on this track. The video itself begins with footage of various DC neighborhood spots in Shaw, Takoma, Adams Morgan, and Fort Totten, and sets the scene in which we find Nebyu, the “lion walking”. Throughout the video, he sits on stoops, walks through neighborhoods, and shares a meal with friends at a local Ethiopian carry-out, all while wearing a Haile Sellassie University sweatshirt, expressing his local identity in uptown DC and Ethiopia.

Lyrically, the song tackles issues of culture and gentrification head on. Nebyu speaks to his experience as a DC native by pointing out the poignant irony of gentrification in DC, in which “Josh and Lisa” move into the new, gleaming apartments cropping up to grow marijuana legally, while some people he grew up with have been “incarcerated for minor ganja operations”. He goes on to address cultural appropriation and commodification more broadly, professing that “We need more soldiers to preserve and keep our cultures // Instead of pimp it out and feed them vultures”. This line in particular demonstrates Ras Nebyu’s intentionality as a conscious, diaspora artist. Not only does he address salient issues facing DC, he also harkens back to his Pan-Africanist upbringing to make a statement about the preeminence of preserving a sense of place and belonging amid a rapidly transforming DC landscape. Much of the song can be considered descriptive commentary, but lines like the one above may even qualify as combat music, since Nebyu is appealing to other artists, especially African diaspora artists, to be deliberate in their representations of their communities. “Black Favre” is more than a fun to listen to track with a smooth flow; the song represents Nebyu’s positionality as an Ethiopian-American diaspora emcee grappling with authenticity and cultural preservation outside of the continent.

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