Before the lights went out: An interview with MAVI

Josh Svetz is the DC homie and the Reviews Editor at HipHopDX. You might’ve caught him in our List of Lists, but here’s his official-official debut: a rare interview with MAVI. Follow his work, you won’t regret it.

On January 16th, 2020, I walked with Charlotte, NC, rapper MAVI through backdoor smoke sessions and bustling kitchens before his show at Songbyrd Music House in Washington, D.C. I was tasked with writing a profile for a website we won’t name here, and for two years, the story laid dead, a forgotten relic that wasn’t supposed to see the light of day, a casualty of anxiety, depression and temporary ego death. But as I read other features about MAVI from a host of excellent writers, I realized what I had was much different from their work. At times, it felt like he was trying to educate me, while other moments we thought in lockstep. It’s this mix of camaraderie and being unafraid to challenge each other’s preconceived notions that makes this transcript something I’ve wanted to share for some time.

At the time, MAVI had just put out his breakout project Let The Sun Talk. It’s a dense, yet comforting album documenting a young Black man navigating life in the shadow of a system that doesn’t want to see him win. Inspired by the writing of Toni Morrison, the poems of Sun-Ra, the music of MF DOOM, and the philosophy of the Five Percent Nation, MAVI attempts to uncover the meaning of the universe. Within its mysticism, Let The Sun Talk offers clear-as-day mission statements: “Offer free smoke to all the n****s behind me too/ To my n****s: we ain’t free until she free too/ To my sisters: we ain’t free until they free too.”

Let The Sun Talk made me a MAVI fan, but it wasn’t the push to write what you’re reading today. It was listening to his EP End Of The Earth, released over a year after the show. On this project, MAVI sounded more in command and self-aware. He wasn’t striving to write a defining record like Let The Sun Talk. Instead, End Of The Earth is a warm-up, a response to what happens when people start paying attention to you on the train. Rougher than Let The Sun Talk, and full of raw energy and frustration, Earth portrays a confused adolescent going through a dark period of history in real-time. His visions of grandeur are local, rather than global. He’s still searching for meaning and realizes he doesn’t have to possess all the answers right now.

When I first spoke to MAVI backstage at Songbyrd, he came off friendly and charismatic but soft-spoken. It wasn’t until he rolled a blunt and we began to discuss education and books that he felt comfortable sharing his philosophy to life. His word choice grew careful and deliberate, as if he felt he needed to say the exact gem to get his point across. At times, he would begin speaking then backtrack, pause, or change the sentence completely, as if his mind moved faster than his voice would allow. Most striking, though, was the intensity in his eyes when he said something serious, triple-checking. There would be no miscommunication or context collapse; MAVI made sure I understood exactly what he meant.

We wrapped up the conversation after an hour and a half, right before the first act went on stage. From there, local DC singers and rappers such as Addison Free and ANKHLEJOHN flocked to kick off the festivities (it was also Ovrkast’s birthday, who was in attendance sauced). The sold-out crowd was diverse, made up of Howard undergrads, personal friends, Pitchfork fans and concert fiends discussing how lit the Brockhampton show a month prior was, the only connecting thread being their mutual adoration of a barely 20-year-old rapper/philosopher who’d received an Earl Sweatshirt co-sign. Truthfully, most of his fans didn’t even know what he looked like. As rapper MOR warmed up the crowd, MAVI was able to sit on the far right side of the crowd, the only barrier between him and the hundreds who paid $15 a pop to see him a thin velvet rope without security. There’s something profound about a headliner who can enjoy their friends’ performances without being mobbed by fans, yet when the time comes, transforms into a mythic figure. In this moment, he was Omavi Minder — not MAVI.

As I left Songbyrd, I remember feeling like MAVI was on his way to something great as long as the momentum continued. He was ready to make music his priority, planning to finish his semester at Howard and then put school on hold to move to Los Angeles and take a leap of faith into the music industry. And then, the lights went out. Just as MAVI wrapped up a mini-documentary with Vacay and Yoh Phillips for Rap Portraits, music would take a back seat to survival.

The pandemic uprooted the music industry. Cherished venues closed for good. Rappers who made their primary income off being hometown heroes who hit every local venue could no longer perform (legally, at least). Music festivals were canceled en masse, leading to several up-and-coming rappers losing big placements and chances to capitalize on their success. Unfortunately for MAVI, he was a victim of not being able to make the most of his buzz. The move to Los Angeles was put on pause. MAVI returned home to North Carolina and eventually decided to finish his Neuroscience degree at Howard.

While 2021 was a challenging year for MAVI, there were blessings in disguise. Getting to return to Charlotte allowed him to be around people who genuinely wanted to see him win. It provided the inspiration to get his confidence back and record an EP. Now, in 2022, fresh off collaborating with The Alchemist and touring with Jack Harlow and Babyface Ray, MAVI seems like he’s back on track. But I still think about what could have been. What would have happened if everything we talked about came to fruition in 2021? How would he be different? How would his career be different? Published with permission from MAVI, this interview is a time capsule of a young artist who was just beginning to figure out the world.


Svetz: How much has your life changed this past year?

MAVI: A lot, but also not that much. How people feel about me has changed a bit, but how I feel about myself hasn’t.

What about your notoriety and recognition?

That’s more just what other people think of me–I’m not concerned with that. But I do appreciate that I can bring some leverage to the table to complete the mission, you know what I’m saying? And notoriety is a key to that. But it’s not the most important aspect.

What’s the moment you realized people were paying attention to you?

Probably last night on the train [in NY] when they was yelling back [my song] “Self Love” to me. That made me go, Wow, this shit is really connecting to people all around. That shit’s amazing bro, it makes you feel powerful.

And for those that don’t know, what exactly did you do on the train?

We had a train show thrown by Adé Hakim. This was his second one, and everybody just linked up in the back of the train car and rode the entire route listening to my DJ play beats and me rapping. I just did my set and it went up. It was such a warm welcome to the city. It was the exact kind of welcome I needed, too.

How’d your upbringing in Charlotte mold your music?

Definitely hearing a lot of soul and a lot of southern rap in general. Dance and Crunk rap, just all the different varieties of Southern rap. The fashion, just the way n****s move. In Charlotte, artists kind of have a chip on their shoulder DIY-ing their shit in the scene because there’re not many musical resources to use to turn nothing into something. So most artists coming out of Charlotte have to build for themselves and I fuck with that and try to internalize that.

Your dad was a producer. What exactly was he working on and how musical is your family?

My family real musical. He was just making beats for a Southern rap group, he produced two of their albums. My dad’s mom was in my great grandad’s gospel quartet and my great grandad got a day charted for him by South Carolina’s Gospel Quartet Association who he was doing music for. So I was brought up having an ear for good sounds. My great uncles play bass, guitar, drums, sing. Musicality was important to my family.

So is that what made you want to become an artist?

Nah.

What made you want to rap then?

I felt like the rappers in my life, especially when I was a young n***a going through puberty, they was the most prolific writers I could think of. And they was the most reflective of the current state of this society. I feel like they’re the designated scholars for that shit. Because they’re taking elements of nihilism and lack of hope that rappers specifically view to capture the given moment. Rap deals with a lot of just trying to figure out your place in the world, and during that time as a teen, it spoke me.

What genres and artists influenced you?

Soul, Reggae, Gospel, Rocksteady, Salsa. For artists, Stevie Wonder, Project Pat, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, 8Ball & MJG, Thelonious Monk, Fletcher Henderson, Sun-Ra, Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Alice Coltrane, shit like that. I be tryna have my palette up.

So you’re studying Neuroscience at Howard, but I heard you’re thinking about moving out to LA?

Yeah, I am. We out this bitch [laughs]. I mean, I ain’t never have any internships, I haven’t had any part-time jobs, I was just only rapping all of the years my classmates were doing things to develop their careers. So it’s like, rap is my opportunity to have that study abroad and go travel, make some money, build a career. Like my classmates been done that shit while I was focusing on rap, it’s time for me to take advantage and go see shit. I’m excited to get my shot, because doing this rap shit pulled me away from being super extra-curricular at school.

Right, because rap became your extra-curricular and then eventually it overtook your curricular.

[laughs] Exactly, school became the extra-curricular and rap was the focus.

How difficult was it to balance school and rap?

Impossible. I still got two As and two Bs, like how the fuck? Haha.

Sometimes it just boils down to intelligence and doing shit.

You gotta do the work.

People don’t get that, sometimes all you have to do is get shit done and you’ll get through it.

Yeah. This shit’s demystified. Because of the crazy access and knowledge of the internet. The sleight of hand comes over the work, over the tricks. Now everyone knows what happens behind the scenes, so they think they know everything and circumvent the work, and that shit don’t work out. You’re never the one person to know the trick to making it in a profession. It’s available for all. That still doesn’t mean you can execute it. But if you put in the work, you have a better shot of making it in whatever field you want.

What about outside of music? What books, TV, movies influenced you as an artist?

The photography of Gordon Parks. Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing by Amiri Baraka, the poems of Sun-Ra, the poems of Charles Bukowski, cartoons, thriller movies and just the rhythm of life walking through the city streets.

What’s the biggest jump creatively between Let The Sun Talk and [your 2017 tape] no roses?

With no roses, I was super depressed. I didn’t even want to be alive when I made it and dropped it. I really didn’t give a fuck, like I dropped it with no cover. That’s why it’s not on DSPs and shit like that. It was my raw feelings towards life at the time and I was in a dark place. With Let The Sun Talk, I still wasn’t happy, but I was walking towards coming out of a depression. I think that’s reflected in the tone of the project. But when it comes to the creative process, I made both in dorm rooms in a month or so.

What does Let The Sun Talk mean to you?

It’s about writing your own laws, creating your own cosmology, adapting the laws of physics to your reality and being the center of your universe.

How’d you link with Earl Sweatshirt?

Honestly, I don’t know. They just kind of hit me out of the blue and told me to pull up. So I did and we just bonded, like I love those n****s. It was kind of weird bro. I think they was hip to me for a while before they reached out but man, I really don’t know.

What was it like meeting him for the first time, cause I know you fucked with his music?

It was good bro. That’s my twin type shit. We click on a humanity level. I feel like he just understands how I’m feeling, he understands things that are hard to explain. He sees my full potential.

So he’s like that creative counterpart to you?

Yeah, he just knows how to challenge me. Our bond is natural.

You made a record that is extremely raw and rejects escapism in the real world. You’re dealing with dense subject matter like the Five-Percent Nation theory, referencing Rastafarians. Were you ever worried people wouldn’t get it?

No…I mean, the basis of Five-Percent Nation theory literally says that not everybody is going to get it [laughs]. I’m not saying everyone doesn’t have the potential to get it, but I know the theory talks about how to advise people that don’t get it, but still lead them in a righteous direction and that’s something I internalize in a lot of my work. It be like this: Everybody that I work with, whether it be Charlotte folk, California folk, DC folk, London, Jersey, New York, they notice. It might be hard to conceptualize [for white people] because I’m Black, but even people outside of my race get what I’m talking about. It’s harder for them, because it’s something you just know from your upbringing as a Black person and I’m ok with that, because everybody that’s meant to understand the themes and topics I tackle, they get it. But I tried to do it with a spoonful of sugar, make the record something sweet to listen to, so that if it required relistening or research in order to understand it, it would be rewarding to understand the music.

Which song off the record was the most difficult for you to make?

Honestly, now that I think about it, every song just kind of flowed out all at once. Maybe that’s why it’s been doing so well. That’s crazy that I’m just realizing that. Like “OMAVI,” I wrote that whole song in one sitting. “Eye/I and I/ Nation,” these are all episodes of my life when I look at it. But I will say, probably the most personally difficult track to make was “OMAVI.” That was written in the worst part of my life compared to other parts of the album.

What was going on?

Man, all type of shit. I just don’t want to speak on it.

One song that really struck me was “Ghost (In The Shell).” It’s so much more aggressive and confrontational than some of the other songs on that record. What was your inspiration for that track?

I wrote that song when I first got out of the hospital after having stomach surgery. I had a GI block. My digestive system shut down on me and they had to cut the block out. I was just hot, bro. That shit happening to me kind of fucked up a lot of my plans. Getting taken out of my process and the game for two weeks just pissed me off. I was restrained physically the whole time in the ICU at Howard. So that song was just expressing how I was feeling being stuck in the ICU channeling my anger.

I feel that. Especially the mental toll. When you’re in a dark place and you’re restricted from creating, that’s gotta be debilitating.

Yeah.

So when it comes to your process, I feel like you blend intellectualism and spirituality in a lot of ways in your music.

And criminality.

Yeah, and criminality. And I think some intellectuals reject spiritualism–what do you think about the ties between intellectualism and spirituality?

Scientifically, we live in a world driven by cause and effect. Otherwise, the whole institution of science falls apart. Everything that happens is the cause of another thing. If we just keep looking back at the genesis of things, looking back until we come to the birth of the universe…here’s the thing: either the universe is something that caused itself to exist, which breaks the fact that this universe works on cause-and-effect and shatters science. Or, the universe is caused by something outside of itself. If that’s the case, then the creation of the universe isn’t self-contained. But if we keep going back and back, eventually we land on a self-causing cause. Things being brought to life, cells starting, cells stopping, actualizing, energizing, what set the universe in motion…it gotta be something. Even the most sciencey n****s will tell you the Big Bang sound goofy as fuck. So either science is fucked, because the universe caused itself and nothing else caused it, and then you can’t really follow cause-and-effect down to direct lineage, or science is fucked because the universe is caused by something else outside of itself.

You talk about getting “crazy-ass results from showing kindness” in “Eye/I and I/Nation,” so I was wondering about your thoughts on the law of attraction.

It doesn’t read straightforward to me. Like sometimes, you do right by a n***a, and life tell you “eh, that n***a if” and you be like “nah, he got a good heart” but life will tell you again, “nah, that n***a if.” And then it’ll show you the true colors. So I’ll show kindness, but I’m not about all that spreading kindness, that shit foo. I’m about spreading equity, fuck kindness. I want you and me to be able to get the same life results. The issue is, if a n***a is being mean, it makes life way worse. Love where I’m coming from is not scarce. I’m from a strong family.

I noticed in one of your interviews you mentioned that you’re a big fan of Noname.

I love her so much, she’s the best.

Yeah she’s pretty great. I was wondering what you thought about her comments regarding her reluctance to play to predominantly white audiences.

I understand why. She makes real-to-the-chest, intimate music. And you want to share that with your family or someone that will understand your art like your family. Especially because she’s an artist that’s so heavily genealogical and time-honoring and respecting of who’s ahead of her–that reflects in her art. I can tell that’s really important to her and that’s really important to me.

What about you? How do you feel about making a record that’s so deeply about the Black experience and then having to go on stage and play it for some white audiences?

I don’t know if that’s going to be the case. I don’t think that’s accurate.

Why?

Cause I’ll bring the Black crowd with me. There is something demeaning to that predominantly white audience idea, especially because the music industry monetarily converges in a white way, like all the other industries in the United States, so there is a level of cognitive dissonance to be doing music in this industry for money. But, I don’t want to do that. N****s is popping out. Black people live everywhere, period. I’ll go where they live at, first, and that’s it. We going where they live. It’s never going to be an issue. I’ll always go perform in the Black cities. We never not going to be in the Black places. And honestly, I think Noname coming out and saying what she said is going to change shit. I think it’s really something we can change and I think that sometimes it’s a matter of white fans acknowledging their space. Sometimes the familial kind of respect and jokey playfulness online don’t translate for everybody. Everybody is not your cousin. Like, you might joke with your sister but if anyone else joke on your sister, it’s a big deal. So, I think white fans need to acknowledge when those situations arise with artist relations and they’ll be less conscientious of what’s going on. Like, maybe an artist can feel like they’re acknowledging microaggressions from one audience instead of feeling the love from another audience and that might be the thing where certain pockets of white audiences need to be more cognizant of how they affecting the artist that they love. And being specifically cognizant to the consumptiveness of the white audience historically in the entertainment industry as it relates to Black people, specifically. And how the entertainment industry rises from traditions of minstrelsy. The tradition of American entertainment is founded on Black subjugation, symbolically. So just acknowledging when we sit in crowds how we move, how that can be reflected, how that cannot be reflected, how we can deconstruct that. Ultimately, if y’all love hearing Black art, then something gotta happen to make them feel respected and comfortable. It has to be a two-way street, because it’s not like we putting this music up on a Black-only site, everybody can go get it and so everybody has to contribute back to the wellness and the love of the artist.

Yeah, I think that makes sense. So what are your plans this year?

Get rich, tour, drop a mixtape, shit, maybe rest a little bit. Mostly do a shitload of shows and drop a new mixtape, get to 2021.

Who you tryna work with in 2020?

Pi’erre Bourne, Hook, MESSIAH!, Joy Postell, Madlib, Alchemist and Black Thought.

Why should people listen to your music?   

‘Cause they want to. I made it knowing they wanted to. I already know they want to, they just might not know it yet. I don’t even have to pitch it, it’s how it is. This is what you want. 

Ultimately, what do you believe you bring to the table as an artist?

Most people would never meet somebody in their life that rap better than me. Or after they die, depending on which part of heaven they get to. And, man, I got a heart. I’m a regular person in the end. I be rapping, and I’m good at it, but I really be just a n***a that raps. I’m going to just pull up, pop out and be like, “what’s up y’all,” and rap some songs wherever I go. Really though, I’m just a human.

Anything else you want to say or that’s on your mind?

Shiiit, let’s get this money. Let’s learn to grow crops, we need to reforest the Earth. N****s do not let the Amazon burn, it’s the biggest source of fresh water on Earth. And fuck the cops.

Thoughts? Let us know

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