"Shamananah," Amine says, hand clenched to his mouth to mimic a microphone.
The 23 year-old rap sensation is recreating his debut live television appearance. He was performing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, exactly one week after Donald Trump was elected president. Adam Daniel, who performs under his middle name Aminé, was "fucking pissed." He rewrote his breakout hit, "Caroline," a jovial track about an impossibly beautiful girl which has garnered just shy of 200 million views on YouTube, to reflect the times. He had a "big ass" platform on Fallon, he says, so knees knocking, he began his Trump-denouncing verse. "Shamananah," was what he rapped, or, gibberish.
Aminé's account is riveting. As he describes his second take ("I fucked up two full sentences again," he says), and finally, his third, during which he delivered his remix flawlessly, my heart is in my mouth. Which is just where he likes it. Aminé is a storyteller, a fact apparent in every facet of his career: he writes his own beats, lyrics and video treatments. A former graphic design-minor (he's still a few credits from graduating), Aminé created a newspaper to gift his fans to accompany his debut album, Good For You, along with the album's accompanying merch. A child of Ethiopian-immigrants, Aminé lives and breathes DIY. Even his now-iconic dreads are freeform. He doesn't have a social media assistant — or any kind of assistant. While the Portland-native's Instagram account maintains a healthy following, his content is raw and unfiltered (literally) just like him. In a time when our feeds run amok with Facetune, Aminé is refreshingly honest.
After Fallon, Aminé has never been nervous. Particularly around press, although that doesn't mean he does a lot of it. Over a fruit salad outside an East Village restaurant (he's saving room for Italian later on), Amine tells me he doesn't do interviews. Even so early in his career, a period when most artists are thirsty for any and all the attention they can get, Aminé quickly learned the power in saying no. His first print interview was with the New York Times, a fully-fleshed and frankly, glowing, profile that saw the writer spend two days in Portland with the rapper and his family. Before agreeing to our "hang," Aminé tells me he read my other work, something I've never come across in the past, or at least no talent has ever admitted to. Aminé knows he is sincere almost to a fault, so he likes to control his narrative.
Which is why fame, an unruly beast, makes him anxious. As we talk, a group of 20 girls in matching sports uniforms hang around next to a nearby Citi Bike rack. They're a soccer team, we decide, or maybe volleyball. They're watching Aminé; some are even crossing the street in an attempt to covertly take a better picture of the young star.
"They're trying to be mad low key," Aminé says, lowering his voice and leaning towards me, as if protecting himself from their gaze. "I'm not a big fan of [celebrity]. It's not cool to me, I don't think it's tight. I love people that appreciate the art I do, that means a lot to me, but not when people see celebrities as objects. The people I look up to, my idols, I don't see them as gods. I see them as people I want to be like and who is possible to be like. We're all human."
Like it or not, a celebrity is exactly what Aminé has become. After "Caroline," which he and a friend produced in a makeshift home studio, his career took off. Everyone immediately knew and began mispronouncing his name (it's Ah-mee-nay, by the way), and he was quickly ushered into the same league as other "happy rappers" like Yachty and KYLE, who were also popping off at the time. It seemed a natural fit for a middle-class kid from Portland — not necessarily known as the city of hard knocks — who was once an intern at Complex and Def Jam before mingling with famous friends like Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean in Los Angeles where he now lives. "Happy" is a label Aminé seems to resent, however. It's reductive, he says, because in essence, happy just means "not hard."
"People that look at hip hop as a whole, they look at people that don't do drugs and do drugs and those are the boxes they put them in," he says, visibly frustrated. "I've never smoked a J a day in my life. I have friends that do, but I never did. I saw what not to do."
It was the likes of André 3000, Kanye West and Pharrell who taught him that you could subvert the stereotypes and still be successful. "They weren't the guys selling drugs and shooting guns, they were just creative as fuck," Amine says. In sixth grade, he begged his mother to buy him a College Dropout-era pink polo to wear to school. Other kids made fun of him, but it proved to the young artist that he could survive going against the grain.
Aminé is wonderfully expressive, passionately embracing every subject, from Game of Thrones (he pulls up a White Walker fan-theory meme as we chat) to his latest project with Converse. It's rare to see this kind of engagement in an artist, I tell him, without a team behind him. "I care!" He laughs incredulously.
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But that's the point. Nobody wants to really care, or seem like they do. It's always been embarrassing, or at the very least, it's uncool to care — and make no mistake, Aminé is cool. It's a "2017" kind of cool, he assures, which, translates as being totally transparent. His album art sees him atop a toilet, jeans around his ankles, something he conceptualized to express his own vulnerability.
"I didn't want to look like a god, I wanted it to be honest," Aminé explains. "Make someone smile. I don't want my life to seem perfect. A lot of people are conceited and that's not my vibe, I would never want anyone to think that."
When it comes to how he's perceived, Aminé picks and chooses when and how to be affected by audience response. For his "Red Mercedes" video, Aminé and two friends wore white face, making a Malorie Blackman-esque reverse-racist statement. While the majority of the feedback was positive, the rest, he says, was "racist-ass."
"I don't give a fuck," he says. "America is racist, like it does not surprise me. I make sure what I'm doing isn't truly 'wrong.' I'm not going to do some fucked up shit like slavery in my videos. That's something I'm smart enough to never do."
This feedback is all passed on to the rapper via his inner circle, because Aminé doesn't read comments. It's somewhat of a shame, because the top comment on "Red Mercedes," with 1500 likes, is from singer/songwriter Max "MAX" Schneider. "So rad I love it," MAX writes. "Aminé ain't going anywhere, he's here to stay."
But a response from a slightly more reputable critic doesn't faze him either. Aminé grows defensive as he justifies why a positive review is "not cool" to him.
"I don't give a fuck if they loved the fuck out of the song, I'm trying to be here for 30 years."
So what does the next 30 years look like in Aminé's career? It definitely doesn't stop at rap. The 23 year-old is a big time television buff. A Quentin Tarantino super fan, he gave the legendary director a shoutout in "Caroline." Insecure's Issa Rae recently tweeted him saying she loved his album, and Aminé freaked out. He considers Aziz Ansari's Netflix series Master of None a masterpiece. If or when his music career peters out, Aminé plans to move into film. If film is finished, it will be fashion.
Aminé also has a real affinity for singing. On his first song from Good For You, "Veggies," Aminé reminds fans of his versatility right out of the gate. The song itself is impossible to categorize — it's orchestral, operating within alternative, r&b and pop all at once. It's flawless. His rap style is lilting, before he expands into prolonged notes. Aminé closes the album with a Kehlani-assisted duet, on which he doesn't rap at all. When asked which he prefers — singing or rapping — Aminé says there's no clear victor.
"Some feelings you can't get out with rap. I feel like if I tried to rap what I sing, it wouldn't connect with people as much. Rap makes me feel so confident and on top of the world, but when I sing it's more therapeutic."
Mental health is something Aminé has been admirably open about. He's been depressed "many times," he says, but acknowledges depression isn't considered a valid illness in the hip hop community. He strongly advocates seeking professional help, though admits that, even in his darkest times, he's never seen anyone himself.
"I actually really want to go to a therapist and see what comes out. I'm not about to tell just anyone about my feelings, my feelings are very personal things...it's that thing that you bury. With black men it's like, 'Stop being a bitch, be a man.' It's like, I don't want to be a man, I just want to be myself."
How did he pull himself out of that darkness?
"I can't answer that, I don't know if I fully pulled myself out," Aminé says quickly, before switching tact. "It's the same way you couldn't be gay in hip-hop, it's such a thing. I still don't understand why people give a fuck about other people's sexual preference."
His friend Tyler the Creator, famous for his fast-paced "faggot"-filled raps, overtly referenced his queerness on his hugely successful sixth album, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, released just two months ago. The move made headlines worldwide, despite the fact the rapper had discussed coming out in the past.
"Like how is that news?" Aminé says of the reaction. "I would hug Tyler a thousand times, it wouldn't matter. It pisses me off so much. Why does anyone give a fuck? It's about being honest with yourself. Kids will love you ten times more if you're honest."
As someone who prides himself on his authenticity, Aminé finds the fickle nature of LA particularly difficult to navigate. He no longer likes to go anywhere on his own. While he claims he can usually read people very well, he's discovered, like many rising stars before him, he's finding it increasingly difficult to trust the intentions of those he meets.
Nearby, the soccer squad are still waiting for their ride, but for the most part seem to have lost interest in Aminé. As several teen boys skate by near them, they hoot and holler, and Amine chuckles, describing them as "New Age" women.
"I never cat call. That's creepy. I can never approach girls in public."
Even cyber-initiated romance is too off-base for Aminé. DMs are "mad creepy," he claims, unless the girl reaches out first. He gets that dating apps are "a thing" now, but doesn't want anything to do with them. The rapper recently came across his dream girl, Emily Ratajkowski, who shot to fame after appearing in Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video but found himself tongue-tied. "I have a huge crush on her," he reveals. "I saw her in a LA coffee shop and I couldn't say anything. I wanted to say, 'Hey, I'm a fan,' but I got too nervous." Emily, if you're reading, DM Aminé.
At this moment a young man who has been hovering close by musters the courage to sidle up to our table, phone outstretched.
"Hey man, are you that artist, Aminé?" He asks, emphasizing the "ay" instead of the "ee." Aminé nods his assent. Emboldened, the man asks for a selfie, finger already on his camera app — Amine politely declines, gesturing to me to cite our "meeting."
I tell him he needn't have worried about interrupting out interview to take picture. Aminé explains he didn't need to expend energy on somebody who clearly is more familiar with his celebrity rather than his creative output — especially if they couldn't even pronounce his name name correctly.
It's a fair point, particularly given the fact Aminé seems to be on the precipice of creating a real musical legacy. Each track on Good For You is grounded in his trademark honesty. His next hit looks to be "Spice Girl," an upbeat love letter to the British girl band which will undoubtedly prove a dance floor honeypot. He was introduced to the band by his four older girl cousins and saw them live at only five years-old. "That was my first concert ever. I got the merch tee, I was obsessed. Mel C was my favorite, Sporty Spice. I begged my dad to buy me a Sporty Spice doll. My dad wasn't with it at first, but my mom said, 'Just get him a doll.'"
While an obsession with André 3000 or Kanye West is respectable for young rapper, full-blown standom for a 90s band who preached 'girl power' and had an almost entirely female audience likely is not. Dedicating said group an entire track on your debut studio album, well, that's another level.
"I never sat at a table and was like, 'this is how I'm going to sound.' I was always going to do the music I like. You can't force me to make a hit. That's not my thing."
Herein lies Aminé's charm: he's entirely unapologetic. Whether publicly rejecting the president-elect or wearing whiteface, Amine will always be unashamedly himself. He could rap nothing but "shamananah"s and still make an impact.
The school vans arrive to pick up the soccer team and girls abandon their stationary Citi Bikes to loudly pile in, giggling and yelling. They're a university team, perhaps competing in town for a tournament. As the van pulls onto the street, this is their last chance. The team launch a coordinated attack, throwing their hands and torsos out every available window to share their admiration for the rap sensation, the college drop-out, the story teller. The entire Lower East Side can hear them collectively scream, "Bye Aminé!" in high-pitched unison. Aminé, now smiling, watches them go.
Check out Aminé's North American tour dates and listen to Good For You below.