Q&A: Biniyam

21-year-old Helsinki-based Biniyam is an alternative hip-hop artist, writer and producer. The young rapper made his debut in 2014 by dropping a self-titled EP, and has since released several well-received singles and an album in 2016, The Abyssinian. On April 20, Biniyam takes the stage at the CodeBus concert organized by the Embassy of Finland in Lusaka. Biniyam shared with us some of his thoughts on youth, music, creativity and girls in technology.

In the CodeBus workshops, youth get to create their own songs by coding.
What does making music mean to you?
It’s definitely a means of self-expression to me, but it’s also a way to influence and convey different types of feelings. If I’m really happy and want to pass on my mood to others, music lets me do that. Sometimes I also let out steam through creating. Instead of hopping on Facebook and writing a long rant about something that irritates me, I can write a song about it and maybe find a fresh, more optimistic way of looking at the situation.

We choose to teach technology through music, because music is universal and intuitive. But it is not exactly the most intuitive thought that the two can go together. How are technology and music related for you?
You know, technology is actually how I got excited about making music in the first place. When I was in grade school, I would watch my dad make songs on the computer. I was curious and wanted to give it a go, so he set me up with something really simple, where I would just stack loops color-coded by key together. It was so much fun to just connect these colorful building blocks and have them come together to form a whole. Nowadays I use music making software all the time.

Wow, how cool is that! Who would have guessed the kid playing around was, in fact, a producer in the making? That joy of discovery and finding that technology can be fun is an experience we try to provide through our workshops. Why do you think it is important for youth to learn tech skills?
Technology is today, there’s no escaping that. We are constantly moving forward, and we are moving fast. The younger one learns basic tech skills, the greater and quicker their potential to develop those skills further and advance in that field is. If taught technological thinking at a young age, youth will be better able to harness their innovation.

We are committed to having at least half the participants in our workshops be girls. There is a notable gender gap in STEM-fields, just as there is in rap. How can we help bridge it?
The public opinion is that STEM isn’t for girls, which makes zero sense. So ultimately, what we need is a shifting of attitudes, and one of the ways to get there is through increasing the representation of women in STEM. Women have always been doing all kinds of amazing and innovative things, but their achievements haven’t been acknowledged by the media. Think Hidden Figures, the new film about NASA’s women in the 60s. These are role models we need to present to girls, so they can look at them and think “That could be me.”

I cannot stress the impact of that four-worded thought enough. I have first-hand experience of its power. I’ve always been fascinated by black American culture and icons, even though I have no ties to the States. I’ve only recently realized that it’s because hip hop artists were the only people on TV who looked like me. From a young age, rap was made accessible for me – and here I am.

Your music is multidimensional, fusing together hip hop and pop, and you say you are influenced by a range of artists from Michael Jackson to Missy Elliott. What does creativity mean to you?
Wow, that’s a big one. For me, creativity is turning the abstract inside you into something concrete. Everyone is their own individual with their own set of skills and experiences, so no one else can create what you can. In essence, creativity is telling a story nobody else can – creating your own world and bringing it forth. It’s liberating the you in you.

Lastly: what is your motivation for taking part in CodeBus Africa?
I think this is an awesome project. And I can’t lie, it’s pretty cool to get a chance to visit Zambia. My mom is Ethiopian, so I have a personal bond to Africa. But really, I can really appreciate the idea of co-operating cross-continentally to share knowledge and tools. It’s great that CodeBus seeks to empower youth to pursue technology and show a different side to coding. I wish I’d gotten a chance to try something like this when I was in grade school. I never knew that coding could be something fun.

Listen to Biniyam’s latest single “Watch Out” on SoundCloud.