The Enlightenment of Yonnas Abraham

Denver native Yonnas Abraham has fronted several iconic local bands throughout his life. He started as a teenager with Life Crew, made up of kids he grew up with in Park Hill, then the Pirate Signal, which fused math rock and rap, then BLKHRTS, a nationally recognized goth rap trio with King FOE and Karma. But now, at forty years old, Abraham is finally making the music he wants to make, freed from the expectations previously put upon him by bandmembers, audiences, music-industry gatekeepers, and even himself. With his first solo project, FÉVEN, out November 23, he introduces the world to what he has coined “dream pop for Black people” — a harmonious marriage of breakdown beats, radically vulnerable lyrics and guitar textures reclaimed from shoegaze, wholly driven by the spirit of Black liberation.

Following the critical success of BLKHRTS’ 2011 EP, BLK S BTFL, the trio moved to L.A. to record music but were derailed by Abraham’s struggles with addiction, among other things. “I lived in the generation of the opioid crisis. First Oxycontin, then heroin, fentanyl. These things were in my life. Throughout my music career, I successfully dabbled without becoming completely dependent, but in L.A. it really got out of control for me. Because of that, as well as a number of other factors, BLKHRTS essentially dissolved,” Abraham says. He sought help for his substance-abuse issues and returned to Denver in June 2021. But even before BLKHRTS disbanded, the direction of Abraham’s music was shifting. “I feel like BLKHRTS was this super-high-energy intense thing, and I wanted to make stuff with a variety of emotions, different palates, [and to] sing more. I kind of even got burnt out on making music, so I came home, and my friend Nate picked me up from the airport. I needed money, and he was like, ‘Well if you want money, make me beats.’ And that was a great way to get back into it,” he reflects.

His friend set up a home studio for Abraham to experiment with making new music, but unexpectedly passed away before he could finish recording anything. “The studio was set up in his bedroom, where he passed. For a while, I tried to go up there and record, and I thought it was something I could overcome. I couldn’t function. I was so sad in this room that my best friend passed in,” Abraham admits. “But I had these songs that had these hooks, and I needed to do the verses. I just could never get the verses right. It really became an issue, and it got to the point where I got a therapist.” Therapy became the catalyst for his own personal revolution that would forever change not only his relationship to substances, but also the purpose of his music going forward.

Denver native Yonnas Abraham makes “dream pop for Black people” on his new album.

Blake Jackson

“It was like, ‘Well why can’t you finish your album?’ And the reality is at that point, I was still dabbling with regressive, unsustainable behaviors in relation to chemicals and shit. Because for so long, I believed it to be a creative lubricant. I would always do these substances and then make music. When I made the mental connection that really, this is an obstacle, it was very easy for me to stop,” he explains. “For me, the relationship with rediscovering my creativity was not just the shedding of those behaviors, but also patterns of thought about what was important in making music. I really had to make a decision of, ‘Am I going to please myself, or am I going to try and please other people?'”

After moving back to Denver, Abraham worked as a Lyft driver and reignited his love for music as a listener during the long stretches of time in his car: “I was listening to these shoegaze bands; one was called Whirr, and one was called Nothing. That process helped me with, ‘What do I like listening to?’ And it was this. So for me, I was like, ‘I want these textures, I want these guitar tones, but I want to put it on my beats, and I want to sing.'” Another band he was listening to frequently was San Francisco-based post-punk outfit Weekend, whose guitarist, Shaun Durkan, was open to producing for other artists. Abraham reached out and befriended Durkan, who introduced him to Nick Bassett, the guitarist for Whirr and Nothing. Bassett ended up being heavily involved in the production of FÉVEN.

“He sent me a voice note of him playing acoustic guitar. It was the first time someone had written music for me. It wasn’t a sample; it wasn’t something I had found and recontextualized to serve my purposes. It was a piece of music originally written for me, and I was so blown away. As a guitar player, I would say he’s probably my favorite guitar player ever,” says Abraham of working with Bassett. He immediately wrote “Macaroni,” the lead single off of FÉVEN, and realized he had outgrown the desire to rap: “I tried to rap on it, and my friend Morgan was like, ‘That sounds like two different songs.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Bro, you just gotta sing the whole time. Give up the rapping.’ Then we were off to the races. The album pretty much came together smoothly after that.”

Working with individuals like Bassett, or Blake Jackson, who directed the “Macaroni” music video, gave Abraham a new perspective on what collaboration could look like outside of the context of a band. “I’m going to say something that is perhaps incendiary by nature. These groups were shells. I was the engine. Even in groups where there were other vocalists, it was my concepts, my productions, my band names, my everything,” he says in regards to his past music ventures. To Abraham, going solo was the natural progression of his music career: “This is very much about me stepping into a role that I’ve kind of always inhabited, but now I’m just taking my due credit. If I have any regret, it’s that I subsumed my individuality and identity in these delusions of collectivism. I would go so far as to say, working with Nick is the first time I’ve ever felt truly collaborative, to where it’s like, I can pass this off to you, and know that what I’m going to get back, I don’t have to micromanage. Just link up with really great people and let them fucking cook.”

The underlying principle of FÉVEN, and “dream pop for Black people” as a concept, is that Abraham wants to reconnect rock to its roots in Black American culture. “Rock in general is a colonized art form, so every subgenre is inherently a colonized art form. The reality of the music industry is it is incredibly racialized. If you are white, you are making rock. If you are Black, you are making soul. You can have white crossover into soul, but you do not functionally have Black crossover into rock. Rock is whatever four white guys with long hair are doing,” Abraham asserts. He cites the discrimination and tokenization faced by a few all-Black rock bands such as Fishbone, Living Colour and Bad Brains, as cautionary tales about what happens when Black musicians attempt to enter the whitewashed world of rock. “Go hear their stories about how they were treated in the industry,” he says. “There’s a shoegaze band called The Veldt, with Black guitarist brothers and a singer. They were getting interviewed on 120 Minutes, and there’s these two Black guitarists, and the motherfucking interviewer goes straight to the white guy and is like, ‘What’s it like being in a band with Black guys?'”

Abraham continues, “Just the thought of asking for approval from these white gatekeepers about my Black music made me sick to my fucking stomach. The feelings of self-loathing and helplessness that spurred so many destructive behaviors reappeared. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, that thing is happening again, where it’s getting away from me. I say what dream pop is — not a bunch of fucking critics, not another musician. This is dream pop.'” The turning point in the creation of FÉVEN was when Abraham was finally able to visualize his new audience with the help of his friend Féven, the album’s namesake.

“In my period of destitution, she had early demos, variations of some of these records. One of them was called ‘I Hate the Sun,’ and she was like, ‘Yo, this is my favorite piece of music ever made,'” he remembers. “I was blown away by that, because one of the things that I was most destitute about was, who am I making music for? And it made it very clear: I am making music for Féven. Dream pop for a Black woman. It’s her.”

The cover art for FÉVEN, done by the album’s namesake.

Féven Zewdi

Though Abraham’s past music has always been determinedly pro-Black, he sees FÉVEN as a departure because it isn’t packaged to cater to a white audience, nor to seduce the white music industry. “It was still a performance for the white gaze. It was still very much, ‘I gotta get on Pitchfork, blah blah blah,'” he says about his older discography. “That shit is dead. That’s the difference. This is for Black people. Does it sound like a reclamation of the [shoegaze] genre? In the sense of, does it sound like pre-existing versions of the genre? No. It sounds a lot more like the confluence of my traditional production approach, which is the beats and the vocals, but I’m using these textures.”

By embracing his own singing instead of trying to “shoehorn rap and rapping into music,” Abraham found himself at last emancipated from racialized industry expectations of what Black artistry should look and sound like. “Part of my liberation, my personal Black liberation, was from rap music. The singing, the sensitivity, is a juxtaposition with my physical form. I’m a six-foot-one, 250-pound Black man covered in tattoos. You expect aggression. You expect all these things that are put upon me, but they are not me,” he says. He says the need for audiences and critics to project stereotypes of Black male aggression onto Abraham and his music is simply a form of racism.

Abraham explains that often, so-called alternative Black artists end up catering to white audiences, because they themselves have been deluded into thinking there isn’t a Black audience for their particular sound. “The notion that somehow Black people only like rap, only like R&B, don’t like rock, is a lie. You will think as an artist who is Black, who doesn’t fit into the preexisting paradigms of Blackness, that the only potential audience is white people. Any of these Black rock bands, the fundamental mistake I believe that they make is they’re still searching and performing for the white gaze,” he maintains. He suggests that artists who attempt to make pro-Black statements also end up bringing the focus back to whiteness.  “There’s this band Zulu, they have these hoodies that say, ‘End White Hardcore,'” he says. “As much as I think it’s a dope hoodie and a dope idea, we are still centering whiteness in the discussion. Guapdad 4000, he has a hoodie that says ‘Steal Money From White People,’ which is cool, but again, we are centering whiteness. With dream pop for Black people, I am centering Blackness.”

In his experience, only Black listeners are able to understand his music as something more than rap or R&B, so trying to appeal to a white audience is both futile and unnecessary. He adds, “As Black artists, we are taught that our highest aspiration is to cross over to the white audience. Why? They don’t make the sauce. They just eat the sauce. Why do I care about sauce-making techniques from people who don’t make the sauce? Every fucking music form from this country was invented by Black people, and all music from this country dominates the world. So the notion that somehow the Black audience in and of itself is not enough is profoundly insulting.”

Abraham considers FÉVEN his best work yet.

Blake Jackson

To that end, it’s unlikely that Abraham will be performing live any time soon in Denver’s predominantly white music scene. “It makes me physically sick to think about enriching some predatory white man with this beautiful Black music. I don’t give a fuck if he owns the venue, I don’t give a fuck if he owns the label, I don’t give a fuck if he runs the shirt company,” he declares. “If these machines were fully Black-owned and Black-run, I wouldn’t see malfeasance. But if you talk about any one of these corporate infrastructures, there’s some white profiteer in the degradation of Black culture commodified as white entertainment. So you really have this situation of, am I feeding into this? If I were to have succeeded on these terms, I would hate myself.”

Abraham’s philosophy behind his music has been a full rebirth. “I’ve noticed a trend in these stories about artists where it’s like, ‘They’ve given up their dreams of pop stardom, but they’re gonna keep plugging away.’ Y’all are not about to play me like that, because this is definitely not that,” says Abraham. “When we talk about aging musicians, we talk about them like they’re fucking unicorns. Nobody says that in any other context of art. It’s not basketball! My knees are not going to go out. Why do we talk about it like that?”

He already has plans for two follow-up albums after FÉVEN titled The Black Gaze and Decolonize Rock. “Whereas rap felt like something with a ticking time clock behind me, this feels like something I can do well into old age. I don’t necessarily feel like, ‘Oh, man, I should have done this earlier,'” he says, “because I couldn’t have. I just turned forty, but I feel like I’m just fucking starting.”

FÉVEN by Yonnas drops Wednesday, November 23, on all streaming platforms. Stream “Macaroni” on Spotify now.

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