Self-described “R&B-ish” artist Mélat gives thanks to the city that broke her out of her shell.
By Mélat, Photo by Paola Mathé. Styled by Fanm Djamn and Buenas_Vibes
“Keep Austin Weird,” “What Starts Here Changes the World,” “Austin hasta la muerte” and “Live Music Capital of the World” are phrases I’ve heard my entire life living in Austin. Maybe it’s the city’s spirit, or just pride, but somehow I’ve taken these slogans to be a personal call to action, a personal affirmation of my being. Austin isn’t perfect, but nevertheless, this town is the setting for my story, and I love it for everything it has shaped me to be.
My parents left for the U.S. at a time when their home, Ethiopia, was controlled by a genocidal communist regime. Friends, family and others their age were forced to comply or be killed. Nothing short of fate allowed them to escape and end up in Austin, where they planted their roots—and now here I am.
When I was born, my parents received a letter from my grandmother with a name suggestion. She suggested “Addis Alem” (“New World”), but she was too late. My grandmother, ever so intuitive, called me by this name anyway, as I was the first child to be born outside of Ethiopia, in a “new world.” My birth was a new beginning for my family. After me, whether it was a cousin or sibling, I felt the pressure to set an example and guide every one of us that followed for generations to come in all that I did.
Family would visit and, yes, Austin represented our pride and joy. We were proud of the home we had built and loved showing it off. We’d take family to the state capitol to show them its ominous beauty; we’d bring them to The Oasis to show them the nature our city boasted. We were proud, hopeful, and I knew one day, I wanted to be the reason not only my family, but people from all over the world, knew about the strange yet genuinely loving town called Austin.
As a child, I tried my best to pass the days unnoticed, but no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed to stand out. This was something that bothered me then, but today I know to stand out is the pathway of my calling. Standing out has made me stronger and has forced me to believe in the beauty of every individual’s innate “weird” uniqueness. My background, my family history, my look were characteristics that the predominately white schools and daycares I attended couldn’t seem to fathom. All they knew (thought they knew) of Ethiopia was the “starving children” they’d see on TV. They were ignorant of the country’s beauty and bounty that my parents were so disheartened to leave behind. Despite this, I was determined to follow my calling and took my first step to “stardom” by joining the choir in the fifth grade. The stage had found me. A blending of voices, with the world unable to decipher my voice apart from others—at this point in my life, the choir became my safe, happy place.
Fast forward a decade. After years of stage fright and delight, I took a leap of faith and recorded an actual song…then another, and another, until it was an unstoppable force within me. It was incredible. I went from being so nervous that I blacked out during every performance, forgetting my every move, to opening for some of the most illustrious acts in some of the most illustrious places around the world. This freedom to find my way, at my own pace, is the Austin way, and as I grow, it becomes more evident that we can find courage in our culture. This courage to do it my way allows me to be the example I always strived to be.
In a way, my story is the Austin story. The story of a misfit finding her footing as an outsider and becoming something no one expected. Our town never asked to stand out, but Austin and its people were born to do nothing less. It’s the ATX way.
I am a first-generation Ethiopian-American, R&B singer, Black woman, Texas-Ex, with big blonde curly hair who gets to travel the world telling tales of love. I am weird; I am changing the world; I love Austin to the death of me, and I am indeed live music. It’s not without its flaws and imperfections, but still my environment is my mirror, and I am its reflection.
Thank you, Austin. I love you.