“You Can’t Put Your Own Spin On a Calculus Equation:” An Interview With Medhane

Josh Ramos speaks to the rising New York MC about how his music is inspired and informed by his mother, visiting Kenya, and getting a degree in civil engineering.
By    July 8, 2020

Photo by Gabriel Rivera

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Medhane doesn’t let the negativity get to him. When the Brooklyn native answers on FaceTime for our interview he’s in his family’s home with a joint in hand, a smile on his face, and surrounded by African-influenced art. Despite the COVID-19 crisis impacting his ability to perform, he’s in good spirits. Preparing for the release of Cold Water, his third project in six months, Medhane focuses on those supporting his movement rather than distractions. If confronted with a diss track aimed at him he nonchalantly admits, “I’ll probably repost that shit to be honest.”

A little more than a year ago, Medhane was far from home. Finishing up his civil engineering degree at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and removed from his tight knit circle of unsigned DIY talent in the New York City hip-hop scene, he was in self-imposed exile. While close friends and frequent collaborators like MIKE, Maxo, Jadasea, Sage, and Navy Blue refined their sounds and styles, Medhane fulfilled a promise to his mother to finish college. And although he did love solving complex mathematical equations, his spirit told him he had a higher calling waiting for him at home.

Medhane was born into the music. His father was a DJ who met his mother while performing, and they raised their son on the sounds of Afro-centric artists like Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, and dead prez. He rapped as Donny Oh to modest success as a teenager, but found himself drained after completing his degree far from his Brooklyn support system.

A family pilgrimage to Kenya revitalized his passion for recording and reconnected him to his ancestry in a way that inspired new visions. Back in NYC, he revisited the historic mixtape runs of Lil Wayne and Future and set out to drop a project for every season, starting with last November’s Own Pace. Doubling down on his blend of introspective rap in the vein of Earl, Doom, and Ka, Medhane dropped the self-produced Full Circle in late February.

Cold Water expands on his usual mix of jazz and soul samples embedded with contemplative lyrics that read like existential observations. On “All Facts” Medhane reveals, “Holdin down the field stand firm / Hold the blessings even tho my hands hurt / Faded on the curb, with my head in my hands / Give thanks, nigga, treasure my fam.” This open dedication to his community coupled with his struggles demonstrate what Medhane calls his “pain music.” Medhane’s casual admittance of, “Heard the news and I wasn’t shocked” captures the frustrating reality that Black Americans cannot avoid.

Medhane says the three most recent projects definitely go together, each addressing trauma with a mix of braggadocio and rumination. Album midpoint “TRS” is reflective and self-assertive, describing Medhane’s mindset as, “Clean slate when I flipped the page / Talk with brodie ‘bout the pain know it’s been some days / Goin thru it neva break.” His deadpan delivery and serious tone remain his biggest strength, enthralling the listener with his reflective guided meditations.

Medhane’s ability to articulate intense emotions from frustration to desire are what initially drew me to his music. His compositions often read like sketches in a journal detailing the inescapable struggle with depression that has followed him for some time.

“I’m still dealing with this shit on a daily basis,” he says to me. With an unshakeable confidence in his own abilities, the encouragement of his family, and the support of musical peers, Medhane’s has proven his gift at weathering a brutal socio-political landscape while navigating mental health struggles. Cold Water acts as a testament to his perseverance.

With the outside world on lockdown, Medhane has turned his attention to the work he can do from home such as crafting an animated music video for “No Cap” and developing merchandise on the horizon. In our conversation we discussed his Brooklyn upbringing, family influences, his passion for mathematics, and the abundance of A-grade beverages to keep our thirst quenched in these strange times. — Josh Ramos

You proudly represent Brooklyn in your music and online presence. What neighborhood did you grow up in? What was your favorite part about growing up there?

Medhane: I grew up between Bedstuy and Prospect Heights. My favorite part is being around the culture. It’s like seeing people that look like me and being around the Caribbean culture. My pop’s parents are from Haiti and he grew up-when he was my age and shit he was doing music too, but in a different sense. He was a DJ, he had a sound system and shit. Him and my uncle were [DJs]. Him and my mom met low key through some music shit. Culture’s everywhere in Brooklyn. Shit is fire. I love it so much after not being here for a while.

Family means a lot to you. Cold Water has multiple “mama say” lyrics. How does your family inspire your music? What music did they put you onto growing up?

Medhane: My family definitely inspires my music a lot, just conversations I have with my family, with my mom specifically. Growing up my mom was playing dead prez, Lauryn Hill, Meshell Ndegeocello, feel me? Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye. Shit like that and my pops was playing mostly reggae shit, mostly just vinyl shit like Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, shit like that.

My mother is from Brooklyn too and is always dropping wisdom on me. What’s the best advice your mother has given you?

Medhane: Recently the best advice I got from here is, “listen to the universe when it sends you signs.” I was having a conversation with her about something one of my friend’s was going through and I had gone through something similar and she was like, “you gotta listen when the universe sends you signs. I put that shit in the song in “Don’t Fuck Around.” I said, “Mama said, ‘listen when they send signs / listen to the universe to get mine’”.

You’ve spoken in past interviews about Kenya’s importance to Own Pace. What was so inspiring about the trip?

Medhane: My trip to Kenya was definitely mad rejuvenating. Being with my family for real is like tapping back in with family with people that really know and love me and want the best for me and shit. You know, have faith in me. I hadn’t been with my family for that long, with all of us together, like all my aunts and grandma and my mom. All my cousins and shit. It’s been awhile I’ve been with all of them at the same time, ya feel me? It just brought me back to foundation type shit.

You often tweet about heading back to London as soon as quarantine ends. As a fellow NYC native, I definitely feel the urge to escape the chaos of the city. What do you find so inspiring about leaving the 5 boroughs? What insights have you gained or intend to gain from your travels, both for yourself and others?

Medhane: It’s a change of scenery, bro. Wherever you go you bring, unless you’re like some type of chameleon ass person, you bring the drip that you got. You bring that shit with you everywhere you go, you feel me? When you bring that, your personality, your swag, or whatever, to a different place people react to it differently. There’s a Liv.e interview where she’s like, “Being in a place where nobody knows me, I feel like I can do crazy shit.” Not some crazy shit like wild out like rob a bank or something. You’re really tapping in with yourself in a different way if you’re in a new place. You learn more about yourself being in different countries.

Would you ever live outside of NYC? If so where?

Medhane: Yeaaa I would, probably LA or Senegal.

You recently wrapped up a degree in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon. What made you pick that degree instead of something in the humanities?

Medhane: When I was in high school, I went to a school that was focused on math and science. It’s called NEST+M (New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math). It’s on the Lower East Side. I was super into math and shit. I fuck with math. I fuck with not knowing something and figuring shit out. The thing about math is that there’s only one answer, you feel me? There’s only one right answer. I always fucked with that shit and how there’s different methods to get to it. You can do all these different techniques to find the answer to the questions, you know what I’m saying? You can find X or whatever the unknown shit is. I fuck with that shit and I always fucked with math. I wasn’t fucking with like science and all of that shit like physics and everything. So I tried to change my major. I had changed my major to English for like one semester, but then I couldn’t take math. I wanted to take all the math like Calc I, Calc II, 3D, and differential equations and that path is an engineering path. So I was like aight fuck it. An English degree, I don’t know what I’ma do with this shit. I know that with an engineering degree I could probably get a job. I ended up being in school for 5 years and shit. Just trying to get that shit. Low key the real reason I ended up doing an engineering degree is because I fucked with math.

I saw you tweet about a desire to return to school to learn something you actually want to. What do you want to learn?

Medhane: I would probably do Africana Studies. Africana Studies because I want to learn more, and this is shit that I could do on my own time, you feel me? I want to learn more about history, like the Harlem Renaissance and black art movements. Learn about them historically and who were pivotal figures. Not even just black, like minority groups. Different art from different places in the world, studying that shit.

Your lyrics are so dense and carefully crafted. How has your experience with higher education impacted your writing?

Medhane: It’s funny cause I was in school for engineering so I wasn’t in creative writing so I felt like rap kinda became my outlet in the sense of artistic outlet. I’m spending all this time in STEM, science, technology, engineering, math and all that shit. You’re not expressing yourself. There’s not much personal emotional expression that comes into that shit. It’s all numbers and calculations. I feel with the lyrics and portraying the way I feel through not having the necessary designated curriculum for creative work, I didn’t go to school for art. Like kids I know who go to school for art, there’s assignments, but when you do an assignment you’re putting your own spin on it. You can’t put your own spin on a Calculus equation. You can’t put your own spin when you’re doing fluid mechanics. It’s just different.

You’ve spoken about not feeling like you’re competing with your friends and contemporaries despite rap being perceived as a sport. Do you believe that beefing or competing with other rappers is inherently negative? Or do you see a value in competition within the artistic landscape?

Medhane: Nah, that shit is valuable, bro. You got like “Takeover” and “Ether”, bro. The beef shit, even a song like “What’s Beef” by Biggie. all that shit is culture. It’s a part of it. Even how Drake and Meek was beefing. It’s negative, it’s bad, but that’s real. Problems are real, you feel me? If you expressing it through music it’s better than going and shooting somebody.

How do you balance the feeling of wanting to collaborate with others and producing for yourself as AFB? How do you decide who to collect beats from? Is it a friendship thing, this beat is hard thing, or whatever feels right at the moment?

Medhane: I try to mostly work with producers who I’ve heard their stuff before and I like. People that I’m kind of familiar with. Not to say that if someone sends me a beat and it’s super crazy I won’t use it. Even the producers on the tape like Obliv. I was looking at my old tweets and in 2016 I said some shit like, “I need beats from Ali, Obliv, Knxwledge, and Mind Design.” It’s just crazy that Obliv got like 3 or 4 beats on the tape. Even with Playa Haze. I first heard Playa Haze off that Savage Nomad shit. And then he followed me and sent me some shit like, “yo I got some beats” and it was hard. Or like ibliss, I got familiar with ibliss listening to Akai’s shit. Sage is like my friend. Navy Blue, that’s my real man’s. He’s really my bro. If I feel a real connection with someone and you got slaps then it’s lit. But random beats in my email? Nine times out of ten I’m not fucking with it.

Tell me about your creative process. Are you the type to write lyrics down when the feeling arises and then find a beat to flow over or are you inspired by the music itself?

Medhane: I definitely write to the beat. My creative process as far as writing has kinda changed a bit too. I usually write. Everything on Cold Water I wrote, but lately I been trying to fuck around with like punching-in and just writing shit in my head. I was watching mad old documentaries about Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Kanye and you know Hov be like “Yeah, I just write in my head. Lil Wayne’s like “I just write in my head” so lately I been trying to do that like on my newer shit. But yeah, I usually just hear the beat, catch the feeling, think of the first word, first line, or what I’m trying to talk about and from there I keep going. Like if I’m trying to tell a story about some shit that I went through or if I’m just tryna flex, it’s different. I try to mix it in too a little bit. The cocky shit with like that reflective shit.

The album name is Cold Water, but you’ve been posting pictures of yourself drinking champagne and wine on Instagram and drinking organic wine on Twitter. You recently dropped a loosie, “Crushed Grapes” with Navy Blue. Why choose the name Cold Water and are we getting an organic wine mixtape soon?

Medhane: That’s funny. I don’t know, man. I got a song where I say something about cold water in the hook and that shit fit. When you think of cold water it’s something you need especially in the summer when it’s hot. And my mom always be like, “bring me a glass of water, bring me a glass of iced water.” The whole wine shit, the bevs is bussin’ though. The bevs is going crazy.

You tweeted about being proud of the music videos you put out recently. With MTV basically a reality TV channel, why is the visual component so important to you in the age of streaming?

Medhane: It just brings that shit to life, bro. I remember every piece of art or music that had a big impact on me when I was growing up or made me feel some type of way, influenced me, had a music video to it. You know that Missy Elliot video for “Pass that Dutch” where they eat the man in the car and throw his bones out the window. That shit was so hard to me, bro. Even some shit as simple as “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” video or “The World is Yours” video. Nas old shit, the “One Love” video. Shit like that. Even shit like the “Yonkers” video and fucking “Peso”. Earl’s videos. All that shit. I feel like videos are important. And it’s funny though a lot of my videos that I’m dropping are like me rapping in the streets or whatever. With my next couple videos I’m about to get more cinematic with the shit.

Few weeks ago on Twitter you gave an insight into Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What other books, movies, or television shows have influenced your artistry or perspective as a person? Any recommendations for your fans and readers to check out while stuck at home in quarantine?

Medhane: I just watched Avatar the Last Airbender. That didn’t really influence none of my shit though. I fuck with Spike Lee, his old shit. Like Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, those classics like School Daze. I listen to a lot of Atlanta music, whatever they call it now. I listen to a lot of that shit. I be listening to the homies, the niggas that I fuck with. I listen to them. But I also am listening to Duwap [Kaine]. I feel like a lot of them, they express themselves in such a way-they really be talking, bro. Duwap will really say some real shit, bro, and it’s crazy cause no one is really listening to him cause how it sounds. It’s a vibe, but he’s expressing himself in a crazy way, but I get mad inspired by that shit. Or even artists like Bktherula or Sada Baby, Future, shit like that. Not to knock the classic shit. Obviously I listen to the classic shit, but that wave, I don’t even know what it’s called or how to call it, SoundCloud shit. Black Kray. Bktherula. Duwap Kaine. Voldy Moyo. That’s my homie from London. He’s like 18 years old and he really be talking crazy. That mix I put on Soundcloud “4 YOU / ME (Mix)”. All the artists in there influenced me on some music shit.

You’re a big fan of Future, which I appreciate as a card carrying member of the FUTUREHIVE myself. I’ve watched you live tweet reactions to the new Drake project and Carti songs released, which sound so different from anything you put out. You’ve said Future is pain music, but that pain is expressed so differently than yours. How do more mainstream creators affect your own lyrical and production style?

Medhane: I don’t know if it affects it like that, but whatever you’re into it is going to have an effect on you. What you intake affects what you put out. I be trying to write low key like Future. That song “When I Think About,” Future doesn’t even write. That’s what’s so crazy, bro. “When I Think About” off BEASTMODE2, when he’s like “Got a Rollex round my neck, they tryna figure me out / blah blah blah, tryna figure me out,” that line is the reason on “Myrtle” with Mavi I’m like, “they tryna figure me out, climb the water sprout, washed out by the rain,” shit like that be making me think differently, bro. Like I was saying about Duwop. These guys really be saying real shit and niggas don’t really hear them, bro. I feel like way that I rap maybe it’s a bit easier for people to understand that I’m really talking about how I feel over cause like the beats or whatever, lo-fi, whatever niggas call it. It’s the same, but it’s different.

Recently you tweeted about trauma. Some have argued Future’s processing of trauma is toxic and detrimental to himself and others. Do you believe there are healthy ways to process and cope with trauma? If so, how?

Medhane: I’m not a psychiatrist or a therapist, bro. I know that the way that I cope with my shit is not necessarily the healthiest way. I don’t know, bro, meditate. Meditation is good. I don’t really know though. I feel like people shouldn’t look to artists unless it’s that type of artist. You shouldn’t look at artists cause niggas is in this shit together. If I make a song and it helps you get through something it helps me get through something. I don’t know. I don’t got the answers, you feel me? I don’t really know.

You’ve an advocate for mental health. The black community has such a stigma regarding mental health. What have you been doing daily to keep a positive and healthy mindset during this disruptive pandemic?

Medhane: I go on long walks, bro. I be walking like 3 miles there and 3 miles back.

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