Fetsum talks about fleeing war, defining home and what needs to change about the refugee debate, not only in Germany but also throughout Europe.
DW: Your debut album, "The Colors of Hope," already sounded very international. Now you are working on your second album in L.A and London. How important is broadening your musical horizon to you?
Fetsum: I sing in English, so it automatically sounds international. Also, I've grown up with a lot of influences: Eritrean music, Arabian music, Italian music, pop, soul, and reggae. Limiting myself to a certain genre has always been difficult for me. It used to be a big potpourri, but somehow it has blended into a unique style now.
Your parents came from Eritrea and sought refuge in Egypt, where you were born. Then your family moved to Italy and eventually to Germany. How did this journey influence your music?
My parents fought in the war between Eritrea and Egypt. The revolutionary music from back then has a special meaning for them. But these political songs have molded me a lot as well.
I was born in Cairo. Even though my family is Christian, there were a lot of mosques in the area we were living. One day I realized that I had to cry each time I heard the muezzin call for prayer on TV. I wondered why and asked my mother. She said: "Until you were one and a half years old, you heard this five times a day." I just liked the music and what the tonality did to me, without any religious context. That influenced me a lot. And so did the first few years in Italy. I like Italian cantautori [Eds.: Italian singer-songwriters] such as Paulo Conte, Franceso De Gregori or Pino Daniele.
You don't make superficial pop music. Your lyrics are about making statements. Why is that important to you?
I waited a long time for my first album. At the age of 34, I was not one of the youngest to start working in the music business. But on the other hand I have quite a biography due to my journey. There's a lot to tell. The important question is, "How do I tell it and what is important to others?" Music isn't only about doing something for yourself. The moment you release an album, you hope that someone can relate to it.
How do you approach songwriting?
People always say you have your entire life to write the first album. For the second release, however, it's only the time in between the albums. To me it's extremely important to process my experience. Of course I write about aspects of my life - about my birth in Cairo and about the way to Germany via Italy. This is why my album is called "The Colors of Hope": Against all odds my family was extremely lucky. I can live a free and self-determined life today. When I see people with a similar kind of experience and how they are struggling now, I see myself as a translator, a mediator and a bridge builder. That's what I try to achieve with my music.
How did you experience your journey from Egypt to Germany?
I think the only decision I made myself was the way from Stuttgart to Berlin. I don't have any negative memories. Of course I did question my identity as a teenager in Germany - I was the only child with dark skin at school. Later, in high school with 1,000 students, there were maybe two dark-skinned children. I started getting reactions from others, at a game of soccer, for instance, that made it clear to me that I was not from here. I went to my parents and asked them: "Why are we here?" At some point you become mature and you strike roots in the place where you live.
What do you associate with the term "migration"?
Migration is a huge topic for all of mankind. You realizes that it actually has a lot of advantages to grow up multi-lingually and multi-culturally. But that it also means responsibility: You have to work as a mediator for society. I believe working for peace and to unify people is anchored in our DNA. It becomes very obvious when you look at the political situation in Europe, especially in Germany now. In the face of so much fear and so many worries, you have to tell people, "Hey, people are coming to this country just like you did 50 years ago." If you treat the refugees kindly and with respect, you can't do any wrong - on the contrary.
The escape from Eritrea to Egypt must have been terrible for your mother. She was injured and pregnant with you at the same time. Then you moved to Italy from Egypt. Did it feel like an adventure to you as a child?
It was indeed an adventure for all of us, especially as we were lucky to meet wonderful people. You live where you are; it's as simple as that. And if you're in a good place, you don't ask questions, definitely not as a child. Also I learned the language fairly quickly, which meant I was able to communicate.
It was only later that I realized what an incredible journey this was. I have a lot of respect for my mother for making my life so positive even after all that she went through. Her injury was quite severe and she was pregnant with me. I don't think anything else is as important to me as the respect of my mother. Not that I would need her permission! I remember canceling my studies in order to start a career in music - that was the end of the world for her. But today she feels really great about it, because she realized that it's something that makes me happy.
What does "home" mean to you?
That's a good question. I experienced what home means in 2006, when I was in Eritrea for the second time. That was when I realized that home isn't a geographic region but the way you see yourself in other people, mostly in family members. When I sat there with my grandparents, my great-aunts and cousins - with people I didn't have around me most of my life - I had the feeling, "Yes, this is a part of me!" That feeling is the closest to "feeling" home I have felt. At the end of the day, if you know where you are from, it doesn't matter where you live. It's simply important to know where your roots are.
But home is also the place where you live, where you feel comfortable, where you work and where your friends are.
How do you experience the refugee debate that is taking place in Germany right now?
What debate? (laughs) I must say I'm very disappointed about certain things in this debate. Disappointed about how people forgot what was going on in Europe 30 to 60 years ago, how many people fled to Germany from other places, and how Germany depended on those immigrants to help rebuild the country. Every second German has a grandmother, a grandfather or great-grandparents that fled to Germany. If we take that as a basis, this debate had to be discussed in a different way.
We in central Europe see ourselves as the inventors of freedom and humanity. We hold up the flags of the UN Charta. People are drowning in the Mediterranean and all we do is lay down wreaths. I find that to be very distressing. We see how easy it is to cause riots.
We see what happened in Paris, but that's exactly the kind of violence and capriciousness that caused thousands of people to flee from their countries. If you take all that into account, you have to take this debate to another level - on a human level. Of course it's hard if a few people have to do the work of many. But if everyone helps, it's always surprisingly easier for everyone. I hope we get there someday.