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Amain Berhane, 26, is weeks away from releasing his debut album under the Berhana moniker. (He swapped the last letter so people will pronounce it correctly.) Today’s call-in lends a painful irony to his laughter and otherwise bright disposition: The Cobb County native’s in his mom’s house, bedridden after falling fluishly ill on the plane from L.A. His debut album HAN is wrapped in the theme of an airline flight, an attendant’s voice guiding the listener through Berhana’s varying states of nostalgia, hedonism, romance, and intoxication. But no, there’s no interlude about contracting airborne viruses. Berhana’s spirit comes through chipper on the phone nonetheless, finally at peace with the big moment to come. He’s no stranger to turbulence, and will go out of the way to remind you.
“I do my best to try and remember the bad things, too,” Berhana says when speaking on his process. “No one’s nostalgic for shitty times, or the bad [times], but you’re not really seeing the full scope of why you had to leave that situation. And it’s funny, cuz I feel like most music is created from nostalgia — I’m always dealing with nostalgia — so that was almost like a message to myself.”
HAN runs at 33 minutes, 33 seconds: a work of fate, or mere luck in the mastering room? Berhana admits the latter, though it took chopping the 34th second off the original cut to make it happen. It’s his second major work after a 2016 self-titled EP granted him the breakout singles “Janet” and “Grey Luh,” the latter’s song placement on FX’s Atlanta, and mounting expectations to become the industry’s next well-dressed crooner with sweet serenades. He remembers the time fondly, full of maxed-out credit cards and Japanese chef shifts as he studied film at The New School. Before the HAN cycle began, Berhana released only two singles after the EP, earning him the “reclusive” tag from his eager core who craved whatever his next would be. His absence was neither strategy nor mystery… it was his persistent desire to do it right, whichever it decided to take form.
“Nobody knows what anybody is going through, or dealing with,” Berhana says of taking his time. “A lotta people like to label things, they’re just doin’ that for themselves. With me, I knew what I wanted to make, and I wasn’t mad at taking time to grow and get better in order to make the thing I wanted to make. It wasn’t so much as, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go against what people want from me!’ It was moreso like, ‘Yeah, I need to take my time with this album,” because it’s the second thing. Your second thing is what establishes the pattern, and I wasn’t ready to establish a pattern that someone else wanted for me, as opposed to what I want for myself.”
Fluidity remains Berhana’s sonic praxis, and HAN distills his many moods across a palette that resembles a dog day of Southern Summer. It’s difficult to approximate his evasive sense of style, but remarkably easy to identify the warmth of his raspy charm. He glides through rock, funk, rap, radio-ready pop, and grand ballads with such poise; with every step forward, he inches closer toward the golden space of having something for everyone without sounding like anyone. The “Health Food” visual gives a perfect glimpse into the oddities of Berhana’s mind while giving credence to his striking visual acumen; it gives Groundhog Day, Truman Show, and Get Out with an offbeat humor to the protagonist’s world being upended from a sip of smoothie to a full-on surveillance state nightmare. It’s almost reductive to call it effortless considering how Berhana relishes the opportunity to take his time. He’s no stranger to the inevitable struggle to properly contextualize one’s work in an industry still reliant on long-outmoded genre conceptions around Black Art. He also refuses to be victimized by standards that mean nothing to what he’s come to do.
“I think genres are quite out,” Berhana says. “I think now, in this world — especially with kids — people care less and less about genres, which is something I appreciate. And yeah, they might still tag it as ‘genreless’ and that’s the genre, but it’s like… whatever, people are gonna say whatever the fuck they wanna say. Most Black artists are still gonna get called ‘rappers’ or ‘R&B artists’ no matter what; it is what it is, to a certain extent, and I’m not gonna let that affect how I make or what I make.”
One glance past the drink napkin and HAN lands (not sorry) somewhere between rom-com and coming-of-age, nobly pushing forward while adding dashes of the classics. He built the retro/surrealist meta-narrative around the final line of “Grey Luh”: “Copped this one-way out to Mexico cuz you compressed my soul and called it love.” Thus, our protagonist’s flight may resemble an escape from the confines of his home, his normal, his expectations. It’s an album of coping with life while longing for something, familiar or otherwise. Berhana frolics through the fantasies of women he might’ve met on other continents, the relentless urge to leave home, and the comedown of the American Dream. The album’s both worldly in its bicoastal blues, and very Southern in its subtleties of making the dramatic sound gorgeous. As a first-gen Ethiopian-American in Georgia, Berhana’s youth carried a different Southern flavor than many; carrying that consciousness to the country’s creative capitals gave him a chance to break free from the insulation and expand his perspective.
“You’re living in multiple worlds at once: you go outside, and you don’t have the same background as Black American kids. And then you see the white kids: They just see you as Black, they have no idea what’s up. And then you go home, and it’s Africans, or — if you’re first-generation — whatever your family is. You’re dealing with multiple worlds at once; it’s always tricky at first, but eventually you learn how to traverse that terrain. I think it makes you stronger, better, it makes you realize — at an early age — that the world is a little bit bigger. And I’m super thankful for it now.”
I forgot to ask Berhana if he’s played HAN on a flight, but I’ve tried it myself: It’s best-served with one’s forehead pressed against the glass, certain death outside. Berhana’s California dreaming hasn’t come cheap; he recalls wanting to quit after a handful of months. He’s fought bad management, industry doubt, clout, and time itself… now he’s got resources, a full-band tour on the way, and a flu that’s currently ruining his family time. He’s found himself through finding balance, the same way he’s given definition to his work across key changes and style lines. But don’t let “Health Food” fool you… he’s got much more range than “salmon with the riiiiiiiiiice.” Lemon pepper wings — flats over drums — pizza, injera, ice-cream sandwiches, and hopefully some soup to bring him back to life. Balance.
“You just can’t lose yourself throughout all the bullshit… you gotta keep your soul intact,” Berhana says of the industry. “And I try to do that by just living a balanced life; I used to be terrible at it, but recently I’ve been really into balance and trying to keep myself centered. That’s what helps.”
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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