Bruktawit Getahun, Betty G for her fans, would have loved to be around for the Battle of Adwa and thinks of robots as square and scary. Third daughter to her parents, anchored but not confined, there is not a challenge in her life she would rather not have faced. She waxes philosophically to describe herself and her life, recounting icons of the great musical Gold Age of Ethiopia as her dream collaborators. Her interest in music coasts between grunge, country, rock and pop, a style that inspires her work. Her career has been on an upward trajectory since the release of her first single in 2012. Her second album, selling around 30,000 copies, was released to acclaim, winning the 33-year old the best album award at the All African Music Awards last year. Betty, viewing the world from above the fray, sat down with FORTUNE’S OP-ED EDITOR, CHRISTIAN TESFAYE.
Fortune: How scared were you to cut the sides of your hair?
It was a clean cut, and it was scary. Whenever you want to try a new style it is scary, because you do not know whether it looks good on you or not. But now my style suites me. I just wanted to have this different look.
Q: What colour, food and word best describes you?
My favourite colour is red. I do not know if it describes me, but it is full of passion. It could be aggressive too, but I am not aggressive. I am full of passion, so I guess for a word that describes me, that would be it. What food best describes me? Probably chocolate.
Q: If you were stranded on an island, what article – except the necessities – would you rather have with you?
I am confused in deciding between my Bible and my family picture. I would want to go with the former, because it is important to stay grounded. Religion is what is most important in our lives. It gives us principles and guidance. I would also not be too disparaged and lonely. There would be a lot to read and connect with.
If it were two though, I would also want to have my family picture as well. I would look at it every time I miss them.
Q: Do you have an old-school favourite rock band?
Nirvana. I heard their music when I was still in high school, in English class. It was a bit dark, but they had an interesting touch, and I am a rock music fan.
Q: Is there a moment in your life you would wish to have a second chance for?
I do not have a specific moment. We think if we had done things a little bit better we could have an improved life or would have landed in a better place. At the moment, everything I have been through is a plus for where I am right now. Even the challenges I encountered and the mistakes I made. I would want to go back and redo them so that I would end up right here, now, and in this same position.
Q: So, no regrets?
Q: Do you have a favourite movie character?
Probably Cat Woman. It just came to my mind.
Q: Your favourite film actor or actress?
Meryl Streep. She is very natural. She is not from my generation, but I have seen old and recent movies she acted in. I consider her an icon.
Q: If you could transform into any animal in the world, what would you pick?
An eagle. To start, you would be invincible. Eagles are predators. They eat prey but have few enemies. They also travel vast distances, not to mention that they get to see the world from up top.
Sometimes when you are on the ground, we cannot see very far. But if you are flying up high, you would see very clearly.
Q: What was the last gift you gave to someone?
I have been receiving a lot of gifts after I participated in, All African Music Awards. So I have a hard time remembering the last gift I gave. It was a traditional dress, together with the jewelry and scarf. But the last gift I gave might have been a purse, which was to my little sister.
If you could be head of state of any country, of which would you rather be, except Ethiopia?
Switzerland. It is a very peaceful country in Europe. It has rarely seen wars, and they control the money of the world. Their lifestyle is a bit fancy. Where there is peace and enough money to go around for everybody, life is beautiful.
Q: Any nightmares from last night?
I do not remember the last one I had, but I had a recurrent nightmare when I was a kid.
It was in a house we used to live in. I am with my family, and animals are attacking our house. It was not just one kind of animal but many. We would try to escape or try to lock the doors so we would be safe, and then I woke up. They never eat us, but they were always ambushing us.
Did you ever figure out what that was about?
Never did. I was a kid, every time that happened I was like, “Ok, I am scared.”
Q: Which late Ethiopian musician would you be interested in collaborating with?
If it was a male, Tilahun Gessesse, who is an Ethiopian icon. It would have been a dream come true to collaborate with him. From females, that would be Bizunesh Bekele. I grew up listening to her. My mom was a huge fan, and I was really inspired and impressed by her voice.
Q: If you were able to choose a time and place to live in, which one would you pick except the present?
I would want to live during the Battle of Adwa in Ethiopia. As a black nation, we achieved a great deal in winning such a significant war. The Ethiopianism we had at the time was very strong and very deep. The whole country came together for that battle, which we won in the end. I would want to feel and see what really went down during the war.
Q: Do you think you would have gone into the battle?
I do not know if they sent women, but if they did I would want to go and see. Observe.
Q: Do you think about the possibility that music would be produced wholly by robots in the future, without any human input?
That is scary. I really think that technology is part of our day-to-day life nowadays. Mobile phones came into the scene just recently; we did not have that when I was growing up. It was when I was in high school that people began using them in Ethiopia. Now we are very dependent on it.
Technology is very good, but we should never give in 100pc. We should always use it with moderation. It is just a way of facilitating.
I do not know if robots could be creative or artistic, or if they would turn everything very square. I assume music would have a very different taste and sound if it was produced by robots, because they deal with a formula that you give them. They can never be out of the box but work within their programming.
When you are creative, anything is possible. For instance, there are certain rules that are respected but you always bend them. And whenever you do that, something new is created. I do not know if robots will ever have that capacity, but if they do, that would be a very scary world.
Q: You have done a lot of interviews. What has been the one question that annoys you?
I am a talker, I love talking, so there is no question that annoys me. But the question I get asked frequently is how or when I started playing music.
Q: Your greatest fear, except for not being able to make music or losing a loved one?
The greatest fear of all humankind is death; death without accomplishing something. For me, it would be dying before leaving my footprint. It is a very common fear, but I am not afraid of heights or spiders. So death is at the top of the chart.
Q: What was the hardest choice you ever made?
When I was in the United States for a two-month show, I ended up staying two years. In the end, it was the best choice for me, but it felt hard at that time. Staying there for such a long time when you had just planned for such a short period changed everything. I felt like I was losing a lot rather than gaining anything. But I worked on an album while waiting, so that was the hardest choice for me.
Q: You have said that you like all kinds of music, but there must be some genre that is not as good as the others?
I am very eclectic.
Q: Many people do not like country, for instance?
I love country. My older sister used to enjoy such songs. We used to listen to Don Williams, Kelly Rogers and Dolly Parton when I was growing up.
They are all good in their own way. It is hard to compare a reggae song with a country one. They have different beats and messages. I like to hear different sounds all the time, which helps me be more creative. When you listen to many different things, then you have different types of melodies in your head.
Q: Is their a downside of being famous?
You cannot be mad in public even if you are really angry. But there are no other downsides, especially here in Ethiopia, where the fans are very genuine. At maximum, they would ask for a picture. They are never offensive but respectful of one’s boundaries. And most of the time, you get free things. People are very kind when you are famous. I have not experienced many downsides, but you cannot be too aggressive or angry in public.
Q: But that is a major snag though?
Quite [true]. But I am not an angry person, so I am in the clear.
Q: What is next for Betty G if she lost her voice?
Painting and designing. I love designing clothes. I do sketches for myself now, but not for public exhibition. If I lost my voice, and there was nothing I could do about it, I would give it time and produce something.
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