“Born in Ethiopia. Raised in Virginia. Transformed into an artist in Detroit.”
Better known as MIKE-E, the Detroit-based musician is the child of New York-natives Bob and Diane Ellison. Bob, who was the first Black journalist to serve as president of the White House Correspondents' Association, worked as an educator in Ethiopia in the 1970s. Nicknamed “13 Months of Sunshine," Ethiopia became the birthplace of MIKE-E. Although the family relocated to Virginia when the boy was only two years old, Bob and Diane wanted to ensure their son would always remember his roots. They would always tell him stories about his birthplace and make him promise to one day visit again. Diane would also have a special name for her son, calling him her "Ethiopian child."
“That meant a lot to me because, as Africans in America, our history has been hidden from us,” MIKE-E told Blavity. “That really gave me a sense of identity and purpose.”
As an adult, MIKE-E delivered on his promise by going back to his birthplace. The artist visited historical Ethiopian sites, such as Lalibela, and used the scenic sites to record a music video for his hit song “Everything Will Be Alright" in 2004. The song, which sends a message of hope, took off with the help of an Ethiopian entertainer named DJ Phatsu and a television host named Jehmal Ahmed.
“Six months later, by the time I got to Ethiopia for my second trip, the whole country knew the song,” the musician said. “Kids came out of the Blue Nile singing my song. It brought me to tears.”
“For me to have been born there, [and to then] come back and to be embraced was overwhelming,” he said.
Although he grew up in Virginia, MIKE-E found his passion for hip-hop in Queens, New York.
“Spending a lot of time in Queens with family and friends, they introduced me to hip hop culture,” the artist said.
When he moved to Detroit, MIKE-E immersed himself into the city’s historic, vibrant artistic community. The city gave him “a whole new education in artistry and community.”
“It really shaped me,” he said. “If you allow it, Detroit will absolutely transform you.”
Most recently, the Detroit resident co-produced “Detroit: One Nation Under A Groove," a video promoting Detroit tourism.
MIKE-E's contribution to Detroit also includes his performance at the 2016 Concert of Colors, where he performed his song, “Hard Enough To Smile,” sending a message about Black history and social justice. In another performance at Detroit’s Concert of Colors, MIKE-E and singer Alison Lewis covered Bob Dylan's "Only A Pawn In Their Game," honoring civil rights leader Medgar Evers. MIKE-E told the story of Evers, who served in the Army and became honorably discharged as a sergeant before getting shot in front of his home and dying after being denied entry into the hospital.
“Sergeant Medgar Evers survived WWII only to be killed in his own driveway,” MIKE-E said at the concert. “How patriotic do you have to be to do that?”
The multifaceted artist has also used poetry and public speaking to address genocide in Rwanda, combat bullying and teen suicide and uplift people in war-torn countries. As an actor, MIKE-E made an appearance on a recent episode of Chicago Fire as Detective Sorenson.
With every step he has taken throughout his endeavors, the Ethiopian-born American has deepened his appreciation for the people and places have helped him gain “a broad cultural lens and helped him climb out of his ignorance.” The artist’s inspiration includes Robert Simon Jr., who founded the Virginia town where MIKE-E was raised.
“He intentionally designed Reston as a community — a live, work, play space that would welcome and accommodate people of all cultures, genders, orientations and economic levels,” MIKE-E said. “It was a beautiful, nature-filled haven that this man created.”
According to The New York Times, Simon designed Reston in the 1960s as a “village” of about 12,000 residents, with 35 churches, 21 schools, seven shopping plazas, an industrial park and a vibrant downtown area. Still, being Black in Reston wasn’t always glamorous.
“I attended a high school named after Langston Hughes, the great poet,” he said. “It was spraypainted with the word n****r and some of the windows were broken when it first opened.”
Adding to the challenge of growing up in America, the artist was teased when he told his friends about his birthplace.
“When I would tell people I was born in Ethiopia, I was teased because I was very skinny,” the musician said. “People would say, ‘No wonder you’re so skinny.’”
On his trip back to Ethiopia, the producer hoped to find a more welcoming community. However, the reality was that Ethiopians still saw and referred to him as a "ferenge," which means foreigner, and his inability to communicate made him feel more isolated.
"All I could say was a bad version of 'tena yistilign,'" MIKE-E said, referring to the Amharic word for hello.
With the transition to Ethiopia proving to be more difficult than he expected, MIKE-E had to adjust his “romanticized vision of Ethiopia."
"I had this Western mentality," he said. "I did and said a lot of the wrong things. It took time to learn how to let the culture impact me."
The rapper found his purpose in the country when he erased his “Western savior mentality,” and started “partnering with the right people to make the right contribution.”
“It’s embarrassing to admit, but that was a real process,” he said. “Thankfully through God’s grace, and a lot of Ethiopians who recognized what I really endeavored to do, they helped me make that transition and make a tangible contribution.”
The philanthropist has carried out his mission by working with Sister Tibebe Maco’s orphan support programs, as well as several other Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Associations at colleges and universities. He has also spearheaded the Fistula Foundation in Ethiopia, worked with the Maternal Child Health Center in the city of Awassa and led the American Cancer Society’s first official delegation to Ethiopia in support of oncology.
MIKE-E’s journey in Ethiopia has allowed him to cross paths with legendary singers Tilahun Gessesse and Alemayehu Eshete.
“I had a chance to meet the great Tilahun Gessesse before he passed away. He hugged me and gave me his blessings,” the artist said. “Alemayehu Eshete gave me his blessings to remix ‘Addis Ababa Bete.’”
MIKE-E is also moved by the unsung heroes of Ethiopia.
“I’ve carried wood with the women of Entoto and been humbled by little, tiny teenagers half my size carrying twice as much wood as I can,” he said.
As a poet, MIKE-E performed on HBO’s Def Poetry in 2006, where delivered “Mezeker Means to Remember,” an ode to the obstacles people face across the world, including poverty, depression and drugs. One girl who wrote to MIKE-E said she was on the verge of suicide until she heard the poem. Another boy from Bosnia was gratified to see that the poet acknowledged the devastating war from his country.
The artist saw the same type of impact after his AfroFlow tour in 2012, traveling to various U.S. cities with his band and inspiring "people in every part of the country that are hurting.” Moved by AfroFlow, some teens decided to give up their cigarettes. Others vowed to distance themselves from gang affiliations. Some even gave up their razors, promising to stop cutting themselves.
“What the youth understood was that we were dealing with self-love,” MIKE-E said. “We spoke to them sincerely.”
Producing more projects, such as “Where Are They Sleeping?” and “Broken Mirrors,” the artist continues to spread his influence on young people on an international scale.
YouTube | Mike Ellison
Despite the reach of his influence, Ellison still intends to extend his reach even further.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to marry my art with meaningful people, places and projects,” the MIKE-E said. “I just want to continue to do that and do it better and better each time.”