From a distance, Aminé (born Adam Amine Daniel) exudes glee and mischief. On the back of his laptop is a Supreme sticker cut up and reshuffled to read “penis.” On the cover of his album, he is seated on a blue toilet, naked from the calves up. A few weeks ago, he was selected as part of XXL magazine’s annual Freshmen list; on the magazine’s cover, he wore a T-shirt with several mispronunciations of his name.
He was determined to release his album during the summer — “When who I truly am as a person shines,” he said — but his music, and what comes with it, has been far more complex than mere sunny brightness. Take his single “REDMERCEDES,” an ecstatic song about his new car. The video is a parable about privilege: He and his friends wear whiteface and are racially profiled by black employees of a car dealership. “I wanted to reverse stereotypes,” he said. Plus, he wanted to emphasize the disquieting phenomenon of seeing white faces rapping a particular racial epithet: “I’ma show you exactly what you like. You look corny.”
And then there’s the naughty “Caroline,” which echoes throbbing, pugnacious Southern rap. When he performed it on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” days after the presidential election in November, he added a searching, devastating verse, concluding with, “You can never make America great again/All you ever did was make this country hate again.”
He was so nervous that it took him three takes to get it right. “The crowd is suburban, man,” he said. “If I saw people that looked like me, I’d be a little more comfortable saying what I was saying.”
It was one of pop culture’s first powerful responses to the election, and it marked Aminé as someone unwilling to be pigeonholed. “I had people that didn’t even congratulate me for the success of ‘Caroline’ saying, ‘Thank you for doing that.’” he said. “Trump as the president doesn’t make sense to me. Someone talking about the country and the people who live in it that way when this country is made up of immigrants, I don’t get how that can even resonate with people.”
His parents, at home in Portland, watched the performance intently. “We were proud but we were worried,” said his mother, Etsehiwot Bekele. His father, Daniel Amine, added, “The country is changing, so you feel, are we secure, really?”
Aminé’s parents moved to the United States from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, settling in Portland; his mother works for the post office, and his father has been a teacher and translator. At his predominantly white middle school, he “got called the n-word,” he recalled. “I felt like an outsider in middle school. Horrible.” At home, his parents spoke Amharic and listened to Ethiopian music, but his mother also exposed Aminé to Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson and John Mayer, and bought him Kanye West’s “The College Dropout” and Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below,” which became his creative lodestars.
He went to Benson Polytechnic High School, a more integrated institution, and found both friends and a calling in music. He recorded dis songs about other high schools, and helped out at the school’s radio station, KBPS-AM. In April, the day after revisiting his college, Aminé was back at his high school, preparing for a promotional video and catching up with the teachers. A plaque on the wall identified him as a 2012 winner of the Kevin Reilly Award for Leadership and Professionalism.
He remained in Portland for college, but every summer he left for New York, crashing on an aunt’s couch in Harlem and taking on internships, including at the publisher Complex and the record label Def Jam. “Def Jam commented on one of my Instagram photos once, and all my friends me hit me up, like ‘Yoooooo, you signed to Def Jam?’” he said, laughing.
His quest to get out of Portland was relentless, but at the end of each summer, he returned to the city, dejected. At times his personal frustrations would manifest as depression. “I never really talked about it to anybody,” he said. “Being depressed in black culture is not a thing. I just decided not to tell nobody, not even my friends.” He wrote in journals and talked to God rather than his parents. Though he had released a pair of mixtapes before “Caroline,” a career in music was no guarantee. One time, he performed a gig for Weiden-Kennedy, the Portland creative agency, and his father suggested he bring a résumé.
Those days feel long gone now. Aminé moved to Los Angeles last summer, and is finding people he’s simpatico with: He went trampolining with Tyler, the Creator on Tyler’s birthday and once grabbed food with Frank Ocean at a Buffalo Wild Wings.
He doesn’t get back to Portland much now, so when he returned in April, he spent a whirlwind few days mixing work, family and pleasure. After leaving his old college campus, he headed over to his parents’ house for a home-cooked Ethiopian meal. Later that night he went to a youth basketball program supervised by one of his close friends, posting on Twitter, “Portland kids come to young life in NE tonight and praise God with us.” The assembled teenagers played it cool, hovering for selfies, then scattering to watch him from afar.
It was Portland-scale celebrity, but celebrity nonetheless. One afternoon, at lunch at the local favorite Tilt, before he’d even had a chance to fully read the menu, someone slipped “Caroline” onto the restaurant’s speakers and Aminé giggled a bit. He’d been talking about the female folk-punk duo Girlpool, which he’d tried to track down for a collaboration for a few months before finally reaching them. (They appear, briefly and sweetly, on “Hero.”)
He was persistent, finally meeting up with them in Los Angeles, pulling up in his red Mercedes. “They were like, ‘You really have a red Mercedes?,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah!’” It turned out the band members had parted ways with their manager, which had made contacting them difficult. He suggested that maybe his manager could take them on. “I was in their position last year,” he said. “If I had someone that was that passionate about me, it would have changed my hope for making music.”
He kept talking about the Mercedes, joking about how he could drive it all the way from Los Angeles to Portland just to show off, or at least make a short comedic skit about doing that. Then a man in his mid-20s interrupted to ask Aminé for a picture. He got up from the table, the man grabbed his baby from its stroller and everyone gave the camera a bug-eyed smile.