Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.
First Look Friday: A Very Brooklyn Dinner with Maiya The Don
For our latest First Look Friday, we ate shrimp and steak at Applebee's with Maiya The Don, who spoke about her journey from beauty influencer to being one of the most exciting female rappers coming out of Brooklyn.
Twenty-one-year-old Maiya The Don has just sat down on her side of the table and is asking me to explain the difference between schnapps and “regular alcohol” when our Applebee’s server runs up to our banquette. The young woman is practically shaking with excitement that she will be waiting on a celebrity for the next hour and a half, telling Maiya how much she loves her work and her style, and that she’s a massive fan. When you pay Maiya The Don a compliment, about anything, she doesn’t deflect or undercut it with self-deprecation, she responds with a heartfelt, “Thank yooooouuuu!,” in a manner that suggests she agrees with you and appreciates your confirmation. It’s objectively the best, healthiest, and least annoying way to receive praise.
The video for “Telfy,” the debut song from the rapper is set two miles East of Flatbush on Fulton Street, an open-air shopping district referred to, generously, in some stretches, as a mall. Flatbush is a kind of delineating line, to one side it’s all national retailers like Macy’s, Banana Republic, and Nordstrom. As you traverse Fulton from the West, where the artery begins in Brooklyn Heights, towards where it ends in Ocean Hill, the ground floor storefronts in the mixed-use apartment buildings subtly shift from luxury wants to working class needs, utilitarian businesses like small groceries, fish markets, pawn shops, and cosmetics stores.
Maiya The Don - Telfy (Official Video)www.youtube.com
“Telfy” opens out in front of, and inside one of those stores — Lana Beauty Supply, between Nostrand Avenue and Verona Place. In the video we see Maiya perusing the shelves of hair and skin products, makeup kits and wigs, grabbing a stack of fake lashes and tossing them in a shopping basket. It’s a nod to Maiya’s passion, her persona as an artist, and her origin story as a beauty influencer turned rapper. There’s a conspicuous Applebee’s a block away, on the corner of New York Ave and Fulton, elevated above street level on the side of a concrete, blocklength plateau known as Restoration Plaza. It’s where I met Maiya last month to grab drinks and an early dinner, and discuss her life and young career.
Maiya The Don’s upbringing
Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.
I had first met Maiya in the concrete bowels of the UBS arena at Hot 97’s Summer Jam, but months before that, I had been instantly intrigued, both with her music and her compelling, hilarious internet presence. When I finally ran into her and her manager, Eric Evander, in Long Island at the radio festival, where her friend and fellow Brooklyn female rapper Lola Brooke had brought her on stage to briefly perform, I decided to throw caution to the wind and shoot my shot as she walked by me backstage. After several subsequent weeks texting with Eric, we settled on this location for a meal, which I chose because of its proximity to Lana, and because Maiya loves Applebee’s.
I arrived early and requested a discreet corner booth. This branch of the fast-casual chain has music blaring in the seated outdoor patio, a security guard at the host station, and keypads requiring a code for entry on the bathroom doors. The central air was either broken or didn’t exist, being provided by two self-contained, semi-permanent-looking standing units feeding exhaust to vents in the ceiling through unsightly ducts. The early evening crowd was mostly young families, with a smattering of Pratt Institute kids, and singles not watching the Liberty Mercury game playing on flatscreens by the bar area. I perused the menu, trying to figure out the least embarrassing thing I could order while conducting an interview, believing it would help loosen Maiya up, and make her feel comfortable eating and drinking with me.
The moment she pulls up, the idea that literally anything could make the rapper uncomfortable becomes fanciful. She oozes charm and lights up a room, you can imagine her becoming fast friends with anyone. As a first order of business, I ask Maiya who she’s wearing, because I don’t want to fuck it up and I know it matters to the fashion-conscious artist. She tells me her shoes are Rick Owens, her sleeveless, hot magenta shirt is from Forever 21, then she lights up, smoothing her hair as she says, “My wig is from Ava Maria Luxe! Make sure you put that in there!”
She walks me through her childhood over her go-to Applebees order, (a plate of boneless buffalo wings, a surf and turf plate of “Bourbon Street” steak and shrimp, and a Stanley Cup sized peach sangria that Maiya accurately pinpoints as tasting exactly like the fruit cup you’d get in the elementary school cafeteria). Maiya Early was raised by a family of second and third-generation Puerto Ricans close to this Applebees branch, in Brownsville. She speaks with the alternately razor sharp and buttery varietal of Nuyorican accent native to American-born East Brooklyn Latinas, as if she could seamlessly break from perfect English into a New York fried colloquial-laden pidgin Spanish dialect mid-sentence without adjusting pronunciations. Her family are members of the Five-Percent Nation, a Black Nationalist sect of Islam founded by Clarence 13X in the ‘60s. From an early age beauty was centered in her life, by her family. “That's the life of a Hispanic woman. I'm very Puerto Rican in that way,” says Maiya. “We are studious and must always look good and be put together. It's my DNA. I always want to look my best, to feel my best.”
She was always a good student, and eventually studied cosmetology in high school in a BOCES program. She then graduated early and began a major in Psychology at SUNY New Paltz (like Puchase’s own Ice Spice, another SUNY alum), a predominately white liberal arts school and artist retreat/college town tucked into the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge two hours upstate. But her life changed, and began to take shape in 2020, during the pandemic, when she started a beauty account on TikTok. I ask her what compelled her to do it and she tells me:
“I had the privilege of growing up and being told that I was beautiful, so I always felt like I was pretty, until I was around people that look different than me. I was like, OK, maybe I'm not.’ But it shifted when I started to see media made by people that looked like me. I could go on YouTube and watch people like Alissa Ashley, I thought she was so pretty, and she had so many followers. It made me feel good, and I wanted to do that for others.”
Famous before rap
Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.
Maiya is a talented cosmetologist and extremely skilled artisan. At least from the perspective of a middle-aged, cisgendered, heterosexual Jewish man, what she’s able to do with a makeup kit, or a wig and some grooming tools, borders on witchcraft. But when you scroll through Maiya’s feed pre-rap career, what becomes immediately apparent is it wasn’t just a hub for beauty tips and GRWM videos. It was a forum, a talk show, a place young women could come for jokes, representation, and inclusion, a showcase for an imminently likable, watchable entertainer finding her voice. It made the account a must-follow in the beauty influencer community, and Maiya capitalized on that platform. She was a disciplined, creative poster. But she wouldn’t settle for an audience and free shit. As many struggled to monetize their followings, Maiya savvily made brand partnerships in which the makeup and wig companies she promoted would pay well for her endorsements, making as much as $2,500 for a single clip of sponcon.
But Maiya felt she wasn’t “Living in her truth”, in search of a more fulfilling creative pursuit. Eric owned a studio in nearby Poughkeepsie. He thought Maiya had a voice, energy, and personality people responded to, that demanded a booth. She’d fucked around with rap her whole life, both as a fan and a hobbyist, with her slightly older Irish twin brother, but never took it seriously until the spring of 2022, when she started recording for real, sending her work to Eric, who would respond with notes. Maiya was a quick study and a coachable player, taking Eric’s notes to heart with alacrity, and improving by the day.
Then in August, Eric sent her producer Shaan Mehta’s flip of Sisqo’s 1999 hit, “ Thong Song,” with a U.K. drill bass laid under it and percussion that sounds like a Predator attempting to communicate. The MC that emerged from the studio in Poughkeepsie was unsurprisingly assured and fully formed. In the “No Songs” era of drumless tone projects and moody dense poetry from many rappers, Maiya is a refreshing, delightful throwback Diddy would’ve been thrilled to get his hands on in the late ‘90s. So far, the goal is clearly to make nothing but instantly recognizable, readymade anthems composed of hashtag-able soundbites. Every bar is a mid-2000s Ludacris guest verse level bar loaded with current slang and clever, sticky wordplay engineered to be screamed at the top of your lungs from a bottle-serviced table inside Bar Schimmi at 2:00 a.m.
Making raps for women
Photo by Abe Beame for Okayplayer.
It can be difficult to discuss process with rappers. I get the impression for some, it’s like asking Superman how he flies, a reflexive and instinctive act that articulating and/or thinking too deeply about could actually hurt. I’ve found some either reluctant or unable to explain how they innovate style, put together their brilliant bars, know what beats they’re drawn to and have a clear aesthetic dictating why they’re choosing them. But Maiya is simply an incredible quote, both generous and eager to share her approach as a writer and an artist, who can extemporaneously deliver direct reference heavy, pure solid fucking gold like this:
“My goal is always to make those punchy, crazy bars, but for women,” says Maiya. “A boy is not going to understand this. I have a bar where I'm like, ‘Make a bitch top burn like 30-V Developer.’ Thirty volume developer is like bleach you put in your head and it burns. But it's one of the highest developers that you can put in your head, and it's the most common. So when a girl goes to get her highlights or she wants to bleach the knots in her wig, she knows it’ll burn. Like, when you put it on your wig, and put foil on it, it'll smoke because it's burning. So only a woman is going to catch that.”
The Maiya The Don "On The Radar" Freestyle (PROD by @prodjcabz & @jaysonsankar)www.youtube.com
Maiya is uniquely poised for the spotlight. Like most overnight successes, hers is the culmination of years of intention and discipline. Nearly 20% of Maiya’s life has been spent getting camera ready. Her time in the trenches of influencing clearly helped her market test an ear, and a pen, attuned to understand patterns of speech, the type of slang, the ideas, the messages her followers respond to, now weaponized for rap. “Telfy” is evidence of this taste.
Every rapper’s bars are now littered with materialist references. What Maiya displays is — in this age of the educated consumer — what specific brand you’re referencing matters, as well as how you employ the reference. The rapper has taken on a role as fashionista and curator rather than an aspirational hustler picking brands out of a catalog. An anthem dedicated to the designer Telfar Clemens arrived at the exact right moment: As a modern haute brand right on the knife’s edge of affordability and scarcity that has found widespread love and acceptance without crossing over into played out.
I ask Maiya about transitioning from the world of influencing to rap, if or how she’s adjusting her approach to her career as a personality. She says:
“I think I'm way more vulnerable as an influencer. The way that you look at Beyoncé, she's so far away. That's why she's Beyoncé, she’s so much more than human. It’s different for an influencer. We’re talking, we're cool. It’s intimate. As a rapper, I want to be like an idea. I feel the same way about JAY-Z or Rick Ross. Bigger than life.”
I think I understand what she means. Rap is at its best in an active voice. So as a rapper, Maiya doesn’t have to, and probably shouldn’t spit impassioned bars about the prison of Western beauty standards and the perils of body dysmorphia, because it could land lame or corny. She only need to apply the armor of a full face of makeup, trim the track off her wig, slip into a fly dress, sling a several hundred dollar bag over her shoulder, grab her breasts with both hands, cock her head to the side, put some bass in her voice, and demand, loud enough for the world to hear, “This dress look good cause I’M in it.”
Maiya The Don "Telfy" Official Lyrics & Meaning | Verifiedwww.youtube.com
Being a coach and Cheerleader
The TikTok that I think best explains the appeal of Maiya, at the intersection of influencer, rapper, and human being, can be found on her backup account, @Maiyurrr, recorded on August 5th, 2021, exactly a year before the fateful day she found the beat that would become “Telfy”.
A follower named @theerealvalencia had commented on a video made by Maiya two weeks earlier — addressing harassment she’s had to contend with — that she’s being teased and bullied about her appearance and how it’s affecting her mental health. Maiya, framed in the bottom left corner of her phone, unmade up and in a bonnet, spends 53 seconds responding to the comment with unadulterated love and positivity, showering the follower with praise, dismantling “fat” as a pejorative and interrogating its use, encouraging the rest of her followers to send the commenter affirmations.
“I wanted [my platform] to feel like a safe space. And one of my viral videos is me telling people I could be a big sister, I could be an Auntie. I have a little sister, I have nieces, and I want them to feel good about themselves,” says Maiya. “When my little sister wanted to learn how to do makeup, I wouldn't buy her any until she felt like she was pretty without it. Because it's really important to me. You have to feel beautiful in your own skin before you start altering things.”
Along with wig dying tutorials, live testing different eye shadow effects, and addressing the online drama of the day, this is the role I hope Maiya is willing to continue playing for her community, in addition to becoming a reliable radio hit factory: As a coach and cheerleader. It’s a necessary voice and perspective for young women we don’t hear in rap often, if ever.
I insist on paying the bill, and we step outside to take some final pictures on my phone. My reasoning for grabbing an out-of-the-way table, after an undisturbed meal, is validated. Maiya isn’t mobbed because the twilight square is nearly empty at this hour, but each person who leaves as I wait for my photos, recognizes the Brooklyn celebrity immediately and approaches.
Join me, for a moment here in Restoration Plaza, and witness the force of personality in this young artist, who hasn’t been jaded by fame yet, who is not “an idea”, and isn’t surrounded by bodyguards keeping the world at bay. See her with an arm slung over a young man who is Facetiming his baby mother and daughter, both huge Maiya fans, at home. See Maiya Early really connecting, fully appreciating the attention and support and the love, and having a genuine conversation, staring into a stranger's phone for several minutes, making their day.
Maiya at Applebee'syoutube.com
The sun is setting behind Fulton Street as I wait for Maiya, in no particular hurry, when behind me, an older woman who may either be getting up or heading to bed in pajama pants, slides, a Nike T-shirt you could imagine her sleeping in, and a flask bottle of D'usse exits Applebee’s, onto the patio. As if she’s run into an old friend, she screams like a starstruck teenager and says, “Oh shit, it’s The Don!”
Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.
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