Life for musician, fitness trainer, hip-hop guitarist, and “artistpreneur” Adem Tesfaye is a religious concentration. His prayers are answered within the frets of his guitar, surrounded by the many mirrors he keeps in his apartment – a converted workout studio and mental health dojo.
The Madison local is known for combining his health theories with his art, stressing how being present and dedicated towards your life’s mission will only offer up positive reinforcement. After some time away from the midwest, he’s found himself now on a spiritual homecoming, somewhat by accident. Thriving – but not too deeply – within comfort, his energetic blues-rock/hip-hop hybrid has begun to flourish into a new batch of ideas and healthy practices, which he hopes will benefit the city that has so far been fertile with blessings.
The product of a fitness and arts-based family, Tesfaye curated the components that have shaped his everyday life to the beat of his uncles’ interests. All within ten years of his own age, they pushed him in both athletics and music, toughening him up with a championship mindset and an artist’s heart. From a very young age, he was able to accomplish everything from winning a state championship in basketball for Madison West High School, to having the courage later on in life to take his health and music seriously, converting both into lucrative and unique professions.
It became such a familiar pursuit that Tesfaye finds himself still, to this day, utilizing the company of his closest uncle – LaCouir Yancey – within his health and his music, as the bassist for his project, the “Adem Tesfaye band,” and his health confidant. It’s always been about family, even during the critically acclaimed run of Tesfaye’s first group with Yancey, Madison-based 90’s hip-hop juggernaut “Black Poets Society.”
“It was an unprecedented time for us,” Tesfaye says, of those young hip-hop days. “We got to share the stage with some of our favorite groups and artists. At that point, it was the golden age for the genre. We were on the ground floor.”
Listen to Lacouir Yancey on this week’s Black Oxygen podcast.
Hip-hop standards are based on copy-paste; taking what’s already made and allowing your experiences to mold a relation between the music and your own narrative. Black Poets Society – with its immersive live shows, combining everything from break dancing to live art – was meant to showcase the culture that Tesfaye recognizes as his foundation.
“We wanted to be a beacon for the black people of Wisconsin. Being in a state that marginalizes us, we wanted to make sure we had a direct connection to our blackness,” Tesfaye says. The blues his uncles played, the hip-hop he’d bump to with his friends and family: it’s all one and the same.
“The way I blend blues and hip-hop in my music now was never anything I really thought about,” Tesfaye says, crediting his midwest background for his direct introduction to blues music, with or without him knowing it. “I didn’t really know what blues was, honestly – all I knew was that when my uncles and their musical friends played their music, it made me feel a certain way. I’m now more focused on how the music makes me feel than anything else.”
And if Tesfaye’s music had some sort of intention, it’d be to galvanize action. His 2009 project ATHEDGE – a clever combination of the words “at the edge” – is a perfect example of this trademarked mixture. Songs like “Broke” and “Animal” have a jolting funk at its core, as if he’s pumping his motivational gas tank to its limit, without allowing too much emotional lee-way for one specific genre to be too utterly defined. His live performances dictate this intention even more so – at one point he could be laying down a smooth blues lick, and the next moment covering Dr. Dre and Eminem’s “Forget About Dre” with his live band. It’s a testament to how capable he is of doing what he can, with what he’s made available for himself.
The space he lives in now – an apartment with enough room for him to offer classes on wellness, relationships, and sexual health – came as a surprise. During a musical road trip that was supposed to take him and his music out west, he was dead set on taking his sound and theories to new land to plant new opportunities; the pandemic, however, left him stranded in familiar land, something he looks back on now with gratitude.
“In a way, it was life’s greatest blessing for me. It felt really good to be home, to receive all the love I did,” Tesfaye says. “On my road trip, I was looking for a place where I could utilize the outdoors, practice my music, and work on my training. I had no idea that it would be in Madison.”
His latest single, “Pressure” – a first taste of a full-length project that is soon to come – delves deeper into his need to inspire those who may be lost within life’s valleys. Or, what Tesfaye refers to as a “personal stock market.” Consider Tesfaye’s current stint in Madison – for however long it’ll be – a personal investment, which he’s looking to pay forward.
“Hip-hop needs a space here in Madison, for music-lovers like me to express themselves,” Tesfaye says. “Rap and hip-hop alike aren’t getting many venues here. There’s a need for hip-hop to thrive. Beating your sound into the universe is a form of praise, a gift from the universe that I get to practice every day, and it’s not something that should be taken for granted.”
“I think the biggest difference between fitness and music is the finality aspect,” Tesfaye continues. “I spend a lot of time finding that spiritual sweet spot – where to end, and when to feel satisfied – but I don’t want it to feel too comfortable. The word ‘comfort’ is something that’s not too easily attainable for me anyways. The universe has its way of testing me – and I’m still here, so my work isn’t done yet.”
You can find Tesfaye’s music on all streaming platforms. He performs acoustic sets regularly at Karben 4 brewery, and the Tasting Room in Monona, and an upcoming release party for his full-length project at the High Noon Saloon in September.