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Onyx Ashanti – Digital Nomad, Inventor, Musician, Philosopher, and Bitcoin Enthusiast

In 2012, while looking through Netflix, I came across “TEDTalks:  Music Revolution” which featured a man by the name of Onyx Ashanti on it’s cover.  He was presenting his invention, known as Beatjazz.  This invention was both a new music style, and a musical system at the same time.  Using a variety of handheld electronics, accelerometers, and custom equipment, Mr. Ashanti produced an instrument that would create music that danced to the musician, rather than the musician dancing to the music.

In the past year, Mr. Ashanti has become an outspoken supporter of Bitcoin, and has even stated an intention to convert to Bitcoin completely.  With that in mind, I reached out to him, and he agreed to answer my questions, and share his thoughts with the community.


Mr. Ashanti, you are known as a “digital nomad”. What does that mean to you, and what drove you to that lifestyle?

i think that the “nomad” came before the “digital”. nomadism, to me, was always a feeling of needing to recheck my assumptions sonically, geographically, spatially and culturally. i love going to new places but i also love going back to places i have been before, to gauge what i think i have learned. travel makes you see the world, but also allows you to see yourself in different situations.

the “digital” component is a whole pandora’s box unto itself. the internet is the programmable dimension. i am represented by a self that is and isn’t in the dimension that my body exists in. it is a dimension of weightless storage, lightspeed communication and unlimited architectural expression. at first it allowed me to have a place to store my scanned magazines and comic books, so i could have them with me when i travelled from place to place, but now it is, in a very real sense, my home. its where my family, my friends and my “job” are. whereever it is, i have access to my constructed self. whereever it is not, i try to help bring it, or i am not in that place for very long.

How did the idea of beatjazz arise?

beatjazz is an evolutionary construct of cultural and sonic exploration. i created it because i could not easily slot myself into existing genres and styles of “music”. at the time that the concatenation of the words “beat” and “jazz” occured, i was in one of my many transitional states. styles of music like drum and bass, acid jazz, early timbaland-era r&b, and broken beat had much of my attention at the time, in the mid 90’s.

i loved them all but i could not “be” them. i wanted to hybridize them into something that could express how much i loved them together and individually so i came up with the term beatjazz in 1998 and it became a lightening rod for my forward momentum. “beat” refers to the culture of electronic rhythm and “jazz” always meant improvisation to me, but also alluded to an investigation of harmony, melody and intent. this was at a time when i wasn’t very good at improv, so the term gave me something to work toward. now, it is a completely improvised form of sonic investigation. the term still acts as a lightening rod of important factors. it has taken on a more mathematical meaning as of late.

Onyx Ashanti Explaining the Ideas Behind His System, and Presenting A Recent Version

I’ve read that your beatjazz system is moving toward becoming more of a “sonic operating system” than a musical instrument. How is this being used? What ideas do you, or others, have for this system?

well, a few years ago, after completing the first exo-voice prototype, i realized that i never really played my music for anyone other than myself. the audience was always a sort of modulating chaotic field with each person being a transmitter and receiver of intent. playing to an assumption that an “audience” will “like” it when i play something in particular completely tramples the opportunity to modulate the field they collectively generate. playing “to”them is uninteresting. playing their resonances is a cognitive exercise of more intellectual value to me as an artist. i don’t even know what it means exactly, but strangely, i know how to do it. i play my self while incorporating the “audience field” into the exercise. needless to say, i realized that it was going out so far on it own trajectory that i had to give up the idea of entertainment completely. i don’t need the audience field for the expression to be complete. the idea of performance is something else though. performance-expression, through body language and sonic narrative, consolidates the intent of the idea.

it kinda started when i thought to myself, “if i were on a desert island alone with my exo-voice, why would i ever use it?” it was at this point that began metabolizing the idea of using sonic patterns to program myself. to use these quirks of music as a means of creating, storing and/or referencing ideas stored in my own memory. the same way that a song from our childhood will take us back to that place and time, i focus now on parameterizing that space for whatever comes next on this journey of expression. the exo voice uses an operation logic based on fractals so that it can infinitely evolve with its patternist “pilot”. what this means, is that it is designed to have functions planted within it that are extremely simple at first and their function gains meaning over time. then those functions sprout functions and so on, in a fractal manner. these functions can grow differently for each patternist willing to go in and interact with it.

the plans for the updated, open source version are to be released very soon. i have some friends in Berlin who will be using its gestural system to manipulate microscopic particles in 3d space using lasers. my own uses have touched on VR, robotics and quadcopters, but parameterizing the fractal expression of hands and fingers, modulated by hand position and breath is only just beginning.

What attracted you to Bitcoin?

i investigated bitcoin a few years ago, and even mined a few back when you could do it on a laptop. the idea was very interesting but i didnt grasp “what” it was. i was busy trying to move to Berlin. cut to 2013, i watched the value jump in april of that year, which coincided with an increased ability to grasp the more complex concepts from having read the whitepaper, and studiying a bit more math in the immediately preceding years. that and a talk given by Andreas Antonopolous, gave me greater insight into what it was, what it represented and what it could be. i think that the thing that resonated with me most was the idea of “programmable money”. the idea that i could program my value meant that it would eventually become part of my expression. so i took all of my money out of the bank and have been using bitcoin ever since, which isn’t hard as i don’t make that much money:-)

How well has Bitcoin integrated into your life?

at very least, it is the most interesting thing i have ever done with my value. it makes you think differently. i am more of a citizen of the internet now. i have a store of value that actually appreciates upward. this alone is new, but the realization that no one owns it…that i am free to interact with it as i like without having to have a license or a degree of some sort, makes me think differently about my place in this world we are building. as if everything before was for the purpose of getting us to this point where we can correct much of the damage of the previous eras. within the previous systems, my generation was the first in recent american history that was to have less than their parents, left with a world that has been abused. now we have the power to reorganize literally everything to a point where we have more than could even be imagined by previous genrations while simultaneously having to tools to fix most of the worlds ills in a very short window of human time.

we are the generation that is alive at a time of exponential change in human history! it can go to shit-i got all of my bitcoins stolen a few months ago by malware I installed, stupidly (lesson learned)-or be so much more incredible than anything we have verbal patterns for. So, needless to say, i am optimistic about what the Blockchain represents going forward, for human kind.

Onyx Ashanti
Photo by Darren Holliday

In January you stated, “I now (capitalized for effect) ONLY accept bitcoin for anything I do, from busking, to shows to all current and future artifacts I create.” Has this worked out well for you? 

yes and no. i demand it where i absolutely can. so for shows, performances and presentations, yes. for busking, it is more of an anomaly. i plan to busk more bitcoin related events as a way of investigating my thoughts on what could happen in the space. i have busked a couple of bitcoin events in berlin already. i make my artifacts available for bitcoin and fiat but charge more for fiat. my exo-voice is €500 in btc but €850 in fiat. so far, everyone that is buying one when i finally allow people to pay me (finalizing the design), is doing so in bitcoin. in my investigation, many people were already curious about it and this becomes an excuse for them to dig in a little.

funnily enough, i have found that those entities who are bitcoin averse, such as larger organizations, are surprisingly cool with paypal transactions now, where just a few years ago, they were the big no-no in getting deposits and payents from clients. my current step is to be more of a busking zealot for the idea. ie., having some artifacts that are only for bitcoin, while having literature on the street that will help people setup a bitcoin wallet, and get used to the idea of the technology. its all still a swirl of thought and poking into the concept-sphere.

Have you successfully transitioned to an income that is fully comprised of Bitcoin?

well, there isnt a totally anything anymore. i’ve had debit cards, credit cards, bank accounts, paypal, cash, and bitcoin. sometimes they have competed with each other for my attention and other times, only one or another works for long periods of time. currently, i find bank accounts distasteful, so they are no longer a consideration. all my debit cards were lost in taiwan last year so its just paypal, bitcoin and cash, which gets dumped to one of my wallets once it accumulates above a certain amount, so i look at it as bitcoin being the origin of my currency fractal now; i take paypal, which is easy to convert to cash and use mycellium to buy bitcoin. and the process is getting simpler everyday.

i fully expect to let the paypal account gather dust in the very near term. then there is the fact that i can simply take a portion my time and value and invest in other things, completely digitally, so the idea of income becomes kinda malleable. there is also the idea of learning the hard stuff and designing a system based on the blockchain concept, but focused on some form of expression i can’t imagine yet.

What are your thoughts on the future of Bitcoin, our increasing integration with digital systems? What are you most excited about right now?

i see the many sides of this coin. (i think the idea of a two sided coin is going to have to be revised, but that is another thought vector…) i see bank retaliations and maybe even setups by certain parties, to try to control it by violent or other means. i believe this is why the value has been so flat since december, but i digress… none of that will matter of course, but it wont stop it from being an option that could see expression. because some of those entities see one step further than even many early adopters see; that it is not about bitcoin. it is about the blockchain. people will realize that if it is good enough for money, then it is good enough for many things… like elections.

i believe that starting this year, you will see the emergence of blockchain-technology based election systems that will change everything. my crystal ball shows me a vision of the debacle that will be the (non-blockchain) 2014 midterm elections which will lead to a fully blockchain 2016 presidential election in the US. not to spoil the plot but none of the “shoe-ins” are going to be the next president.

i also believe that DAC’s will figure prominently in an increasingly decentralized interweb. as the flow of value goes to different parties than they have historically, and do so programmatically, you will see the “world” mutate to a new collective modality, for better and for worse in some minor instances. what does a world of teenage and 20-something teenage hacker billionaires look and feel like? what does the worlds largest economy (the internet) want? we are about to find out.

i dont even want to peer too far into it because whatever i see or think i see there is going to be woefully inadequate to describe what all of this means any further than 12 months out. so the “future” for me, is to peer forward just enough to inform my actions here in the present, and let them build the tools necessary to create a bridge to the next point on the process trajectory. we are very fortunate to be alive at this moment in human history! [divider]

Onyx Ashanti Presenting The Early Version of His Beatjazz System in 2011

If you would like to read more about Onyx Ashanti, and his nomadic adventures, you can visit his personal website here.  Also, if anyone would like to donate, his Bitcoin wallet address is: 1Q2cQZacJTP8LfYAaXZe1FgjwVHPqMCZkb 

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