My simple question for any artist is this: do you have something you’ve GOT to say? It doesn’t matter what, as long as there’s a story they NEED to tell. When they do, it usually resonates with people. This is the case with Yonnas Abraham of Obliterati Records. He finally feels like he has his story. It hasn’t always been an easy road for the celebrated artist. At times the path to his only outlet, music, blocked by the same demons that once drew him to create. His latest album Féven, is an exploration of this journey through love and addiction, and most importantly recovery and peace. We caught up with Yonnas at his home studio and had an honest conversation about his upcoming performance, his team, addiction, Blackness, and so much more. Photo and video captured by Midnight Suns. Check out the interview below!
Res: For people who don’t know, just introduce yourself, your music, what you’re about.
Yonnas: My name is Yonnas, and I make dream pop for Black people. Genre of one. haha. Yeah basically’s its like atmospheric guitar music over heavy beats with sort of spectral, soulful vocals. That’s like straight from the press release…But that’s why it’s in the press release, cause it was fucking accurate.
Res: Fair, haha, but talk a little more, like what does the dream pop genre mean to you.
Yonnas: Well dream pop is a genre that was sort of coined by this band named A.R. Kane but the sound was really typified by this band named Cocteau twins who existed before the term came around but it’s really like these swirly atmospheric guitar parts, kinda hushed vocals, and the reason I love it, is because it’s so close to like, soul music, the tones and stuff, it doesn’t try to beat you over the head, it’s not anything aggressive, it’s really seductive, it reminds me of like Sade, shit like that. And to me that’s what I used to always say. Sade invented dream pop for Black people, because it’s sort of like spectral and atmospheric, but, for me, Soul is just an important part, let’s just say. Normally in dream pop it’s the hush vocals, it sounds…light drums, you know it sounds hella white bro? You know what I mean, and I just N*ggafied it bro straight up. Hahahaha.
Res: Hahahah don’t know if I’m even allowed to type that shit!
Yonnas: Well thats the term I’ve been using. I just made it more like you know, I guess….I feel like the thing about the emphasis on the drums, and the emphasis on turning the vocals up, is because in my brain its really just dreamy soul music, I call it rock music because ultimately guitar music in that sense is rock. I don’t consider myself a real soul singer, but I aspire to make soul music. I’m not screaming or getting angry at people.
Res: So we’re here to talk about your show tomorrow. A Love Letter to Black Liberation. In our conversation earlier you expressed frustrations with white gatekeepers in the music space, being labeled, things like that. So what does Black Liberation mean to you in the context of music, appropriation, etcetera, and then also on a broader scale?
Yonnas: You said not to get long winded, but I might have to get little bit long long winded…
Res: Well no I mean this is like THE question tonight so…
Yonnas: I think on a real basic level, as a Black person, you can never not factor in your Blackness. No matter what you do. You gotta go to the grocery store, you gotta go to the bank. And then every body knows it. They’ll be like oh but you’re Black. Every body knows it…that the world treats Black people unfairly. So that’s…I want a world where the foremost concern of Black people is not having to account for one’s own Blackness. And then I think on a broader political scale, Black American descendants of slaves are owed reparations, and Africa needs to be decolonized. You know, you still have diamond mines. You still have European hegemony over African natural resources, and that’s antithetical to the notion of Black people being free, when you can’t even own the land you stand on. You don’t even have the option. Like diamond mines are protected by the governments of the countries that these people live in, because the Europeans that have these diamond mines, subsidize the armies. You know what I mean? So it’s like when you really get to thinking about the state of Black people internationally, and even locally, it becomes alarmingly clear that we’re not free. And that really bothers me, like more than anything else. And then musically, I would say that..we talked about this. I think if you make Black music, invariably, you have to worry about some non Black person quantifiying it and being willing to comidify it for you. And it doesn’t work that way if you’re a white musician making rock music, you don’t have to worry about some Black A&R being like “oh I dont think this is quite emo enough for the kids” but if you’re a Black artist, there’s GONNA be some white A&R’s, some white label heads that are gonna be like “I don’t think this is street enough, this isn’t quite Black enough.” At the end of the day, you can have white crossover into any other genre, but Black people are sort of limited to this narrow scope of r&b and rap. And when they foray into that other shit, they are literally the drop of chocolate in the glass of milk. And you never see, like have you ever seen and all Black rock band, like other than Living Color and Fishbone. And then their stories are fucked. Have you heard their stories? They’re FUCKED. Hahah. You know what I’m sayin? And it’s sad….Black people make soul, white people make rock, in a way that’s been pretty normalized, then you have the notion that like, there’s a whole machine reinforcing that. And thats why I talk about not being in the music industry, I’m in the Yonnas industry. Nobody’s gonna define to me what the fuck I’m doing. I don’t give a fuck if you have a blog, a magazine, a label, a publicity company….this is rock music because I say it’s fucking rock music.
Res: You haven’t hit the stage in over 8 years is that right? I’ve seen you rock a lot of times, you really tap into some other crazy energy shit. What’s the on stage experience like for you?
Yonnas: You know I think about it all the time. When I think about myself on stage I see myself on stage…a lot of times the way I move or the way I act on stage, it’s not that it’s preplanned but it’s like I consider that aesthetic in the making of the music. For instance with the mic stand (or not), it’s like “I’m doing the mic stand” (gestures), I’m moving like this, I’m performing like that. Sometimes it’s a big venue, sometimes it’s a small venue. Even when I’m writing this stuff I’m thinking about the performance. This time it’s big venues. When I would make Pirate Signal or BLKHRTS I would imagine warehouses, now I imagine Pepsi Center or I guess it’s Ball Arena.
Ultimately this set up, and this performance, and this thing is sort of, really the only place you’re gonna get it is from me. So if you like it, you gotta come back to the well. You’re not gonna find it at other people’s show. That’s what’s so cool with this event, it’s just me and I was able to curate the room, and the sound and everything. Cuz motherfuckers is gonna know, that was Yonnas. One thing I didn;t do is name it…”Yonnas Performs.” I made it a ‘night’, because my shows are, in my sense, like installations, they are events, it’s not like “Yonnas Live” like it’s THIS event, A Love Letter to Black Liberation.
Res: You produced the whole album, along with Nick Basset….Sonic landscape is crazy..I see the MPC here now, I saw it in the Love In The Time of The Opiate Crisis video, are you still banging out beats on the MPC?? What else was involved in this production?
Yonnas: Yeah thats how it started yeah. They’re beats and then I send em. I record my vocals, then I send them all to him, and then sometimes like I said like ‘Macaroni’ started with, he sent me a voice note playing a piece of guitar like I just wrote this what you think. I was just so enamored that someone had written music for me, and it kinda sounded like a sample, and it was the chords, the guy, his tone, his strumming, his feel, I was like “ahhhh,” and I just made the beat instantly, and then I gave it back to him and he added some more guitar parts. Back and forth but yeah this is my thing, thats why its in the video, know what I mean? That’s what I play.
Res: So, you mentioned aesthetics earlier. To me, if I’m discussing your art with other people, that’s always something I’m bringing up. Because, regardless of genre or space you’re exploring, regardless of the budget, your taste always transcends all of that. Which is dope. Who to you, are some of the masters of aesthetics that inspire you?
Yonnas: I think initially and early on I was really inspired by alternative big rock bands/ Portishead…well thats not really rock more trip hop…The Mars Volta, Radiohead, Tool, just in terms of like…cryptic, you know mysterious kind of stuff. And being an idea rather than a person or an entity. And then in terms of album artwork like I said, just like shows and stuff, I think about it in the process. I’m imagining the colors, I’m imagining….and this cover for this album..was made by Féven. Féven is an artist, she made the cover. And, I just remember seeing before I even started the album, I always had the art. And that really helped make the album. You know she would just feed me art, she’d take photos. She’s a brilliant painter and photographer, her stuff is all on point too. And I notice that too. Like I look for people with like, I’ll see somebody with fly ass art like… like Blake!
Res: Yeah thats cool I was gonna ask about Blake but yeah let’s just get there now. But yeah how’d you connect with Blake Jackson, incredible artist (who’s doing all of your visuals) for Féven?
Yonnas: Actually, he straight up posted like “im available to be hired.” And the truth is, the sunflower which is the logo for Obliterati, is inspired by his work in those sunflower fields. I used to see the photos he’d do there, the sickest fucking photos. They (sunflowers) always symbolized a lot to me. And so I just assumed he was you know busy to the gills and shit, which he is, but I just reached out, I took it as a sign. And then we had a conversation on the phone and we saw eye to eye on so many things. Politically, philosophically, artistically, all this other stuff and I was like alright well “Check the album out. If you rock with the album, let’s work.” Because if he didn’t rock with the album, all the other shit doesn’t matter. But he really fucks with it. One time he said, “this album gives me hope.” I was like ‘wowwww.’ Cuz you know, I do believe, like I’m gonna be really honest with you, I don’t treat it like an unsolvable problem. I do believe Black liberation will occur, I do believe Africa will be decolonized, I do believe reparations will be paid. I think in my lifetime…because the reality is what goes up must come down, and every thing that seems to be the way it is, changes.
Res: Shifting gears, Hate the sun, I THINK, its my favorite record on Féven, feels like the big drop in there is the drop for the whole album. What’s your favorite record off the album and why?
Yonnas: I would say my favorite on the album is Dream Ebony. For sure because that crystalizes the whole album. On the surface level, the album is about getting your shit right, but that song is about WHY you’re getting your shit right. And I remember when I fist made that, I one taked it, and I was weeping, openly, by the time I was done I was crying. I listened, and I was like “Oh that sounds terrible.” I was so mad, I took a nap. I woke back up I came back here I played it again, I wept again. So I’m like, objectively I dont think this sounds good, but it’s doing something to me emotionally. I was like I gotta check with Morgan (close friend). She was like “it’s one of the best things you’ve ever made.” For me at that point I just realized like, I got something out. Part of the reason that I think me personally, I felt like I had to stop fucking with the drugs, and doing self destructive behaviors is because of that question I asked in the song. Do you want Black people to be free more than anything else? Well what are you gonna do about it? What am I gonna do about it? Am I just gonna sit there and lament the situation? Or am I gonna get right? Am gonna be my best self, get in the gym get right, get off the… and build something to move the needle. The question is very much for myself. Because in that moment in like realizing we aren’t free..I realized the worst thing is that I had already known that and I’d grown accustomed to it, and accepted it, and that wasn’t acceptable.
Res: Addiction. That’s a theme throughout the album.. Was the album itself created in your new found sobriety or is there a crossover, as far as like when some things were written, or recorded etc.?
Yonnas: Some things yeah. I think ‘Love In The Time’, and ‘I Hate the Sun’ were the two songs where I had the instrumentals done. And I couldn’t get the vocals right when I was still in my active addiction. So, when I was getting to after ‘Dream Ebony’, so many people who had heard it had been like “that beat is so fucking sick bro” and I had a whole song written and I was like let me just try it this time, and I tried it, and it came together. But I think on a bigger level it was like “how is this album gonna end.” Is it gonna end with “I was fucked up and I’m still fucked up.” Or is it gonna be like “I got my shit together.” Cuz thats one of the things when we talk about music to heal or music to harm. So much music is like “I’m trapped in addiction and I’ll never get out.” How many stories are like “I got right.” It’s like conceivably not sexy. Don’t talk about recovery, talk about being fucked up. N*ggaz will be sober, like future or something like that, dead ass sober, and keep talking about being fucked up because they think that the world is not gonna accept them if they’re not fucked up, but it’s like. The world doesn’t decide. The world is WRONG. We make the fucking choices, we create the culture, we make the aesthetics, what we say GOES, we don’t take enough credit for how we dictate culture. Because something might not drop, you might not get the immediate reaction, but you plant the seed. That’s how cultures shift. You don’t change the world by doing what everyone else is fuckin doing.
Res: You’ve described substances as something you once perceived as a necessary “creative lubricant.” As you continue to distance yourself from that era, what insight can you give to other people experiencing that thought process and how your broke free?
Yonnas: You know, I’m not gonna knock anyones relationship with weed first off. I’m not gonna knock anybody for that, cuz I feel like that’s almost a staple, you can go to the fuckin store and get it. But when you start talking about illicit drugs, gotta deal with that they could kill you, in a single usage and shit, like, you’re lost in the sauce. And I think for me I believed that, when I got clean the first time, in the back of my mind I was like “I could just go back and I’d make fuckin bangers.” So I tried, And then….I wasn’t making bangers. I wasn’t getting shit done I couldn’t put shit together. Going to therapy I realized I was like why am I not finishing this album? I went to therapy to finish my album. I literally sat down like “I’m here because I can’t finish my album.” The reality is you can’t finish your album because you’re on fucking drugs. Let’s get to it. Nah mean? hahaha.
Res: Right but THAT was the symptom that was unacceptable to you though.
Yonnas: Right. Exactly. So if I were gonna give any advice, I would say what is the symptom that is unacceptable to YOU. Because for me, there were things that I did this FOR, and without that, and realizing that, you know. For me things got really crazy. Fuck around and die. You get one. You have the toughest tolerance in the world, but you don’t know what the motherfuckers is making this shit with bro, You really don’t. It’s crazy out here. And I really perceived that like. I could die, and I thought about that, just that can’t be the end of me. Even with the album it can’t be the ending.
Res: Nah it can’t. I’m glad, I mean Congratulations on your sobriety man. I’m glad you’re still here, and still making art. It’s important, to me even. But word that’s valuable insight.
Yonnas: Well you came up with that term “The Symptom Thats Unacceptable” that’s great, I’m a use that from now on!
Res: Shit, Yeah, we both will, hopefully everyone can use that. You mentioned therapy, I appreciate that, I just started myself recently. Men need to be in therapy. Let’s talk about about men’s mental health in minority communities, it’s def a hispanic issue, it’s a Black issue. What are your thoughts?
Yonnas: The stigmas are getting removed, I think. The honest situation is, every human being regardless of their health status, needs to be in therapy, because life is an ongoing ordeal. To so many people the idea of therapy is indication that you are somehow broken, and malfunctioning and need to be fixed. But people really need to view it as maintenance. If you like who you are you need to go to therapy, if you don’t like who you are you need to go to therapy. You need to talk about what the fuck is going on. The power of speaking your problems is the first step in addressing them. At first I was LYING to my therapist. Then I was like WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING BRO? Then I just realized, this is the horse to the water not drinking. Therapy and mental health it’s like, even when we talk about Black liberation. We seek Black liberation, but when we get Black liberation we need to maintain Black liberation. We seek mental health, but when we get mental health, we must maintain mental health. It’s not just some destination. So muthafuckas really gotta reimagine the idea of therapy as something that’s reconstruction, and think of it more like maintenance, keep your shit sharp.
Res: Without giving too much away, what can we expect from the performance tomorrow (Feb 17?)
Yonnas: Thats a good question, so I got a guitarist named Steve who is super dope, and they do backup vocals too. I gotta keyboardist slash backup vocalist goes by @cerealman on instagram, and basically we sat in this room and practiced over and over and got all the parts right. They brought a lot of shit to the table, they really enhanced it by adding musicianship, by adding these flares, you know? And then as far as production, there’s this guy named Alex Brooks, who has this entertainment company called Just Dream, and he’s bringing this whole sick ass expensive super sound system. I myself am gonna be blown away. I always wanted to create a whole world. It’s completely and totally custom.
Res: Wow perfect timing (tattoo artist just finished.) Any other shout outs?
Yonnas: Shoutout industrial arts, shout out Just Dream Entertainment, shout out Steve, Cereal Man, shoutout Blake, shoutout Jermaine, shoutout Brother X, shout out Senaiet right here, she’s deeply involved. Obliterati is a group of people, know what I mean, and I think they all help me facilitate ideas I have, and in turn I want to help the facilitate their ideas. Because, I truly believe the real currency is community. Nothing is more valuable than other people.