By Heran Abate
Updated: Friday, November 8th, 2013
New York (TADIAS) – The most striking thing about Mizan Kidanu, as I discovered soon after we sat down for this conversation, is her frankness about her creative journey in a fickle industry. Songwriter and artist, Mizan makes the type of music that is self-declaratory with an imposingly rich voice, scant in glitz yet decadent in the exploration of human emotion. I was compelled to discuss her music with her not only because I relate to it, but also to investigate what allowed her to make the leap of faith to pursue music as a career. I would soon learn that my approach needed some fine-tuning: a leap of faith implies a lone and momentary act of bravery, white heat of passion, starry-eyed certainty looking into the future.
Yet, Mizan’s account of moving to New York City two years ago to court her craft implies that ‘leap of faith’ does not have the consummate relief of being momentary, it is more of a sweeping undertaking to nurture embryonic wings into a tenacious wingspan. Her choice of relocation after graduating from college in Delaware was decisive in that it exposed her to whole ecosystems of musicians and showed her, from the benefit of other artists’ experiences, that talent is not the prerequisite of success. As in, establishing music as a career is not just about creating the music, it requires the business savvy to run a one-woman show however long it takes to delegate management and operations.
Interestingly, the unflinching consent to her trade does not leave evidence of strain or exhaustion on her music. In fact, it sounds as effortless as if she sat down at her piano and recorded in one go. Rather than frustrate her expression, the anxious and urgent call manifests itself as an element turned into art, a feeling that she simulates beautifully through jarring acoustics and abstract lyrics. For one, the title of her upcoming EP, Dark Blue, is a telling description of her music personified in a color. Ethereal and nuanced, dark if for no other reason than it is a deep-sea exploration of a shared human experience of ebbing and flowing emotions that are hidden under the surface of every day life.
She is versatile, spanning from free-styled covers of songs like “Crazy” by Cee-Lo Green, which to date has garnered upwards of 34,000 hits on YouTube, and original, more melancholy ones like “No Fool,” the first track on her new album. A number of record companies have been quick to take notice of the essential common denominator of her music, her singular voice adorned only by the elegance of visual and aural simplicity. So too have artist collectives and musical news outlets that have called her in for interviews. Back in April 2013 she won first place at Amateur Night at the Apollo for a sultry and resplendent cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.
Offstage, her community of friends who are filmmakers, illustrators and digital engineers enable the signature simplicity of her videos and crisp quality of her music’s sound engineering. This availability of in-kind resources, of valuable equipment and skill from her friends’ respective artistic endeavors, seams together an audiovisual experience that she invites her listeners into. The multiplicity of venues where she can perform in real-time and virtual social media outlets enable a feedback loop for her to grow in dialogue with her audience. In a word, New York City and the Internet provide a means to participate in a diversified economy built around a circulating production and consumption of music.
This is notable not least because the availability and establishment of such opportunities is just budding in the homeland. For the time being, Mizan’s career choice is to remain in the United States to develop her skills and market. Both the decision and its byproduct have received some criticism and concern at home. Popular wisdom has it that unless you study law, medicine or engineering, you are not quite fulfilling your duty to the development of your country. There is, of course, a certain irony in being a people whose celebratory heritage is rich with music and poetry where there is a taken-for-granted understanding that the culture will produce itself.
Perhaps the scorn is targeted more at the allocation of financial resources to the production of culture, a ‘secondary’ priority where primary ones like public health and education abound. While Mizan acknowledges the gravity of tangible contributions to development, she asserts that it is not mutually exclusive to the progress of culture. As she puts it, “just because it doesn’t solve world hunger, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a valuable pursuit”. One could add that, from an archival standpoint, a past moment in time is untouchable through the head-on lens of history. Conversely, art, music in this context, entices us to perceive time-specific essence indirectly by way of all our senses. What better way to mark moments in the course of societal progress?
Responsibilities to the homeland considered, Mizan points out that realizing a professional vision in the U.S. entertainment industry has its own challenges, namely resisting the ready-made molds that promise an incomplete success. She credits her Ethiopian upbringing for exercising the foresight to opt out of the waylaying frivolity in her trade. Ultimately, she admits that no obstacle course is more potent than self between her and her quest to “sing about the human condition, to reach people in their solitude.”
It is this very journey of exploring and mastering self that becomes the stuff of her music. No song is more indicative than “Anxious”. Through this latest single, she takes a taxing emotion, anxiety, and wraps it around bars and a vision to make something you can dance to. It marks the indecisive beat between a strident step in one direction and another. It shows vision frustrated by the subtle differences between the grays, the black and white; the whole picture is not revealed to you at once, it comes in flashes, blurs of a monochromatic optical illusion. Call it the practice of deliberate and resolute expression where uncertainty is the overwhelming principle. It is a slice of subjective reality that may just reflect your own.
Watch: Mizan – Anxious
Photographs: Mizan Kidanu at work and play. (Photos courtesy of the artist)
About the Author:
Heran Abate is a creative non-fiction writer. Born and raised in Ethiopia, she recently graduated from Wesleyan University where she studied Sociology and Hispanic Cultures and Literatures. She chronicles her own generation, the Millennials, for Tadias Magazine.