WITH FO SHO
In complete darkness we are all the same
Don't let your eyes deceive you
I'm just like a black square
Got a lot of layers in me
I'm just like a black square yeah
Got a lot of layers in me
FO SHO. "Blck Sqr", 2019
Betty, Siona, Miriam by Yasmin-Sara Ergen
Betty, Siona, and Miriam Endale are three sisters who founded the hip-hop group FO SHO in 2019. The girls describe their songs as "political" and use music to convey important social messages. They say, "When we heard that 'music should stay out of politics,' it seemed strange and wild to us. It is important for us to address social issues in our songs. Although we can also sing about love. Actually, we can sing about anything.
The main thing is for it to be honest."
We had a conversation with Betty and Siona about music, identity, freedom, and cultural ambassadorship.
15 July, 2023
Betty: Our parents are from Ethiopia. They came to the Soviet Union through a student exchange program. My mother went to Kharkiv, and my father went to Belgorod (a city in russia, 24 miles from Kharkiv). Thank God he didn't like it there, so he came to Kharkiv, and that's where they met. I grew up in a dormitory in Oleksiivka until I was 6 years old, and then we moved to Saltivka. And that's where Siona was born, when we were already moving into our own house.
Siona: Medical education takes a long time. That's why our parents kept postponing their return to Ethiopia. First, until they completed their PhDs. Then, they waited until Betty finished school...
Betty: And there you were, transitioning to a new class! Actually, I think they wanted us to stay in Ukraine from the beginning. They spoke to us in russian (russian was the local language for Kharkiv) not Amharic (Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia). Although, in my childhood, I used to travel to Ethiopia with my parents, and the language stuck with me. We would communicate in Amharic when we needed to say something "secret". For example, to agree to buy bread when we had guests at home or to ask, "Where is the money?" (laughs). But among Ethiopian friends, they would make fun of my pronunciation, asking me to say difficult words and laughing. But overall, knowing multiple languages is really cool.
1. Betty with mom Negash. 2. Betty. 3. Siona with mom Negash
I just want to say one thing that mattered
I’m very grateful cuz now I’m
I worked dude! All I want to say that I worked dude!
FO SHO. "XTRA", 2019
Betty: Mentally, I realized that we were different from our peers in Ethiopia during our teenage years. I was like a Ukrainian: I would speak my mind and easily express my emotions. This was also influenced by the Jewish environment; in the Jewish school, we were taught to be free. In Ethiopia, people are more restrained. There is more distance, respect for parents, and generally for elders. At the same time, they are more reserved.
I grew up with a strong sense of freedom, saying what I thought, knowing my worth. I remember my mom often repeating, "You need to be a little quieter."
Siona: Actually, age itself has a significant influence. I was more modest in childhood and genuinely didn't say anything unnecessary. But over time, especially with the onset of the war, I became freer. Now I speak my mind because it's just uncomfortable for me to live any other way. Parents don't always understand this. They are very religious and tell us to think more about God, to make our art more about Him.
We say that we write songs about what currently concerns us the most, what hurts, what occupies our thoughts. Otherwise, what's the point? Art is about expressing what you feel and experience.
"Am I really Ukrainian or not?"
Siona: First and foremost, we are Ukrainians. We were born in Ukraine, surrounded by Ukrainians, and we speak Russian and Ukrainian. Traditions, culture – it's close to us. But at the same time, we are also Jewish and Ethiopian. I feel about 70% Ukrainian. It's uncomfortable for me when people say, "Well, how can you be Ukrainian?" Unfortunately, there are those who only look at the surface: they see our faces and they don't care about our background, memories, and thoughts. It's narrow-minded and primitive to think that if I look like an African, then I must be African. All people are different, and Ukrainians are very diverse. There are many people of color who speak Ukrainian even better than us because we spoke russian language daily, unfortunately. In the interest of fairness, such narrow-mindedness is not solely a characteristic of Ukraine. When we performed concerts abroad, people there were also surprised when they found out we were Ukrainian.
Betty: There was a situation where we say, "We are from Ukraine," and they ask, "From the UK?" And we say, "Noooooooooooo! From Ukraine."
Ukraine is amazing. It's incredibly diverse. If you only judge based on your own neighborhood, you're depriving yourself, closing yourself off from new experiences.
I felt about 95% Ukrainian until the UEFA European Football Championship Euro 2012. Then something changed. I was invited to sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a tournament in Kharkiv, and it was an extraordinary event. I wanted to do it for my family, for my Ukraine, for myself. I remember the day of the performance. I was ready, I had arrived, even checked the microphone.
And when there were just 5 minutes left before the performance, they told me, "Sorry, we can't let a dark-skinned girl go on stage. People won't understand why a dark-skinned person is singing the Ukrainian anthem." I was in shock. It triggered a reevaluation of everything that had happened. Am I really Ukrainian or not? If I can't openly sing the anthem, then who am I? I thought a lot about it. Even when we participated in the Eurovision 2019 selection, I had an internal struggle. But the answer for me came through the war.
Siona: I remember very well how Betty was after that day... It was long before we formed the group. It meant a lot to her because it was about showing that Ukraine can be diverse. It was painful for us too.
Siona and Betty by Yasmin-Sara Ergen
ABOUT WAR'S IMPACT
Betty: It was during the war that I truly felt my Ukrainian identity more than ever. The hate surrounding us couldn't touch that. We were performing concerts in Europe, and each time I felt an incredible pride for my country. I pushed aside all the negativity and stored it away in a drawer.
That's when I regained my sense of self and understood that I am not only Ukrainian but also Jewish and Ethiopian. All these aspects of my background provide me with a rich tapestry of experiences, allowing me to think more broadly and, above all, be a compassionate human being. I have no desire to harm anyone. I simply stand for love and life.
There's still hope that many people currently abroad will return to Ukraine with a new social perspective, becoming more open-minded and shedding stereotypes. During times of war, we've started speaking our minds without filters. We see how crucial it is to communicate about everything that concerns us. The topic of Ukraine's multi-ethnicity is one of those important matters. Among the military, there are many guys and girls whose parents come from places like Vietnam or Nigeria, but they were born in Ukraine. Yet, it's rarely discussed. Many individuals remain unknown to Ukraine because they are not showcased or talked about in the mainstream media.
Siona: Now it's clear who's a true Ukrainian and who's not. Many people who hold Ukrainian passports have abandoned their homes, moved to Russia, and support this war. On the other hand, numerous individuals from all around the world stand with Ukraine. They understand what's happening.
Yeah, war is the most horrifying thing imaginable. But thanks to it, we've come to realize and understand certain things. Including the fact that Ukraine is a multiethnic, multiracial nation.
Siona by Yasmin-Sara Ergen
ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA
Siona: I have immense respect for content creators, but social media is a whole different ball game. Everything around us is difficult: war in Ethiopia, the war in Israel, the war in Ukraine. Pain from all sides. That's why I made the decision to distance myself from social media. But Betty, on the other hand, is quite active there, and it doesn't mean she doesn't feel overwhelmed. She just found a way to derive something positive from that platform.
During the first six months of the full-scale war in Ukraine, we jokingly called Betty a politician. She was writing about everything so passionately!
Betty: But eventually, I started feeling burnt out. I began sharing more positivity, emphasizing self-care, which is a crucial topic for me now. And you know what? I've been receiving tremendous support. People reach out to me with messages like, "Thank you, you're our sunshine," or "Thanks for reminding me to take care of myself, get a manicure, hit the gym, and finally have a proper lunch." And let me tell you, it's been comforting for me.
Siona, Betty and Miriam by Yasmin-Sara Ergen
Took me long I understood
Being kind sometimes is rude
Better be myself that's rule
Better hear myself that's rule
Better feel myself that cool
Better know myself that's cool
That's my focus pockus tool
FO SHO. "Boom-Boom", 2021
ABOUT HONESTY IN MUSIC
Ukraine is an incredibly cool country, filled with amazing people. And finally, others are starting to see it too! It's just that there wasn't hype around it before.
Our guys and girls in Silicon Valley are doing crazy things. Ukrainians make awesome music videos for top artists. We're making a statement about ourselves. And, what's very important, we're showing boldness.
It's important for creativity too: to be brave. Yes, it involves a certain risk. We took a risk with our music. We could have made it more familiar to Ukrainian listeners, but instead, we went all in. Because any other way would have been, at the very least, dishonest.
And we also have this far-seeing animated music video. I don't know how we came up with it. We drive out of Kharkiv in a car, and there's smoke behind us. And we're escaping from a demon in the Carpathian Mountains. Where did that come from, back in 2021?
That's exactly what we mean when we talk about the importance of being honest. This topic troubled us, it moved us. We talked about what was on our minds and in our hearts, and it turned out to be worthwhile.
It's very important for us to embed social messages in our songs. To be uncomfortable but truthful. To ask uncomfortable questions. To step out of the comfort zone.
We want to motivate creative people to use their minds for positive change. What previous generations did—that's their thing. But we have our own path now and the opportunity to do something for others. Because we have resources. We have a future.
Listen to FO SHO below:
By Alice Zhuravel and Oksana Hrushanska
Special thanks to Maria Noschenko