AN INTERVIEW WITH RAPPER MAVI
This is an edited transcript of an interview with the artist MAVI, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
MAVI’s debut album, Let the Sun Talk, was released last year and received critical acclaim for his unique exploration of identity and community. Since the project's release, he has been absolutely everywhere, continuing to grow his audience and spread his message of growth and learning. MAVI has been teasing a new album titled Shango for a couple of months and although there is still no set release date, he promises it's coming before the end of the year. In this interview, we take the opportunity to ask him about his new project and what recording during quarantine has been like for him. We also talk in-depth about criticism, what it means for white critics to discuss Black art and the Yoruba culture which inspired both the title and subject matter of his upcoming album.
Sam: What has it been like working on this new album in the whole quarantine period? Has it been harder for you, or have you had time to really focus on the sound?
Mavi: It definitely gave me a lot of time to focus and that's a rare opportunity for artists to get. It's terrible that it’s under these terms, but this gave us a full break from everything out of necessity. It allowed my perspective to catch up with some of the experiences I’ve had. I've been able to coalesce around concepts more and it's been fun as shit. Just being able to have more instruments to really take my time on this motherfucker has been the biggest step up for sure. It's the first album I ever recorded in a studio.
Sam: How'd you record Let the Sun Talk?
Mavi: In a dorm room.
Teresa: That's crazy. The versatility of these dorm rooms can be anything.
Mavi: Yeah. I did photo shoots, interviews all types of shit outta the dorm room.
Teresa: When did you start working on your new project and did you plan to spend this much time on it now, given that it's quarantine and there's nothing else to do?
Mavi: I started this album for real last summer. It's called Shango and it's about the Yoruba culture in Nigeria. It's this system of spiritual ancestry around chiefs and then the chiefs who are the leaders of their areas are also the personifications of the acts of nature. So, Shango is the orisha of thunder, virility, anger, dance, and the drums. Shango was what my daddy was tryna name me first.
The name basically came because Let the Sun Talk was done a whole year before I released it. In the interim, I was kind of fucked up figuring out what do I write about while I’m waiting and what do the next album sound like. So, I had to go all the way back to the question, "What's the first thing that happened to you ever in life?" The first thing that happened to me is I'm named.
So, I'm like “What was your name before it was Mavi?” It was Shango. And I went there and I just started to study. I started seeing all kinds of parallels to life. He was originally the orisha of divination, and he traded that skill for the skill of the drums with his brother.
[I saw parallels] with some expressions of his anger, his principles, and his energy toward proving himself. He’s like one of those Shounen anime where the protagonist always got an unclear patrilineage.
All types of shit where I was seeing different parallels between how I felt about the world and about my life, in the wake of Let the Sun Talk. And it was not so happy; it was kind of angry sometimes. Anger, drums, those things are hand in hand for me. That's where the thematic portion of it came from, me trying to make a cloudy sky where I had a clear sky album before.
Sam: That's super interesting. Personally, I saw some of that anger and Let the Sun Talk too, but I can definitely see moments like "Self-love" that are definitely clear sky moments.
Mavi: That's what "Self-love" being that two-prong thing is about. A lot of the fucking motive for making art is to bring something into existence or to bring a representation of something that I know to exist into a clarified form. Niggas only get to be a few things. Niggas don't get to be learning and angry at the same time.
The part of yourself that is outrightly fucking non-tolerant of the world as it currently exists because of your place in it is the same part of you that you go to when you’re on your meditation, super peaceful shit. That's equally a higher power or righteous power.
Sam: On that note of the part of you that doesn't sit right with what's going on in the world, what has this whole protest movement meant for you? Cause I know Let the Sun Talk is a lot about Black liberation and I was wondering, and I've thought a lot about this too, but do you think this protest movement has brought us any closer to Black liberation?
Mavi: Every time black people organize themselves they get closer to Black liberation. Ultimately, Black liberation depends on not necessarily Black nationalism, but Black nationhood. The organizational habits, the wit, and the strategy that we come up with every time out is contributing to the new world that we build when the time comes.
The protest shit is crazy though because they're on their back foot. And when you put white supremacy on its back foot it gets real violent. Like this year, where you see the damn unmarked cops throwing niggas in a van. Literally, in the South there used to be a thing called a posse. And the sheriff would just have a whole bunch of just white men, who was just his homies, who would run around and shoot shit with him. That being the law of the land, as long as niggas is protesting white supremacy, should tell you something about the stakes of this shit. And they are deep, but we're deeper.
Teresa: Going back to when you were talking about the research that you did for your upcoming album, I know that you draw a lot of inspiration, not only from artists but also thinkers and texts that you read. In your writing process do you usually do research and then write or do you draw from texts that you're already familiar with and are inspired by?
Mavi: It's kind of both. Alright, so some things about Shango: the system of Orisha, the practice of worshiping him, is a practice that not only exists in Nigeria but also in Cuba, Mexico, all through Latin America. It has pockets in the African Americas, in Atlanta, Texas, and New York and all through South America. So, it's a long cultural lineage. It's damn near indigenous. One of Black people’s ways of knowing indigeneity in an unfamiliar space. That's why I went straight to that.
From that, I had to go and just learn certain things like, "Why is Brazil and American black plight similar?" How did it get to that point? And seeing how the shared interest in slavery led to some of the things that we notice about Brazil's population and then how Brazil's intentional immigration of the European immigrants into their country, how that affected it.
As far as reading about Shango himself, I have this book called "Shango: Santeria and the Orisha of Thunder," by Baba Raúl Cañizares. I also have "Shango: Ifa and Orisha of Thunder," and I got "Odù Ifá: The Ethical Teachings," by Maulana Karenga, the nigga who founded Kwanzaa. Basically it's a translation of the Ifa spiritual laws for transmutation in the current life.
Reading that shit gave me a lot of insight into what about this nigga was magnetic. What about this nigga was electric? He was pretty: one of the things that they said about him was his hair was damn-near womanly. He was unassuming, but he could burn down the whole village. It's an interesting little story, bro.
Sam: I know that with Let the Sun Talk, the title and the theme of the album went through the whole project. Is Shango similar? Are you taking from that theme and applying it to different songs?
Mavi: Definitely. Shango is fire and anger and destruction -- building and destruction being a continuum -- he has to learn a rhythm for his life, just as a nigga with capabilities beyond his judgment. Like what is Shango as a 20-year-old nigga in 2020 America? What is that? How does he feel? What is he doing right, what is he doing wrong? How did people treat him?
Teresa: I saw that in an interview, you said that Let the Sun Talk had a lot more eyes on it than you intended. Now that you have a larger base of listeners, has that influenced what you are going to be putting out in this upcoming album?
Mavi: Kinda yes kinda no. A lot of the music that I was making before now wasn't fully fleshed out in terms of the process of making the songs because they were little beacons for niggas to be like, "Hey, come point me in the direction of the studio, come show me what I need." That's been the process for learning and improvement every step of the way. More released to release than the growth that the audience, because I'm able to see what are the shortcomings in the songwriting on Let the Sun Talk and what made Let the Sun Talk something that people couldn't put down. That's something I do regardless of the reception.
But it's definitely scary, bro, because I be kind of nice and I don't hate Black people. I guess that means people -- like I said, niggas can't be multiple things at once -- so people assign both a moral angelicness to me and that also come with the reflex to defile that illusion. Just being allowed to be myself is the most important shit because that's what the Black liberation shit really looks like. Everybody being on board with the terms and conditions.
Sam: That's one thing that I immediately appreciated about you is that no matter what -- especially the place I've seen it most is on Twitter -- you just keep it real and engage with every conversation that's going on.
One thing that happened recently surrounded Anthony Fantano and him reviewing music, which started a conversation about white people's role in reviewing black music. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit on that.
Mavi: I don't want to be controversial, but I don't really think they got no role. You literally have no business. Alright, can we accept that African American Vernacular English is a distinct language from the Crown's English?
Mavi: All right, bet. I don't wanna pick on him, but, could you imagine Anthony Fantano reading Young Thug lyrics in African American Vernacular English?
Mavi: If you ain't got access to the concepts that the fucking narrative voice of this shit is knotted by, it's unintelligible to you. Like you listened to [the music] how I was listening to EDM for what's cute and what's not. That's so random, bro, but I do appreciate it.
I will say this one thing that I do see though is that rappers with different musical influences that go outside of rap, even me with jazz, Uzi with rock or Tyler with different shit, they bring fans with them who may not have family traditions in hip-hop. Whose families might've played the Beatles or might've played the Stones or the Ramones around them or some shit, or Marilyn Manson, and they'd come up and like this shit. They might've played, Glasper around them and they come up and like this shit. That shit is awesome.
Offer your perspective with the context of your perspective. That's the role that anybody in hip-hop, who not a rapper or not a black person occupies. Then, what you start to begin to see is when people do it with respect to the genre, you see beautiful things happen, like UK Drill or New York Drill. You start to see how Oakland and Detroit rap are similar.
It's not that hip hop is it's supposed to be an insular thing, but it's something that is a culture like any other, which you got to have a certain respect for certain tenants of it and for the language of it to even participate in. Until you do, I can't look at you as a true participant or take you seriously or review it.
Sam: I get that. There's definitely other reviewers and people in hip-hop who have earned their stripes like that.
Mavi: Also hip hop isn't even that sort of thing, because not even just to pick on him, but also the niggas bro! Like y'all gotta be reviewing the shit in that fucking way? That's your language! What do you really think is hard about this? Mavi is not “introspective.”
Beyond the words that you see pitchfork say about albums that sound like sort of this album, what do you think is hard about this shit? Like, "Oh, shit. That nigga said whatever." That's how I be reviewing music for my niggas. Like "Bro, listen to this new Future, this nigga Future said whatever."
Music has to be about what it is and not what it’s like. What did it do? What is it supposed to do or what do you think it’s supposed to do? If you think it's supposed to do something and it all the way fails at that, it might not even be what that nigga was trying to do.
Sam: The thing that drove me crazy was like how everyone kept saying you sounded like Earl. And I was like, “What are y'all listening to?”
Mavi: It's fair. Everybody got their own ear and everyone can say anything, sound like anything else. My shit is, bro. I love Thebe. That's really one of my men, where I would be thinking about what he do. Everybody in rap is not like that, but actually, him and me is cousins. That's my cousin. He in the advanced class of rap.
I don't even like listening to rap niggas at all outside of some trap shit, because I don't like listening to niggas who don't rap as good as me ever. Not even on no braggy shit, but some things I don't even like. And so that nigga, his taste and my taste as far as like, "Oh, nah, this is like some of the best. This that straight drop hip-hop. That's my guy for that.
Teresa: Sam and I grew up in Chicago and that's really influenced the way we see art. So, how has your upbringing and growth shaped the direction for your music. What do you listen to and take inspiration from?
Mavi: I think a lot of it comes from what the people I look up to was putting me on. My cousins, they really put me on Chief Keef, Future, Thug, like the 2012-2011 middle-school era. Also, I began to realize that rap occupies a different lane now, where rap is the popular music or it can be, it can go that huge.
Then I started to listen to it with two different ears. One for the plucky underdog rap for like, what is it about this genre that it has this charm, perspective, and style that its inimitable if you're not from it. The real shit. And then what is it about this shit that even niggas who think nothing is cool about the life that these rappers is living, think that it's the coolest shit ever. That's where my taste grew from. A mix of what I thought was potent and what I thought was pleasing. My taste really grew from the first rappers niggas was probably listening to like Ye. "Roses" was the first Kanye song I ever heard, like, "Oh God, this nigga going stupid."
After Ye was probably Wayne around, Sorry For The Wait, No Ceilings, mixtape Datpiff point. Then from being on Datpiff, I was hearing that old Gucci, like Trap God, then Future and Thug and just seeing all them niggas grow into full-fledged superstars, their styles still developing as they get bigger. That shit super inspiring.
On the rapper rapper shit, my favorite rapper since ninth grade has been Noname. She dropped with Knowledge before she dropped Telephone. Actually, the whole Chicago shit and it's crazy because it's parallels to what can go right and what can go wrong when you have a lot of people rapping from the same place -- from the same place in the heart. A lot of the SAVEMONEY niggas was inspiring me around that time. A lot of Chicago artists.
I draw from different cities, Black cities, heavily. Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Oakland, LA, because it's important to have a worldly understanding of Black music. That's what brought these styles of black music into fruition first place. Genres like salsa are a combination of Black cultures from different places on the map.
Sam: On the Chicago scene, I agree it's super interesting where everyone's gone from there and I feel like all the artists in the scene have gone to do such different things. It's crazy that a scene can even go that way. But I was wondering, have you ever drawn influence from Charlotte?
Mavi: Oh, yeah. Me and my niggas, bro. Me and like my five homies from Charlotte have a sub-culture. We have language, have places we hang out, have cars that we like. You could just say me and my niggas are so tight, you can't even tell us apart. My Charlotte boys, them niggas is dead my twin energy. Everything. We know each other, like the back of our hand.
North Carolina things was probably like the Petey Pablos of the world, Master P even in some respects, a whole lot of shit. It wasn't even necessarily Charlotte, cause Charlotte’s not such a big rap city. The thing that I take from Charlotte is how to dress and what I think is cool.
Charlotte was really taking a lot culturally and musically from Atlanta, Tennessee, Florida, shit like that. Niggas was listening to all this type of shit. Niggas had a big South Florida, phase, a big New Orleans phase. Niggas had a phase for damn-near every city. City to city, people can have entire regional forms of rap because niggas do something so hard that niggas from that city don't want to hear nothing else. I'll be trying to figure out those little secrets, on my wizard shit.
Sam: We've talked a lot about different cities in this interview. So I was wondering why did you want to record your album in Harlem specifically?
Mavi: I was supposed to do the fucking Apollo this year, but it got canceled because of COVID.
Harlem is where a lot of niggas sound and art forms found itself. Jazz found itself here. In dancing and in style, Harlem represents a microcosm of the nigga dream. Fuck the American dream. Harlem was a bunch of Southern niggas at first. It was ethnically diverse with Italians, Hispanic people, Jewish people, middle eastern people. So the kids were going into their own little shit, but they were thoroughly acculturated. These people were all Southern Black people -- migration era Black -- but they was dead styling. They was putting that shit the fuck on. Niggas was listening to good ass music, eating good ass food, niggas was a hotbed for the creation of conceptual excellence. I appreciate that a lot.
Harlem is a place where you can form some ideas and where you can draw from ideas in continuum and not be derivative. Even with Dipset, Harlem has been cool every generation of ever.
Sam: What type of response do you want to elicit from your upcoming project?
Mavi: I want people to listen to it two times and then be like, "Man this shit hard. This nigga rappin' on this motherfucker." That's what I want niggas to think, bro. What I realized with this whole discussion about the position of reviewers to this shit, is that what Let The Sun did well was what I sought to do, which was to make it pretty enough so even if you don't get it at all, you'll stick around. And Shango is definitely really pretty. Even though it's angry, it's really pretty.
I was listening to this song called "Baby Food" by Planet Asia in the Lyft back on the way back from seeing the Knicks. I was like, "This shit sound like the damn Sesame Street theme song,” I'm riding through New York amongst the Brownstones and the buildings is playing the sax lines and shit. That's what I want niggas to take from this shit. I want it to narrate fucking existence.
Teresa: We are so excited for Shango. Do you think we could get a release date?
Mavi: Tony, that nigga who got y'all on the phone, shout out to that man. They engineered the whole shit and he's been putting me in connection with such amazing artists -- black artists -- he brought me amazing background singers. It's been really fun, but as far as release dates, no release date. What's today?
Teresa: It's July 29th.
Mavi: You all wait another two months. We'll just say upcoming.
Sam: Anything else you want to share about the album?
Mavi: Go buy that shit, bro. Bootleg it if you a nigga. Also if any niggas see my cover and start putting that shit on a damn t-shirt and you ain't telling me... If I find out and I see your IP address is not from a damn zip code where underprivileged black people is from, we goin’ to court!
But deadass though, it's going to be fun, we're letting everybody come here and hear this. Cause earth, y'all need to hear this right now. I need to tell y'all what I am, where I'm from, what it's like, I need to talk from not the third person on this shit. Then I also got a secret right after Shango for niggas too.