NBC’s singing competition The Voice enters its “battle round” tonight. The four judges—Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams—have chosen their teams and will begin eliminating singers from the hit show, which is in its seventh season. One of the more unusual contestants this year is Menlik Zergabachew, an Ethiopian-American reggae singer from Silver Spring, Maryland.
Zergabachew’s story seems made for TV: He dropped out of high school to be the frontman for the reggae/rock band The Relics—a decision that frustrated his hardworking parents but ultimately landed him in Los Angeles on a soundstage, singing on national TV. (If you haven’t seen the show, the singers are initially weeded out through “blind auditions”—the judges must decide whether they want someone for their “teams” based solely on the voices alone.)
Back home in Silver Spring during some down time from the show, Zergabachew spoke with Bandwidth about how he got on TV—he sang Sublime’s “Santeria” for his blind audition—as well as the ripple effects for The Relics and within the D.C. area’s Ethiopian community.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Bandwidth: This all must be a little surreal. How did you get a chance to audition for the show? Whose idea was it?
Menlik Zergabachew: There’s a couple of reasons why I did it: One, The Relics really weren’t making a lot of money at all, actually. Like, dead broke—you know, scavenging for gas, bread, this and that, stopping here and there. Having to walk bricks to get gas… people were at their end. Certain members of the group were like, “Damn, school’s looking better than this, I got a job, I got this and that, we gotta go our separate ways or something.” To stop that from happening—one day I peeped Tessanne [Chin, the Jamaican who won Season 5 of the show] on TV doing “Let It Be” by The Beatles, and I just liked it a lot. It sounded great, and the crowd went wild for it, so I was like, “Damn, if people out here don’t like reggae, I might as well gain some publicity for the band and go out there,” you know?
So the band is still together?
Yeah, hell yeah. One hundred percent.
And this is almost like an insurance policy, then?
I wouldn’t say that—I wouldn’t say an insurance policy… It’s like a cut through all the extra [B.S.] we’d have to deal with. It’s a shortcut, if you will.
So you’re singing on national TV, you see Blake Shelton’s seat turn around, meaning that you’ve got a spot on the show. Then Gwen Stefani’s chair turns around. Take us through what was going through your mind during all of this.
[Chuckles.] I keep saying this, it’s really hard to remember exactly how I felt up there, because it was kind of a rush, but I remember I was up there, singing, the crowd was clapping and everything, and it was feeling good, but no chairs had turned yet so I was nervous. In a way, really early into the song, I was like, “Damn, I messed up on this part, that part”—already overanalyzing the whole thing. And then it’s like, bam, I see lights—I see this guy’s face like, Blake Shelton! I’ve seen this guy on TV! Half my head is thinking, “Don’t mess up these lyrics, hit this part, do this, move over here, remember not to just swing your arm like it’s dead the whole time”—which I completely forgot—it was a whole bunch of things going through my mind. Then Gwen turned at the end, and I was even more happy.
Honestly, I felt bad, because Blake turned for me really, really early, and I felt like I kind of owed it to him to choose him, but in the end, I’ve been a fan of No Doubt since I was a little kid, and it just felt right to go with Gwen because, you know, she does reggae.
Have you had much time to be around the judges since you got chosen?
Yeah, of course—we practice with them and they give us tips. They help out a lot with the whole next step, the battles. And it’s really good that I chose Gwen because she’s helping out with the thing that I need most—what I think I need most—which is stage presence. We get a lot of help from them.
“In Ethiopian culture, families always talk about what their kid is doing. And when I dropped out, understandably they didn’t have something to say. But now it’s like ‘Hey! My son is on The Voice.'”
Where are you right now?
Right now I am sitting in my backyard in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s cold as hell out here man, I miss that sun already.
So I want to talk about Silver Spring and your family and some of that other stuff in a minute, but…
[A female voice interrupts in the background. Menlik says, “Yeah?” Voice: “Are you OK?”]
One second … Yeah, I’m on the phone! [Returns to the conversation.] My bad.
No, that’s a good entry point, actually. Was that your mom?
Your family was a big part of your audition and your biography that they’ve aired. How has your family responded to all of this?
Oh, they love it, man. Of course they’re proud, but in Ethiopian culture, families always talk about what their kid is doing. And when I dropped out, understandably they didn’t have something to say. They never really made me feel bad about that, but I felt bad about it, always having to hear my parents change the subject and this and that. But now it’s like “Hey! My son is on The Voice—it’s funny, seeing them light up off that. It’s crazy.
What about the rest of the Ethiopian community in general? Did the word spread pretty fast that all this had happened to you?
Yeah, man, fast as hell. It’s wild, man. Everybody’s supporting. I got love from everybody off this. Ethiopians, of course, my Ethiopians is helping out a lot! I’m pretty sure that half those million-something views [on the YouTube clip of his blind audition] that I just peeped out of nowhere this morning is from them, too. But I’m also thankful for everybody. Everybody’s been helping out.
When you say helping out, what do you mean? Especially from the Ethiopian community?
My friend yesterday was like, “Yo, have you ever searched your name on Twitter?” And I didn’t even know you could do that. He searches a hashtag of my name, and it’s like, man, I did not expect this at all. Like people from Poland, I saw somebody in Angola, somebody in Holland, somebody in Japan … it’s crazy man. I never really thought of the Internet—of course it connects everybody, but when you’re like really a part of that, it’s insane, man. It’s wild.
Let’s talk a little bit about you as an artist. You’re a reggae singer, it’s a good show for singers that work in a specific genre, and I’ve seen other people who came in and they were one type of singer and the judges really coached them up to take on more diverse types of music. But do you think you have the talent to break out of that reggae box?
I don’t know if it’s a weird way of looking at this, but this is the way I see it: First I’m comfortable playing reggae. I would be comfortable playing reggae 100 percent for the rest of my life. Second, if you ask some of my friends, you wouldn’t expect this, but we were singing, like, Papa Roach on the bus every day and me and my sister, when we were kids, we’d be singing Michael Jackson and Alicia Keys and Usher. So yeah, I guess I could do something other than reggae.
But that might limit you on the show.
It probably will. But I’m willing to stick to what I do. Of course, sooner or later it’s not going to be up to me 100 percent, I’m pretty sure, so either way I’m probably going to end up doing some other stuff. And if you’ve seen the preview for the battle, we’re doing [Hall and Oates’] “Maneater,” me and Troy Ritchie.
That’s a soulful song and you have a soulful voice. So that song is in your comfort zone?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure we do a good job with it. [Chuckles.]
Let’s get back to the more local side of this. What about your bandmates [guitarist Noah Bonaiuti, bassist Marco A. Escobar and percussionist Obi Igbo]? How have they handled it?
We’re all feeling great off this—this is a huge step for all of us. Me getting this kind of attention means we’re all moving up, so everybody’s happy with it. Everybody’s feeling good.
Some singers on the show don’t have anything to go back to, but you do. Do you talk among yourselves, do you get to be around the other singers and talk about those career kinds of things?
Yeah, of course, and one thing that I’ve seen, Bob Marley said it in a song: Every man thinks his burden is the heaviest, whoever feels it knows it most. So speaking to everybody and really getting to know everybody, of course you get to make good friends, but it also helps you appreciate what you’ve got and understand that everybody is going through the same thing in a different way. Everybody’s got their own struggles, and hopefully this Voice journey helps out everybody in a great way. I don’t know anybody from any of the other seasons, but everybody on this season—damn, like, good people. For real, man, great people. Nice as hell. It’s a great vibe going with everybody right now. Everybody’s got the same positive outlook, that even getting this far is amazing.