When Berhana, the 27-year-old singer born Amain Berhane, finished his film program at the New School, he did what a lot of young artistic people in New York City do: He started working at a restaurant. During his time as a chef and assistant manager at Robataya, a now-defunct Japanese spot in the East Village, the recent graduate undertook a new, informal curriculum in Japanese culture; he was even tasked with learning to speak the language.
For the Atlanta native born to Ethiopian parents, the transition was difficult at first, but Berhana’s tight-knit group of co-workers helped shape the trajectory of his career. “I’m seeing them, like, all week,” Berhana said of his former colleagues when we spoke recently at Hi-Collar, another East Village outpost, owned by Robataya’s former managers. “And they’re putting me on to different books to read, different movies to watch, different music to listen to. That’s kinda how I was exposed to [Japanese] culture.”
Berhana’s kaleidoscopic debut album, HAN, deftly incorporates these different artistic influences. Released Friday, the record builds on the warm and woozy soundscape that defined his breakout single, “Janet,” and his 2016 self-titled EP. Berhana recorded both while working at Robataya, and the restaurant shows up in HAN, too. “The recording you hear at the end of ‘Golden,’” he explained, referencing the album’s first, stellar full-length track, “that’s a small sliver of the chant that they made us do every day when we walked in. I recorded it when I was working.” The audio blends organically into the track not just because of the production surrounding it, but also because of Berhana’s deep attachment to the chapter of his life that it represents.
At times, listening to HAN feels like witnessing a metacultural exchange. The album is a project of meticulous curation and a map of the artist’s geographic ties; it’s also a direct challenge to what some audiences might expect of a young black musician raised in Atlanta. Referencing the sometimes troubling impulse of American artists to cherry-pick or fetishize cultural products from Asian countries, he continued: “I did want to bring a level of respect to what I was doing and not have it just be like, Oh yeah, I’m into anime.” As he worked on HAN, a simple guiding question emerged: “How can I be as honest as possible?”
The result is a record that manages to be eclectic yet cohesive. One way Berhana achieves this effect is by strategically pulling in musical references that are themselves references to previous works. For example, among the key inspirations for the album’s soul- and funk-inflected songs—including tracks such as “Golden”—was Neuromantic, a 1981 album by the Japanese artist Yukihiro Takahashi. Going a step further, the Japanese soul and funk musicians of Takahashi’s era were, for their part, drawing from the ideas and cultural cachet of black artists in America.
Much of HAN was recorded in Japan, between Kumejima, a small island in Okinawa, and Tokyo. In a nod to his international journey, Berhana threads together the album with short interludes that take the form of in-flight announcements. The singer wrote these segues to serve as narrative guides for the listener and to collate the album’s disparate genres. How can I make all of these different sounds feel in the same world? he asked himself. HAN bounces through funk, soul, jazz, rock, and pop elements with little regard for the distinctions between those categories. Berhana resists placing himself within one genre, all too aware that singers like him are often relegated to the rap and R&B genres—or, worse yet, that nebulous arena of “urban contemporary.”
“Everybody’s called my music either rap or R&B, and I get it,” he said. “I’m a black guy making music, so that’s just what you wanna say, and I’ve seen it happen to artists forever.” He mentioned Prince, who was often described as an R&B artist rather than, say, a rock star. But young black musicians today are stretching the boundaries of their assigned labels, and Berhana is hoping to do the same. Noting that he’s always been drawn to experimental artists such as David Bowie, Björk, André 3000, and Squarepusher, he explained: “I wanna make music that people like; I just don’t wanna make music people expect.”
This desire to grow and to surprise listeners intensified in the three years since the release of Berhana. “Janet” attracted attention—and an enthusiastic fan base—as a single, but the thrill of making the EP prompted Berhana to move to Los Angeles to pursue a music career in earnest. He worked at another restaurant there, but after repeatedly seeing artists he wanted to collaborate with walk in to eat, he resolved to quit. The month he left, he was able to just eke out a living; not long afterward, his song “Grey Luh” was featured on an episode of Donald Glover’s FX show, Atlanta, and won him more recognition. Berhana’s community back home (even the more skeptical family members) rallied around him. Things were falling into place.
Still, the artist hesitated to release new music too quickly. “Janet” was one of the first songs he ever made, and the EP was something of an experiment. He knew HAN needed to be a more considered effort, so he made plenty of music without putting any of it out. Then, a year and a half ago, he began playing around with his new influences to try to “make something that felt like an elevated version of the things I’d done [before].”
Some of Berhana’s early references sprouted closer to home: The EP’s first track, “Brooklyn Drugs,” interpolated a song by the famed Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed. Berhana named Ahmed, along with Aster Aweke, Teddy Afro, Hailu Mergia, and the Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, as some of the pivotal artists his parents introduced him to. (His mother also joked that he was related to an East African crooner from his own generation. “When the Weeknd came out, my mom couldn’t wait to tell me how we were connected,” he said with a laugh.) From his uncle, he learned about Bob Marley and reggae. From his older sister came soul, in the form of Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke. And his older brother shared hip-hop artists such as Outkast, Mos Def, the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and N.E.R.D.
“G2g,” a song late into HAN’s run, showcases the singer’s allegiance to the rock records his brother would also play. It’s a bold, electric-guitar-riff-heavy track about moving on after a romantic failure. Berhana stretches his voice into near-hysterics as he sings: “She got it bad, I gotta go / I’m tryna make it out the South / I think she know.” “G2g” flows seamlessly into the stripped-down “California,” a more traditional R&B track on which Berhana showcases the vocal prowess that’s already earned him comparisons to Frank Ocean. As the song progresses, it picks up tempo but doesn’t lose the vulnerability of its intro vocals. Named for the state where he now lives, “California” pairs lyrics about romantic disillusionment with escalating percussion and bursts of strings.
HAN is a compact record; it comprises 14 tracks, including interludes, and comes in at a 33-minute run time. In its meticulousness and its wandering, it echoes A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark 1993 album, Midnight Marauders. The lone feature on HAN is the Korean singer Crush, who appears on the contemplative “I Been.” The song pulses with nostalgia, a collection of promises to a lost lover: “Is there something I can do / Just wanna make this easier for you / And you can make this easier for me / Give me a little time and you can see that / That I been / Working on me / For you / Baby.” The collaboration was serendipitous; the two met when Crush invited Berhana to perform at his release party in Korea. “I never planned on having a feature,” Berhana said. “When I put him on originally, I was like, Oh, maybe we can do a couple ad libs here and here. And my man gave me a full verse.”
In the lead-up to HAN’s release, Berhana said he was most excited to perform the new songs for live audiences. He had spent the past few months attending shows in Los Angeles, taking notes from the concerts of wildly different artists such as Marcos Valle and Arthur Verocai, Haruomi Hosono, Phoenix, and Thom Yorke. The day we spoke at Hi-Collar, though, Berhana was roped into an impromptu recital well within his comfort zone. An employee who knew him during his Robataya years asked him to record a Japanese chant with her like the one that appears on HAN. Enthusiastically referring to him by his first name, she was a reminder for Berhana: that returning to New York, and to the crew who inspired much of his album, would always be a kind of homecoming.