Exploring Africa in LA: A Little Ethiopia story (Part 1)
Written by Shaka Mali Tafari
Producers: Shaka Mali Tafari and Anyel Zuberi Fields | Digital producers: Crissy Van Meter and Andrea Domanick
I turned 35 years old in April. Physically, I didn’t feel any different, but as I took stock of my life that day, my mind drifted to my early years – I had a really good childhood. It was a special time growing up as a young Rasta kid in 1990s Los Angeles. My old stomping ground of Venice, in particular, was a trip.
That’s where I found myself on my birthday, riding around my old neighborhood bumpin’ Bob Marley and The Wailers, and thinking about my mom and the unorthodox way she raised me.
Like many Jamaicans who migrated to the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s, Mama was very passionate about two things: Her spiritual faith in Rastafari, and Pan-Africanism. As a kid, I saw her vision up close when, in 1993, Mama opened The Rastafarian Culture Center in Venice Beach.
“[I did that] to become self-employed, because I didn't have confidence that anybody would want to hire me and give me a real job,” Mama says. “Especially when you're trying to embrace your culture, or your Blackness, or your Africaness — at the time, nobody wanted that.”
Mama wanted the Center, located at 4th and Rose Aves., to feel like a small island storefront, like the one that she grew up in in Mandeville back in Jamaica. The Venice version was a single-story, rust-orange building with a green awning and hardwood floors.
To me, it was more like a Black museum. We had posters of Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, and other Pan-African leaders adorned every wall. We even had a small gift shop with T-shirts, djembes, and cassettes of artists like Peter Tosh, Shabba Ranks, and King Sunny Adé for sale.
Mama was having a hard time teaching my little brother, Jaja Ajah, and I how to read, so she also dedicated a small portion of the wall to “Hooked on Phonics.” Unlike most museums, the Center was where we lived.
There were no bedrooms, and we didn’t own much furniture, which is just how Mama liked it. Jaja and I slept on futons that were easy to break down and even easier to put away.
Everybody under one roof
To keep the Center afloat, Mama would host a party every Friday night. People from all over the city would come through — so many that Mama had to move our futon into the backyard, where she’d drape us in extra thick blankets and try to put us to bed underneath the stars.
“The space was small. But there was no place for you guys to really lay down and rest once the people started coming,” Mama recalls. “It was camping. I put you in the backyard to camp.”
Hood camping was cool, but I’d always make my way back into the party. The whole scene was a production, complete with flyers, bands, and a BYOB policy in exchange for a donation at the door. But the best part was the eclectic mix of people I got to meet. As long as nobody started no shit, all were welcome.
“It was quite diverse. We were in the heart of Venice, where all the actors and singers and musicians were, and we were there [too],” Mama says. “All the cultural people, all the arts people were in Venice. As the Friday night gathering grew, it drew up people from all kinds from all over the world.”
Amid this motley crew, even Crips and Eses got along at the Center. But my favorite partygoers on those Friday nights were the folks from Africa, hailing from South Africa to Nigeria, Ghana to Ethiopia.
Like Mama, they spoke differently, they moved differently to the music, and despite — or maybe because of — those differences, I always identified with them. It was everybody under one roof (though, now that I’m older, I’m pretty sure the weed also helped facilitate the friendly vibes).
“A lineage of my very own”
Less apparent to me at the time was that Mama was trying to give me a sense of community and pride in our people, the only way she knew how. While LA, especially compared to cities like New York, has never been known as a hub for Jamaican immigrants and culture, it was especially important to Mama that we had a connection to Africa beyond the Friday night parties at the Center. She wanted me to feel it in my soul.
“I needed to name my kids something that would pick me up and make me feel strong, and give me something to look forward to — a son that is going to be a strong leader,” she says.
So when it came to my name, Mama went for the entire continent. My first name, Shaka, honors King Shaka Zulu, founder of the Zulu Empire in Southern Africa. My middle name, Mali, nods to the West African Empire. As for my last name, Tafari, that gets a little more interesting. I was originally supposed to take my father’s last name, Coleman, but let’s be real — Shaka Mali Coleman doesn’t quite land. And since my father wasn’t exactly stepping up, Mama decided to give me a lineage of my very own, inspired by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.
Before he was known by his royal titles, Emperor Haile Selassie’s first name was Tafari, which means “he who inspires awe or is to be revered” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic.
Ruling from 1930-1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was Ethiopia’s 225th and last monarch, and is widely considered to be the architect of modern Africa and the central figure of Rastafari ideology. Under his rule, the University of Addis Ababa was built, Ethiopian Airlines launched, and the African Union famously established in the country’s capital. But much like every other monarch in history, he wasn’t perfect, with a legacy marked by famine and corruption alongside political and social reform. But his reputation in Jamaica, due in part to the emergence of Rastafari in the country shortly after he became emperor, is closer to divinity than royalty, depending on who you ask.
Mama was 5 years old when Emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, a profound moment for not only her but an entire island of Black people just four years removed from three centuries of British colonization.
There’s a lot more to the complex story, but it’s easy to understand why many Rastfarian believers saw the Emperor’s rule as a symbol of Black empowerment. To them and many others, the existence of a Black King meant that Black people did have to tolerate oppression of any kind.
“We got our fill of African culture right here in LA.”
Mama imparted this rich history to us from an early age, but the concept of “the motherland” was a tough pill to digest for a Black kid growing up in LA in the ‘90s, Back then, the closest thing we had to Africa were problematic infomercials featuring white missionary ladies trying to raise 80 cents a day to feed kids that looked just like me.
“I love Africa. I wanted my kids to grow up to be proud Africans, and I just wanted to be proud of my culture,” Mama says.
So with a few extra bucks from our Friday night kickbacks, she made sure we got our fill of African culture right here in LA.
From Venice, we’d head over to Inglewood to pick up oils and incense from a Kenyan shop called Virji’s. I always loved seeing the elaborate wood carvings hanging from the wall. Mama never bought us action figures, but we had a crib full of Africans masks to play with.
Then we’d bounce over to Leimert Park, to a Nigerian spot called Rhythms of the Village. Mama was friends with the musician and owner Onochie Chukwurah, who I later discovered played bass guitar for Fela Kuti.
After, we'd slide down the 10 Highway towards home, but not before stopping off in my favorite neighborhood in the city — Little Ethiopia.
From “Little Addis” to Little Ethiopia
In 2002, the LA City Council officially designated the stretch of Fairfax Ave. between Olympic and Pico Blvds. as Little Ethiopia, bordering the neighborhoods of Mid-Wilshire and Pico-Robertson in the central part of the city. But the enclave was already well-established a decade before then — then known informally as “Little Addis” — by a wave of largely Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants fleeing or separated by conflict in their homelands. By 1992, Los Angeles was home to more than 35,000 Ethiopians, the second largest such community in the US after Washington.
To this day, Little Ethiopia is the only one of LA’s 18 officially recognized ethnic enclaves to recognize a culture from the African continent. It’s also the first neighborhood in US history officially named after an African country.
Little Ethiopia brought the best out of Mama – she felt at home there. She’d let her locs hang down past her hips, and she always wore some type of traditional West African outfit, long, flowing dresses with beautiful colors and patterns and a scarf to match. Mama was easy to identify wherever we went. But I knew she was at her most comfortable when her accent came out.
Instantly, her “patwa” would become more pronounced. “What’s up” became “Ah yah gawn sista''; when it was time to say goodbye, she said, “Unnu no seh mi soon come,” meaning “Y’all know I’m coming back!” — and we were always coming back.
It made sense — while there’s no official Little Jamaica in LA, wherever you find Ethiopians, you’ll find Jamaicans nearby.
“As I've gotten older, I've learned and developed a specific warmth and appreciation for the relationship between Ethiopians and West Indians of varying countries, but especially Jamaica,” says Atlantic culture writer Hannah Giorgis. Originally from Anaheim and now based in New York, she’s a first generation Ethiopian and Black woman with memories of Little Ethiopia of her own. .
“There was always a couple Rastas around, and I didn't really know their deal because … my parents didn't know them or anything,” Giorgis says. “But as I've gotten older and made friends here in New York or in college who were Jamaican and Guaynese and Trinidadians, it clicks certain memories that … start coming into focus in a different way.”
Giorgis’ parents left Ethiopia in the 1980s, part of a generation fleeing the height of the Red Terror, a campaign of violence carried out during the country’s Marxist regime that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and went on to rule for nearly two more decades.
Her family settled in Anaheim, but frequently visited LA, where there was a stronger Habesha — various groups of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent — presence through which their four children could celebrate their Ethiopian heritage. Giorgis recalls attending services at Saint Mary’s Ethiopian Church in Ladera Heights, followed by gatherings with loved ones in Little Ethiopia.
“I have memories of hanging out on Pico and Fairfax and going to shows, or seeing family and friends at Rosalind’s,” she says. “Before it became Little Ethiopia … I remember the excitement that the LA/OC Ethiopic community had around that. It was kind of in the air when you would walk around that stretch on Fairfax.”
That excitement endures today. From the moment you park, you can practically smell, hear, and taste the energy of the whole neighborhood. On impact, you feel the vibe of Ethiopian Jazz playing in the background, or the rhythm of people greeting each other in Amharic. Listen closer, and you’ll hear diners shamelessly chewing injera, the staple spongy Habesha flatbread, with their mouths open, just as traditional etiquette dictates.
I smile thinking that Hannah and I may have crossed paths in those same spaces, tagging along with our parents on our own cultural expeditions, her perspective coming from within the community, mine as a little Jamaican boy looking in.
Julet “Mama” Burke
Shaka Mali Tafari