There are a thousand ways to write about a crush, and pop music has given us more than a few: a state of mind (Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain”), a daydream (Tyler, the Creator’s “See You Again”), or a technicolor memory (Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You”).
For Baraka Ongeri (aka binki), a crush is like a wobbly stomach at sea (“Sea Sick”) or feeling punch-drunk after too many shots to the heart (“Heybb!”).
But the love-struck former theatre student isn’t on the ropes. Since his first release in 2018, binki has already begun to find his footing in the music industry: earning nods from coveted tastemakers like The Line of Best of Fit and Pigeons and Planes, accumulating hundreds of thousands of monthly listeners on Spotify, and winning over crowds at the storied Rough Trade NYC. Though a newcomer, his fizzy electro-disco hybrid (reminiscent of aughts party-starters like Estelle or Uffie) has him quickly charting a course for even wider renown.
Meet the 23-year-old singer and songwriter, and you won’t see a starry-eyed amateur, either. Rather, he has a heavy-lidded charm, sleepily recalling his humble beginnings over a breakfast plate in a quiet South Williamsburg restaurant.
Music was binki’s casual pursuit until it wasn’t. While studying acting at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, he picked up his first instrument for an Intro to Guitar class. From there, he began navigating the city’s local music scene, attending house shows, and forming friendships with music school students. Suddenly, the actor started discovering his range. His earliest tracks were made with a close friend, while his latest songs — including his 2018 Spotify debut, “Marco” — have all been collaborations with producer Chasen Smith, a fellow Greensboro alum.
Despite a busy theatre schedule, which saw him star in productions like the classical Greek tragedy Antigone or Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, he was developing as a musician, a slow-burn process that didn’t come with the immediate ease or accolades as acting.
“It’s really hard at the start,” he says. “I wasn’t doing shows in college. No one really super fucked with my stuff until ‘Marco.’ I think I had a thousand streams on two songs.”
But “Marco” flipped a switch. With plans to move to NYC to break into TV and film, binki spent his summer working at a bar in Greensboro. Smith had sent him the beat for “Marco,” and the two began teasing out a hit. Partnering with his brother, Justin Ongeri, they created a music video and sent the finished project around to see if any blogs would bite. Then, it happened: a nod from UK’s The Line of Best Fit, which called the song “the perfect post-millennial slow jam” and support from Amanda Milanes (who would later become his manager).
binki had tapped into something special.
“You kinda need other people to believe in you to believe in yourself,” he says. “[‘Marco’] felt very empowering to do.”
However, his steady, persistent rise hasn’t been without its challenges. The past year has been one of growth for an artist navigating a new career in a new town. With newfound buzz comes a nagging question: Will this last?
“You get anxious because… just, like, self doubt,” he admits. “I’m not traditionally a musician, so it’s just feeling unworthy or like an imposter.”
He cites other artists as inspiration for overcoming that anxiety including a Dev Hynes interview with Kerwin Frost, where Hynes — despite a years-long career with critically-acclaimed projects like Test Icicles, Lightspeed Champion, and Blood Orange — shared that he’d never owned an instrument until 2018.
“He was just saying how he always knew in any situation [while] creating, he was the constant,” binki explains.
And while settling into an unfamiliar scene and coming to grips with his formidable talent, binki has been constantly creating. He closed out the last summer by releasing “Wiggle,” before quickly dropping the buoyant “Sea Sick” and boisterous “Heybb!”.
“All of my songs have been bangers, kind of,” he admits. “I want to make all kinds of stuff. I want people to be able to use my music however they need it. I just want to have a variety of colors and emotions and energies.”
“Heybb!” even let him flex his visual chops for his directorial debut. Sporting his best business attire, he bounces around Brooklyn with a mannequin counterpart in a woozy odyssey.
As for what’s ahead, he’s hesitant to say. Can this love affair with music go the distance, or is it just another fleeting crush? binki’s not trying to predict where his career will go and is open to the possibility that, in a couple years, he may not even still be doing music.
“Maybe I’ll do, like, fucking photography,” he muses. “Probably not, realistically, but, y’know, whatever’s fun, whatever’s challenging. That’ll be what I’m doing.”
binki’s latest single, “Heybb!” — out now via Level.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.