Ethiopian-Eritrean rapper Heno grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, at the nexus of multiple worlds. As an honor roll student with street smarts, Heno experienced both the privileges and injustices of his environment. His family’s apartment was located next to his elementary and middle schools, a library, and a police station — a combination of places that would shape his perspective on life.
As a child, Heno explains that one of his earliest memories involved a traumatic encounter with the police when they unlawfully entered his home, shining a flashlight and pointing a gun at him. He says he was also wrongfully accused of selling drugs in first grade and handcuffed. These events influenced his perspective on life and his place in it and contributed to his awareness of the high incarceration rates in Maryland.
Today, Heno is using his art and blockchain technology to create meaningful impact in his life, the lives of his ever-growing digital community, and in his communities in the U.S. and Ethiopia.
Social change through artist empowerment
In his upcoming album, I’m Tired of Being Hypersurveilled, Heno intends to call attention to issues of racism, police brutality, mental health, and privacy. “Every aspect of the digital world is monitored to some degree,” Heno explains on the project website. “I feel much safer offline and off the grid. […] I’m tired of hypersurveillance.”
And it isn’t just about these platforms having access to our phone records, financial records, and facial recognition data, he explains, it’s also about the ways they profit off users. Social media users can build followings by sharing daily content, but in doing so, they’re also creating value for the platform.
According to Heno, blockchain technology is particularly well-suited to combat these problems. “[In Web2,] we post our content, but we don’t own it. In Web3, we own everything,” he said in an interview with nft now.
But Heno’s art isn’t just centered on raising awareness about such issues, it also directly contributes to social change. Proceeds from his drops go to The Bail Project, Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, and the Baltimore Action Legal Team, making a tangible impact on the lives of people in his home state. Further, as a volunteer for Wegene Ethiopian Foundation, Heno helped open a knowledge center in Ethiopia, providing computer labs and other technology to local children.
These endeavors are a large part of why he believes he’s made a name for himself in Web3. “People care more about the intention behind a project in Web3 than in the traditional music industry,” he said. “Once I figured that out, I knew I’d found the right place.”
The financial benefits of blockchain technology
Though Heno sees himself in the “right place,” his career originally began in web2. His transition into Web3 highlights the advantages of trust and transparency that blockchain technology offers artists.
“I come from the traditional music industry, where I paid thousands of dollars to draft contracts to do business with people,” Heno explained. “If I need 20 pages of clauses to do business with you, maybe we shouldn’t be working together.” In contrast, smart contracts enable artists to collaborate and conduct business without the need for complex legal agreements or intermediaries.
Heno also emphasizes the importance of each artist understanding their compensation and ownership, which blockchain technology makes more transparent and accessible. This ease of access empowers artists to take control of their careers and financial futures, thus enabling their continued artistic expression.
“Obviously, I get paid more in Web3 than I got paid for streaming numbers,” he said in an interview with nft now. “That’s great, but that’s the short-sighted benefit.” Having the freedom to choose both his financial and creative path is a privilege he wouldn’t have enjoyed under a traditional record contract.
Building community, breaking barriers
Many artists grapple with imposter syndrome, assuming they have to settle for less and rely on larger entities to succeed. Heno’s experience in Web3 proves that this isn’t the case. “I think when people see you helping yourself, they want to support you more,” he said. Through Web3, Heno has been able to build relationships with people directly, fostering a supportive community and connecting with audiences on a deeper level.
Heno also notes the importance of humility and learning in building community in Web3. Given the technological learning curve, artists must approach the space with a genuine desire to learn and adapt. This mindset has been one of Heno’s most significant assets, allowing him to evolve alongside the rapidly changing landscape. His desire to learn has helped him collaborate with artists like Mick Jenkins, JPEGMAFIA, Chaz Bear, and more.
Through his collaborations with the community and his desire to drive social change, he has managed to create a unique digital world around his music. Of particular significance is a short film titled In the Meantime, which was released as a series of NFTs on March 22.
Heno’s goal is to create artwork that stimulates conversations, fosters connections, and facilitates transformation. While driving social change through their craft is certainly crucial, artists must also champion themselves. One method to achieve this is by experimenting in Web3.
He believes blockchain technology allows him to break down his work into digestible pieces, making it more accessible and engaging for audiences. By pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in Web3 and leveraging the unique opportunities it presents, Heno and other artists can continue to drive social change through their art, but also through advocating for themselves.