We talk to the Ethiopian artist about SIDIST (VI), a personal album in which science and faith meet to speak to the nation's promising future.
The time-traveling, genre-defying artist ROPHNAN is best known for weaving traditional Ethiopian instrumentation with contemporary music to transport listeners into his futuristic musical universe. Following the popularity of his EP, SOST (III), the first installation of an epic musical trilogy, ROPHNAN’s success pointed to a luminous future.
However, the conflict Ethiopia experienced in the past year, made ROPHNAN question everything—from the state of humanity to his contribution to the world, which cast the completion of his sophomore album into doubt. “No one could be okay going from what we went through in the past few years. It affected everything, including how I see the world and how I perceive myself because it was a very emotional time,” he tells OkayAfrica.
To navigate the turbulence around him, ROPHNAN turned to introspection. Through the perspective of his inner child, free from humankind’s prejudice or hate, SIDIST (VI) emerges.
Released through Universal Music, SIDIST makes ROPHNAN the first home-grown Ethiopian artist to sign with a major international label. The album, driven by grief of Ethiopia’s past, offers a personal project where science and faith are reconciled to speak to the nation's promising future.
Our timely conversation with ROPHNAN reveals why the inspiration behind his latest project is neither time, space, nor gravity, but ultimately, love.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Image courtesy of the artist.
How would you describe your sound?
I am going through a musical trajectory that I refer to as the African Dance Movement. So my sound is an electronic fusion of African cultures and African sounds.
Tell us about the beginning of your music career.
I’m a multidisciplinary artist. I’m a producer, singer, DJ, writer and guitarist. All those disciplines came together gradually but I’ve always had a love for recording and collecting sounds. I started recording my mother with my phone at 10-years-old, documenting and archiving our experiences together so I could always have a piece of her in memory (have her voice with me always). That led to me collecting sounds of my little brother and kids from my neighborhood which then developed into a love for using instruments to express myself when I started learning how to play the drums.
Can you describe your creative process?
I love making music because it breathes life into my world. It has the ability to shape or expand how I perceive the universe. My personal belief is that artists such as myself have the ability to see art through regular, day-to-day interactions. I can constantly see and hear music all around me. I love to travel and collect samples which allows me to seek inspiration from other cultures. Other times, the inspiration is more abstract, so it could be a color, shape, person or an emotion that I reflect through my music. Inspiration is all around me.
I grew up as a physics-head so I define my music through numbers. As a teenager, I was introduced to softwares so I turned to computers to record my work and found physics in music. All the frequencies and vibrations you hear in music are a reflection of physics. As a sound engineer everything I do throughout my recording process is mapped out in numbers. For example, my vocals have their own number and frequency so I know where and how to chop it.
Your latest album SIDIST is quite conceptual. Can you walk us through the numerology metaphors that inspired the album?
Everything I do is driven by intention, and I use my music to connect the dots of the world. SIDIST is an installment of a trilogy inspired by the Tesla formulas and orthodox numerology.
I’ve always wanted to work on a project that was inspired by numbers. This was merely a vague idea until I got introduced to the Tesla formulas. I began to compare the formulas and what these numbers mean in Orthodox terms and found a lot of similarities about how the numbers are used to make sense of the universe.
The first project in the concept is my EP SOST. SOST translates to number three in the Orthodox numerology which is significant because it’s a creation number. My latest project SIDIST translates to six. Adam was created on the sixth day so six is also a creation number. And the next and last project of the installment, Zetegn, will be related to number nine.
What contribution does this album offer that we haven't heard from you in previous years?
SIDIST is very creative. It’s got a lot of lyrical experimentation, a lot of metaphors, a lot of singing, and hardcore hip-hop joints are in there too. I was yet to experiment with hardcore hip-hop before this project so there’s a lot of hip-hop songs that fans will find very interesting.
You’re an artist that draws from Ethiopian heritage. Did the turmoil that Ethiopia has faced affect your creative process?
Of course. SIDIST is inspired by resolving Ethiopia’s traumatic past in order to pave the way for a better future. If you explain the crisis that Ethiopia is facing to a 6-year-old today, they will tell you that conflict is senseless. Thus, in order to look I had to cleanse myself from negative thoughts and see the world through the perspective of my inner child that isn’t tainted by hate or prejudice. In sum, the message of six (SIDIST) is for and inspired by the Ethiopian youth in order to protect their future.
Do you think music has the ability to drive social change in Ethiopia and the world at large?
Absolutely. Music is a convenient way to connect people from different cultures. With music, you don’t have to understand the language most of the time, as long as it fulfills your spirit and spirit doesn’t lie. My discography features songs in many ethnic languages. Some of those languages I heard growing up in my household but for most of them, I had to travel to learn them. I love sampling sounds from different languages because it gives people from different ethnic backgrounds the opportunity to feel respected and represented. As an artist, it also allows me to represent my country and show the world how united we are. Therefore, music has healing power and this country could use a whole lot of therapy.
Are you excited to perform and get back to touring?
I’ve been performing all my life so the stage is my home. I’ve probably spent more time being on stage than I’ve spent in the studio. However, I only love being on stage if I have something new. If I don’t have something new, I’d rather be in the studio, cook up something then release it. To avoid getting bored easily, I try to switch up my sets by changing the intro or the outro of my songs. The fact that I just dropped the album means that I can be on stage for an hour and play new songs back to back so I can’t wait to go back to performing. If my country could come together in peace, then I would be able to tour and perform countrywide. That would be a lifelong dream.