AN INTERVIEW WITH RAPPER MAASSAI
This is an edited transcript of an interview with rapper Maassai, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Maassai is an incredible artist who continues to push the boundaries of lyricism in hip-hop and represents part of the growing New York City underground scene. She has already released two projects this year, C0N$TRUCT!0N 002: The Caution Tape and unsounded points of view, which are both incredibly dense and rewarding listens. In our interview, she shares wisdom on what it has been like recording during the pandemic, explains some of her most interesting lyrics, and offers advice for young artists on how to get the most out of their art.
Sam: During this whole quarantine period, it feels like you've been dropping so much music with Unsounded Points of View coming out recently. It seems that you're always teasing new music and I was wondering, how has this quarantine affected you? Has it made it harder to work or have you just focused in?
Maassai: I definitely buckled down this quarantine. I was able to create a lot and produce lots of content; really emotionally driven and individual type of work. Quarantine definitely encouraged me, and I feel like for a lot of people quarantine encouraged us to have to sit with ourselves and reflect because we're just home alone type shit. So, I definitely created a lot around those types of themes of reflection and introspection.
Sam: Is that different from how you created music before?
Maassai: I would say not completely, but I definitely think there was an extra focus on it. I think a lot of the time I'm thinking about my own self and reflection, but also a lot about the bigger picture or the grand scheme of things and society and how I can portray or give a message to a larger audience. I normally think a lot about that. I think that over quarantine has been a lot less about that.
Teresa: That makes sense. What is your writing process? How do you get ideas on what topics to cover and how those fit in with your beats?
Maassai: Usually, I feel my writing process is just inspired by things that I'm going through or things that I see. I'll usually have specific intentions when I start writing.
I like to develop an idea before I start writing about something. The stream of consciousness thing, I do that sometimes, but most of the time I have something very specific in mind that I want to portray. I'll think of a concept to use as a lens to portray whatever it is that I'm talking about.
Teresa: So, which part do you think is harder for you? Making the music or trying to consolidate your stream of consciousness to synthesize an album or song?
Maassai: I think they equally take as much work, especially because I haven't actually put out a full-length project yet.
However, now I'm going on that process. I just finished my album and I also have two more full-length projects coming out with producers that I collaborated with. So, it's kinda my first time putting out, or working on, a full-length project. Just consolidating and trying to have ideas make sense all throughout and have everything be cohesive with each other, that's a whole nother ballpark of this creative process.
Sam: I had a question about that release strategy. Cause I've noticed that it's been mostly EPs and singles. I heard you previewing the Jwords tape, which I know we're both super excited for, but is there a reason that you were going for shorter projects and not a longer album? Did you just need time to get it all together?
Maassai: I would say it's a little bit of both. I've been working on music and writing music for years now and it took me a long time to be like, "alright, Imma drop."
Because just being --not even self-conscious -- but having a firm idea of what I wanted to say, I'm super picky about that. What I give to the world and what my voice means, or what is going to mean when it gets frozen in time with my music, I'm really specific about that. It's taken a long time for me to just be in a place where I feel I'm ready to share my voice in that way.
For a while I was just performing, you would come to my live set and see my stuff. I didn't really have a lot of music online. But when it comes to that frozen in time concept, I'm just like, “alright, let me just make sure.”
Also, with dropping the shorter tapes, I feel it leaves room for people to just develop somewhat of a concept of who I am as an artist but not fully place me in a specific category as of yet until I dropped a full project.
Sam: Are you feeling pressure for the first full-length or is it ready to come out?
Maassai: I mean, I'm always feeling pressure. That's never not a thing. Even putting out Unsounded Points of View, I was like, "damn, fuck." Because it was something that I felt was really different from the stuff I did in the past. It was super heady and really kind of abstract.
So I was like, "How are people going to receive this? Because people are already receiving me one way." But, I do like the fact that with dropping different things leaves room for people to know that I'm not trying to stick to one thing, that's not where I'm going as an artist.
Sam: I'm happy you brought up Unsounded Points of View cause I had a couple of questions about that. I know you said that the project was you trying to -- I don't remember how you phrased it -- but trying to get everything that was out of your head onto paper. Oh, you said it was a writing experiment. How is that different from how you normally write?
Maassai: Yeah, it was a writing experiment and I felt a lot of my stuff more subconsciously is writing experiments, but this specifically was literally a prompt that I gave myself.
I found this list of words of feelings that are difficult to describe, so each title on that project is one of the words that resonated with me, mostly words that made sense to me, or that I felt I experienced a lot.
For instance, "sonder" is the feeling that you get when you realize that each passerby has a life complex of their own. And then "monachopsis" is the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place. And "anecdoche" is the feeling when people are speaking to each other but not listening in the conversation. It's just basically people taking anecdotes of people's words and building a conversation that makes no sense.
So, my idea was just to discuss these things because they're feelings difficult to describe. My prompt was attempting to accurately and vividly describe those feelings in the project.
Sam: That totally contextualized "Sonder" for me because you have this line about not really understanding how people feel and even with the people you love, you can't really understand them. Especially in a time like this, where there are just so many crazy opinions out there, how do you feel we can be empathetic and try to understand people even though we know we can't actually get what they're feeling.
Maassai: Hmmm. I think the best way that we can empathize with people is by not assuming things about people in the first place. Obviously there are contextual things, or you could have implications that you could find about people based on race or other things. But, you can never fully tell anything about anyone or what they've been through. Not assuming that people are any way is the best way to empathize with the human experience.
But when we're talking about empathy for people who are oppressed, then that also comes with education. Really examining the ways that people of different minority groups or oppressed groups are treated and using your privilege two make way for them in whatever way that you can.
Teresa: I also know that you get a lot of your influences from your friends because a lot of your friends are also creatives in New York. How have they influenced your process in the way you approach making music and the direction that you see yourself going?
Maassai: Yeah, most of my friends are musicians, mostly musicians, but also producers and jazz-heads. My friends definitely challenge me as a rapper and a vocalist to think about rap more musically and think of it as a percussive instrument.
Writing is one thing that I feel in a lot of ways is super separate from this whole concept of music. But when it comes to the sound and the sonics, my friends definitely push me -- especially with the jazz influence -- to the abstraction of rhythm, pace, and syncopation. I have amazing friends who are super, super talented and I'm blessed to be around them.
Teresa: How did you initially integrate yourself in the rap scene in New York? Everyone today is making music, so how did you get yourself in that niche?
Maassai: I started performing in New York City -- I'm from here, born and raised -- but I started performing within this particular pocket of the New York City art scene. I was performing before for summits and I was in this whole scholarly whatever. That's where I got my start performing, but then I integrated into this actual music scene around 2015. Say Hi in New York City actually put me on, it was my first show that I did in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. Once I did that show, so many opportunities came my way to collaborate, meet creatives, and also to do shows.
I started doing shows since then pretty much nonstop. I ended up going through a series of different scenes or friend groups or whatever the case may be. I personally don't see myself in a particular pocket of community necessarily, but I have developed a really well-rounded circle and community of musicians and artists just from performing out here for maybe five years or so.
Sam: Talking about doing shows, how has it been to not have shows for this long, and has it impacted how you think about making music? I know it must be tough making music not knowing when you're going to perform it.
Maassai: It was really weird for a long time especially because I was recording so much. For so long, I've been such the performing ass artist where you gotta come to my live show to even hear my shit, you know? So it's been pretty interesting.
I actually did a live stream for Satellite Syndicate, which is a curated platform that my homie BSTFRND helps curate -- who's also an amazing producer. I did that show and it was my first time performing for a long ass time. And I was like, "Whoa." My whole body was like, "I need to recalibrate." But that experience was really fun. Just getting in the groove of it again, because I felt I lost it.
Sam: Really? What did it feel like? Was it really just not connecting with the audiences?
Maassai: No, I just feel like I'm socially awkward now. I've been inside for so long. I don't even know, just being around people is like, "huh?"
Teresa: I think everyone feels that way.
Sam: I saw on Twitter a couple of days ago you shared a video of your grandpa who is also a musician and it was dope. Did he influence you in your music?
Maassai: Yeah, my grandfather definitely is a big influence on me and a big influence on my whole family. He is that person in the family. I grew up knowing that my grandfather was a musician and my grandmother is also a jazz vocalist. So she also had a large impact on my artistry and my creative brain.
My grandfather though: he is a super, super intelligent man and is super into history. So he uses his music to show history. My grandfather is Panamanian and is big on spreading knowledge about the Afro Latinx experience and what it means to be a part of the African diaspora and to be from Central America. He's dedicated to linking those things together.
He's always been pushing adding history into whatever you're creating. I think that I've definitely picked up a lot of that from him in the way that I create and express my music, like using history as the context for what I create.
Sam: Can you give us an example of how you've been doing that recently?
Maassai: Word. In general, my music is definitely informed by the black experience, which obviously comes with lots of historical context. And so I feel inherently I'm transgressing from the ideals that black people within the context of this country have been set to follow. History is the context that informs.
Teresa: Do you feel any pressure to send some sort of message given that you are a black female rapper?
Maassai: I definitely do. I don't know if pressure is necessarily the word, but I definitely feel responsibility.
I'm not just trying to take up space within this whole shit without having nothing real to say. And it's not even that I'm anti quote-unquote mumble rap, or anti just talking shit, cause I talk shit too. But, I feel it's important for us to use our voices and our platforms right now strategically because we're way too far from being done and being free to be lackadaisical. Especially knowing that I have at least a little bit of education about things, I feel like it would be wasteful for me to not utilize my platform to speak to those types of things.
Teresa: Who are your biggest musical influences now? It doesn't even have to be music, just artistic influences in general.
Maassai: Well, this is always a crazy question cause it's so many people. I would definitely say I'm super inspired by Sun Ra, Tony Williams, Alice Coltrane. Amazing, amazing artists. Even though I'm not a jazz musician they have definitely have informed a lot of my creation.
Then there are artists I grew up on like D'Angelo, Lauren Hill, Bilal that Neo-soul groove. Artists who really made a context, especially as a rapper and a singer, because Neo-soul has an inherently hip-hop feel.
And then a lot of my friends and people who are friends of friends and in the community. John Beck is an artist who made me feel like, "Oh shit, he's doing crazy shit right now. This is wild." All my friends inspire me. I can like list them like KeiyaA, Jwords, Liv.e.
Teresa: It is KeiyaA's birthday, shout out!
Teresa: How has collaborating with other people informed you of other music styles?
Maassai: Working with artists has always been a part of my process. What I really like about collaborating is being able to get prompts from people. If people already have ideas about what they want the song to be about. Cause I'm always thinking about shit and trying to think what the hell do I write about now? Getting a prompt from someone usually challenges me as a writer to have new ideas, new things to talk about.
Teresa: Do you create music with any specific audience in mind or do you want the whole world to hear your music and interact with it?
Maassai: I definitely make music for black people, for women, for queer people. But I feel like anyone can listen to my music, learn from it, and be inspired by it. Hopefully, for the groups that aren't a part of those groups that I mentioned, my music is able to be confrontational. Something that they could really sit with and feel a way about. I make it with the intention that some people get upset. That is the goal. Honestly, if people can get upset, then I've done my job.