Mizan

“Growing up in Ethiopia is a trip,” says Chicago-born singer Mizan Kidanu. That’s where her parents were born and raised and, after earning their degrees, that’s where they returned with four-year-old Mizan and her younger sister, Hasabie, in 1992. “People come first," she explains. “If you have a flat tire, there are ten people around your car. If you’re sick, there are 20 people coming to visit you at the hospital.”

It’s a punishingly cold day in New York, with a brisk, glacial wind that rips teardrops from my eyes. A few blocks from Mizan’s Washington Heights apartment, colossal hunks of ice drift ominously along the Hudson River, indifferent to the hurried nature of the city they're sliding by. Inside her living room, however, the whistle and drip of the radiator comes every 15 minutes to remind us that we’re safe and warm. Here, Mizan’s story unfolds before my eyes as she sorts through childhood photos, arranging them along her keyboard with one hand, cradling her dad’s old Bolex camera in the other. Without a trace of makeup, she’s got the type of day one beauty that makes women curse their genes.

“You can see it in his face, he’s really happy and fulfilled in that moment,” she says, holding up a photo of Dad beaming with parental pride between little Mizan and Hasu. At times, getting to know her in this way is a bit uncomfortable; I’m essentially a stranger digging through her past, silently observing her brief pangs of sadness. “It’s kind of painful to look at these and know that my parents are getting older,” she tells me. I'm reminded that, for this reason, my family photo album remains high up on its closet shelf. One particular black-and-white portrait of my mom, my older brother and two-year-old me together on a wooden bench in our first house always makes me wonder if my mom's happiest moment in life is already long behind her. In it, she wears this look of sheer bliss I'm afraid I might never see again.

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“One particular black-and-white portrait of my mom, my older brother and two-year-old me together on a wooden bench in our first house always makes me wonder if my mom's happiest moment in life is already long behind her. In it, she wears this look of sheer bliss I'm afraid I might never see again.”

Family Ties

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"My parents wanted to take us to a good zoo, so we drove from Chicago all the way to the Bronx," Mizan remembers. She and I might be hitting a similar point in our twenties—yet to experience firsthand the type of love that makes a man want to drive his kids 800 miles to make a memory, but old enough to begin to comprehend its power.

This is far more weighted than scrolling through an Instagram feed of cool dads on Fathers Day, not least because she can see and hear me respond, but I don't feel apart while I hold these photos in my hands, talking about the feelings of the younger versions of her family in the moments immortalized by them. “If you want to understand me and where I come from, you have to understand my structure, the values that my mom and dad have, my background in Ethiopia,” she says. “All you have there, really, is your family, your neighbors and your friends to help you get through life. These values stay with me, and I want that to be reflected in my music. It's about uplifting people.”

“If you want to understand me and where I come from, you have to understand my structure, the values that my mom and dad have, my background in Ethiopia,” she says. “All you have there, really, is your family, your neighbors and your friends to help you get through life. These values stay with me, and I want that to be reflected in my music. It's about uplifting people.”

These days, Mizan uses the Bolex for her own photo projects. “There's something about the texture of film. It looks like the light kind of burns into the image,” she says. The music video for “Thru,” from her upcoming Dark Blue EP, is a compilation of clips shot on her birthday at Coney Island with a Super 8 camera. “I said, ‘Don't tell me when you're filming, because I want this to capture the reality.’ I'm not interested in having a video where everything is set up and I'm lip-syncing or something. For me, it's about capturing the moment and being truthful to that moment. There's no value if it's not honest.”

Discussions of authenticity in music can be tricky and tiresome, but when it comes to Mizan, the shoe fits fine. This might be why, if we’re being real, there’s a good chance you hadn’t heard of her until today. The handful of songs she’s released to date are incredibly promising—her silky voice taps into a deep and far-reaching sense of longing; the touch of nostalgia in her melodic choices reminds me of early Alicia Keys or Amel Larrieux. If you search hard enough, you can find a short video clip online of a timid-looking Mizan claiming her winning trophy at Amateur Night at the Apollo. I get the feeling that that one tangible experience is worth far more to her than a million Soundcloud reposts or Hype Machine hearts.

“I'm not doing this to have money or have fame. It's about helping people realize that they're not alone,” she says. "That's what music was for, but music isn't really inspiring anymore." When daylight fades and Mizan performs "Thru" in her living room, it sticks with me, and not only because it's flowing from a living, breathing person instead of my headphones. It's because all day long, I've been confronting the notion that one day, we’ll all run out of moments to capture. At best life is long, but never without end, she sings for us, and for a father who no longer takes pictures because his children grew up. We have no time to pretend.

“Discussions of authenticity in music can be tricky and tiresome, but when it comes to Mizan, the shoe fits fine. This might actually be why, if we’re being real, there’s a good chance you hadn’t heard of her until today.”

Self Portraits From Around The Globe

London

Turkey

New York

Ethiopia

On Hold

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Directed by Mizan

Waiting for a train, waiting at the grocery store, waiting to get home, once home waiting to sleep, waiting to watch a movie, waiting to be happy. We're always on hold in this modern life. There is no ideal moment when things will align perfectly and only joy will be felt. Waiting is a distraction and the moment is now.