“In order to be refreshing,” says Freeman Rabb ’25, “you have to blow everything else out of the water.” In this edition of “Context, Creation, Come Up”, I spoke with Rabb about the “Context” behind their music experimentation, the “Creation” of what they call a “Special EP”, and what’s on the “Come Up” for this burgeoning artist. You can find Rabb’s music, including “At A Catalyst”, on all streaming platforms.
Freeman Rabb’s stage name is Ernesto Birmingham, the latest in a long line of names with deep and thoughtful significance. “It was Eric Fauna for a while… I used to go by the name Amos Othello. Amos was the name of my namesake, and Othello was the one Black character Shakespeare ever wrote about.” But Rabb admitted that the actual origin of the name Ernesto Birmingham is unclear, even to him. “[The name] was just in my notes.” Yet even though the name’s appearance is inexplicable, the Philly native had a lot to say about it. “Ernesto was my name in my Spanish class in, I think, high school. Birmingham is where my mom is from. That’s the simple answer, but Ernesto is also the Latin/Spanish/Italian version of Ernest, which is Donald Glover’s character from Atlanta. And Birmingham almost sounds like ‘Burning Ham,’ [which] is a very interesting biblical story where Ham’s skin was burnt, and that was considered a curse in the Bible.”
Rabb later goes into more detail about the psychological effects of their stage name. “[Ernesto Birmingham is] kind of provocative in a really subtle way… it’s supposed to make you [feel] a little uncomfortable.” They proceeded to philosophize about how liberating the name Ernesto Birmingham has been for them, “I think about that name as a medium in which I can grow. I don’t feel constrained by it at all, which is something that I’ve felt with previous names both given and created.”
These feelings about names also extend to Rabb’s thought process behind titling their projects. Starting with their previous EP, “Nevada Robinson,” Rabb told me about a greater motif they had in mind. “[Nevada Robinson] is a name that I came up with I think a bit after I came up with the name Ernesto Birmingham. I came up with the idea for my EPs where it would be a state first name and a Black last name. The original name for ‘At A Catalyst’ was ‘Arizona Harris’. I was also going to have Pennsylvania Davis… Dakota Carter, Illinois Wilson, Montana Moore, Kentucky Taylor, and my final EP was going to be Washington Washington.” Although they abandoned this naming convention, Rabb’s concept reveals the evident sense of humor, planning, and care for their projects.
These qualities also apply to one of Rabb’s older albums “SO REFRESHING!!,” a name they had on their mind for “years.” Elaborating on the context behind this seminal work, Rabb told us, “This [album] was before I ever really put together songs. I would rap, and I would make beats, but I would never really put those two together. But I had this idea that I would have an album or an EP called ‘So Refreshing’ with one or two exclamation points.” Rabb explained how their time spent working on the project gave the title new meaning to them. “When we were going into quarantine I started really thinking about [SO REFRESHING!!]. I keep hearing these interviews with young artists and the interviewer always says, ‘It’s so refreshing to hear this type of art.’ They would just constantly use that [phrase] and I had a mixed relationship with that. I really wanted to be called ‘So Refreshing,’ but I realized… making music puts me in some type of weird competition with other artists. In order to be refreshing, you have to blow everything else out of the water. You have to be the artist that makes people question why they enjoy the music that’s around them.”
Rabb was surprised by the critical response to the album, which challenged some of their approaches to making music. “Then I made the album, then I got accolades. Then I got attention from a lot of people who weren’t just my friends. People who I didn’t think were ever going to listen to my stuff… Now [the title] takes on this other meaning… I’m in my room, zoned in. My best art comes from the apathy that I have towards how it’s received. That is refreshing to me. The smog for me was always this expectation. The reason I would never finish a project before is because I was scared I wouldn’t like it, it wouldn’t be up to my standards. In reality, it wouldn’t be up to the standards of the World. But I got over that by having this apathy, this real ‘doing-whatever-the-Hell-I-want’ attitude when it comes to music.”
Rabb’s music has been well received and, up until the release of “At A Catalyst”, largely an army-of-one effort to produce. Their album releases garnered support and attention from Rabb’s presence on social media, especially TikTok. From there, they were able to connect with other artists who are prominently featured in their latest EP.
“[In] ‘At A Catalyst’ I have two favorite songs: ‘BROTHER WASSUP?’ and ‘Sterling Silver’. Because ‘BROTHER WASSUP?’ has Young Wabo on it, and ‘Sterling Silver’ has Jonah Love. I’m going to talk about ‘Owen Gray Freestyle’ because that’s the first track I’m releasing where it’s not my beat. So my good friend Summer Roman, whom I met at a Berkely music production course when I was 15, it’s their beat. It was cool because it was a very loose song format. When you listen to it, there’s two choruses, and you have a really long verse. I think it’s some of my best writing ever. But I get to do something a little different because I’m not focusing so much on making the beats in that process.”
Rabb has referred to “At A Catalyst” as being a special EP: “‘At A Catalyst’ is special to me… because when I was 14 I kept having this idea to do something with the word ‘Catalyst’ because I love that word. I think I heard it from ‘Adventure Time’ [and] the ‘Catalyst Comet’. That was such an important creative influence for me, ‘Adventure Time’. It pushed so many boundaries, it did whatever it wanted to, it was compelling but also absurd. The ‘Catalyst Comet’ carried this really foreboding energy that was existential in a way. I forgot about that name for a while; I had a bunch of names I kept thinking of using but ‘Catalyst’ was always the first one.
“As I was making the album and getting the features, for one song that’s actually not on the project, I was getting a feature from my good friend Miles Ramone. He did this beautiful chorus, and it was such a fun process working on that. At the end of that process, he [always] sends me his ‘Word-of-the-Day’ because he’s a very spiritual person and that’s how he shows his appreciation for an interaction. His word of the day was the verb, ‘To Catalyze.’ My eyes lit up, my brain started shaking, it was crazy. That same day I was thinking about what I was going to call the EP. I was going to call it Arizona Harris. Then he texted me that and I was like, ‘Oh my —’, I don’t think I’ve ever had a sign that was that clear. It was amazing.”
Rabb reflected on the fortuitous circumstances that led to this project. Even though they initially felt that they needed a break from releasing music, Rabb had a change of heart that came from “[releasing] ‘Nevada Robinson’ only a couple months after ‘SO REFRESHING!!’ I kept releasing singles, and then right as I was thinking [about taking a break], I started getting put on people’s [Spotify] Discover Weeklys. I got a lot of new listeners and streams and I [told myself], ‘This is really good momentum. Okay, one more EP and then you can take a break, do SoundCloud drops when you’re feeling antsy.’ But then as I had that idea I was looking at the new playlist I got put on. I was listening to my contemporaries like [Young] Wabo, Jonah [Love], Blu’Jay, KWAMZAY, Ghais Guevera, all these really cool people. Kind of the camp that I’m in. The songs were really cool but they were also different from what I was doing. I had this wave of inspiration because I [do] sample[s] sometimes but I don’t make it my ‘thing.’ I try to make other aspects pop out more, like my synth use. [But] there was some really deep, rich sound quality that these guys had, and I wanted to do something like that. That’s why I’m most excited about ‘BROTHER WASSUP’ and ‘Sterling Silver’ because those are my two best songs that I use samples in. Definitely in my top five songs that I’ve ever made.”
Rabb confessed some self-criticisms, reflecting harshly on past songs of his like “pollock!” and decisions they made on “Nevada Robinson”. They went on to consider this precarious balance of self-love, self-critique, and self-improvement in relationship to their own artistry, and how other artists grapple with it.. “ I’m trying to find that level between ‘Fuck-It-ism’ and ‘Perfectionism.’ [There’s this] Dan Harmon-Justin Roiland dialect. I watched this amazing video essay by CJ the X about the dialect of ‘Rick and Morty.’ Which sounds like a stupid title, it’s presented as a stupid idea. But you have Dan Harmon who is a perfectionist and Justin Roiland who makes the stupidest shit, and it’s Dan Harmon’s job to make everything work. If I can use both parts of my brain as both a ‘perfectionist’ and as a ‘fuck-it-ist,’ doing whatever I want and then treating it like it matters, that is what being a great artist is to me. Allowing myself to teeter on that tight rope is really good for me creatively because it makes me remember that [this] is always going to be the process. You see it in other artists too: the reason we all know Doja Cat is because she dressed up as a cow and said ‘Bitch, I’m a cow.’ That was 2018, and now she’s one of the most streamed artists, and she doesn’t miss. She has this [skill] of making the stupidest song ever sound good, treating the stupid idea like it’s precious. Same thing with Bo Burnham, having these stupid ideas and then turning them into a full special. Or Joji, and before Joji there was Filthy Frank. [The Pink Guy Raps] were offensive, they were stupid, but he finishes them and he treats them as his precious babies. I think that’s such an important part of being a creative, where you have to have your moments where you say ‘Whatever…’ but then you say, ‘Whatever! Let’s make this real, let’s make this listenable.”
A creative at heart, Freeman Rabb’s idea of a “break” from music is much closer to a “break from releasing music” than anything else. Having dropped “At A Catalyst” by the time of this interview, Rabb still finds themselves producing and writing, even without a project in mind. “I was sitting down in my room before I was here, making my beats and writing. Whenever I get the ‘itch’ — my friends describe it as [that]; some people have ‘itchy brain’. It’s like a need to learn, to figure out something or to make something. When it hits me I start making something.”
Rabb expands on this musical semi-hibernation, describing it more as a strategic cessation than a well that’s run dry. “I’m probably not going to release much until either December or January. Because at that point I’ll have so many songs out that need more promotion. You’ll probably see me on TikTok somewhere promoting my music. Once I get a larger listener base I’ll probably drop more singles. I’m also going to be working with other artists like Gao the Arsonist who is amazing. He made such a good song with NotNevi, ‘Prometheus.’ That’s just my shoutout to him.”
Rabb expressed sincere gratitude for a long list of friends and artists who have stood by their side for years: “I’m gonna shout out my Berkeley crew that I met when I was 15. That’s Trevor Cooke, James Cochran, Summer Roman, Noah Young, and Adam Sullivan. They’re all amazing musicians. Summer Roman has music under the name Daniel Roman right now. Trevor Cooke is under [their own name]. [They] were really big influences for me, and working alongside other musicians makes you process things a little bit differently. You start hearing a sample and think, ‘how would they flip a sample? What’s different between me and them and why am I doing it this way and they’re doing it that way? Just that alone is so good but they’re also so supportive of me and I really want to see them come up[...]” They continued to list names of even more artists and their work, thanking each for contributing a particular asset to their artistry: how to collaborate, how to produce, and how to inspire. You can find Freeman Rabb on their socials, IG: Free Diallo; Twitter: @ernestobham; TikTok: @ErnestoBirmingham.
In closing, Rabb wanted to stress, “I’m not doing anything exceptional. Most of my listeners are creatives or people who want to be creatives in some way. Do it. Every idea that I had I decided to run with it. Run with your ideas, treat them like your precious babies. Don’t be scared to create, it’s a win-win situation all the time. I say that because I never want anything that people are impressed by me doing to make them say ‘Oh I could never do that.’ I made everything that I’ve ever made in my room. Never let it escape you that I’m not making music in a way that is detached from what the audience can do. You have all the tools, just use the tools.”