On the first Friday of every month, we put the spotlight on one up-and-coming artist. For this month’s First Look Friday we spoke with Mavi about the melting pot of Charlotte hip-hop, his appreciation for Noname’s genius, MF DOOM, and affirmations for his target audience.
There are moments in the “Moonfire” video where the focus is solely on Mavi‘s fingertips. In moderate strokes, they glide like paintbrushes, recalling the self-portrait of the Charlotte, North Carolina rapper on the cover of his 2019 debut album, Let the Sun Talk. Though Mavi assures that he’s visually enticed by the work of Terence Nance, “Moonfire” is bathed in a lush, nomadic intimacy that could easily fit in a Barry Jenkins film.
Mavi’s laidback, heady fervency is the reason why he’s become a monumental component of a like-minded group of rappers and artists he calls the new “Soulquarians.” Encompassed by independent, pro-Black artists like MIKE, Pink Siifu, Maxo, and Earl Sweatshirt, the collective is transfixed on the liberation of Black people. With a tattoo on his chest reading “Hard to Kill” and a Black power fist stamped on his bicep, Mavi is conscious of his unshackling purpose through music, something he speaks on extensively during our conversation.
But right now, he’s walking a tightrope between classes at the “Mecca” Howard University and assembling a growing audience. With nods from various publications, a show-stealing feature on Earl’s latest release, Feet of Clay, and being one of the few people that Solange follows on Instagram, Mavi is enthused by the buzz surrounding Let the Sun Talk as the year winds down. But he’s still eyeing his eventual biology degree.
Premiering the video for “Moonfire” as part of our First Look Friday series, Okayplayer spoke with Mavi about the melting pot of Charlotte hip-hop, his appreciation for Noname’s genius, MF DOOM, and affirmations for his target audience.
When I first listened to Let the Sun Talk, it reminded me so much of the GodsConnect account on SoundCloud. Was SoundCloud where you originally connected with producer ovrkast?
I didn’t meet ovrkast off GodsConnect. You remember Kik? We was like 14, 15 in a big ass group chat with weirdo niggas from around the internet. I was just like, “Yo, anybody know a producer?” And they was like, “ovrkast.” He had just started his SoundCloud and had 600 and some followers. His beat was the first beat that I ever bought. So, for me and him to just reach these places together, it’s so gratifying professionally, personally, and artistically.
He’s dope. I remember the first song I heard by him was the “Jumpin’ Like Jordan” flip by Migos.
Aw, that’s crazy. In the wintertime he gets crazy. Like, around Christmas time he gets scary. Every year, it’s amazing. That A$AP Rocky flip from around that same time is really good.
How did your upbringing in Charlotte define your aspirations in rap?
They allowed them to remain undefined. What we could do and how far we could go in this shit didn’t have a bound limit based on what the precedent was. On another tip, it made me wanna be a boss and approach the business aspect of it from a place of independence, and from a place of maintaining my upper hand on rap as a business venture that I partake in. It’s no real infrastructure for upward mobility within the music industry, specifically hip-hop. Everything that we did we had to build on our own, and anything that we’ve seen anybody else do they had to build on they own.
When you left Charlotte, did you look back and see a rise in artists or rappers?
Charlotte had Lute come out of the west, DaBaby…Just in the triad, around that area. Stunna [4 Vegas] was out of Salisbury, 704 Chop, Reuben Vincent, Rapsody…Definitely, it’s been an uptick. But I think that the uptick in production is an after effect of an uptick in attention on the city. Especially in the case of artists like Rapsody and DaBaby. DaBaby was performing at our high schools when we was in school. DaBaby’s same kind of work ethic, the ethos is maintained from now since the first time I heard him on [Charlotte hip-hop and R&B radio station Power 98]. A lot of the North Carolina artists that are coming up now, I’ve been knowing this volume of artists coming out of this space with this kind of attitude and this kind of identity. I’m thoroughly impressed and surprised that so much attention has been given to it. There was nothing like that coming up at all.
Did you study poetry more through rap or spoken word and literature?
I’ve never been a really big spoken word nigga, actually. When I write poems, they kinda are — and this is surprising now that I say it out loud — they are concerned with the page as a media. Stanzas have a shape and structure that reflects the content matter in a way that rap doesn’t necessarily allow you to, because it’s over sound sometimes. A lot of my poetry is not for being spoken for that same reason, because the page is a platform for view or purview.
I don’t have a big spoken word background but I have a huge open mic background. Even though I wasn’t necessarily performing a lot of spoken word shit, I understand a lot of delivery elements and a lot of lyrical elements through shit that I’ve heard around open mics and spoken word artists. As far as me understanding poetry through rap, that shit mostly came from artists like Ka, Navy Blue, [Akai] Solo, and Pink Siifu. People who use words in different geometric ways. In my upbringing, that space was occupied by people like Nas, Ghostface [Killah], Raekwon, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick [Lamar]. It’s a lot of mixes and delivery styles that’s reflective of all the different geographies of my influences, ’cause they’re constituent culture influences.
I know you’re a fan of MF DOOM. Madvillainy and MM.. FOOD turned 15 this year, they both came out in 2004. I’m wondering which one is your favorite of the two.
I gotta say MM.. FOOD. Now that I think about MM.. FOOD, Let the Sun Talk sounds like MM.. FOOD in some ways. I feel like he felt freer just to explore. He had a lot of fun on that album but he also paid homage. Like, “I dedicate this mix to Subroc, the hip-hop Hendrix” [from “Kon Karne”]. DOOM has the ability to capture solemnness and seriousness but within a place of soundscape like nobody else. I think he did that a lot just twisting around and having fun with the food concept. Like, “Y’all niggas is eating like garbage” or “Y’all niggas is garbage” or “Y’all niggas are food within each of these metaphorical paradons.” At the same time he was being serious, too. Like, “You guys really need to eat better” or “Niggas is moving like this now and this shit’s changing.” His perspectives were really multiple on that album as opposed to the method acting that happened on Madvillainy. MM.. FOOD, bruh? That shit is hard to top. But Madvillainy as an art instillation, nobody’s really fucking with that, either.
Have your thoughts about school changed since your career has amplified? Do you have any eventual plans for having a degree in biology and psychology?
My emotions toward school has changed, but my thoughts have been maintained. [School is] a necessary evil for any semblance of stability or comfort in a capitalistic hellscape, given what effort I’ve poured into it the first eighteen years of my life. Coming in, I really felt like the wide-eyed kid really preparing to be uncultured and full of experience and meet all these people. With that fervor, I established a lot of the connections and foundation that carries me in DC now.
In year two, I started bustling down and really working my ass off traveling and doing shows. I started realizing like, “Okay, sustainability is a big question mark, but fuck it, because my grades are still good and this shit is just beginning to get lit. I’m feeling the best I’ve ever felt.” In year three, the rap shit starts getting big and scary compared to the school shit. The rap shit is actually occupying my brain bandwidth on a day-to-day on a business level, which is completely new. The thing where I have to send and respond to emails as a result of a rap song I made, that’s crazy. That is insane. I started having instances where the rap work would outweigh the school work, but not be on such a regular basis as the school work. I’m having to maintain that self-motivation to keep the rap shit going, and keeping adherence to a schedule to keep the school shit going.
I know rap is occupying a lot of your time, but if Megan Thee Stallion is still in school, you can finish, too.
Nah, facts, and that’s what everybody’s been saying. In case Meg wanna get married to me, she’ll probably want a college-educated man [laughs]. I love Howard, for better or worse. I think I’m gonna switch to online towards the end, but we’re gonna see how this shit go. We’re gonna try everything first before we fail.
On Let the Sun Talk, it was refreshing to hear you refer to women without being derogatory. Was it important for you to create an album that the women in your family could hear without being offended?
Hell yeah [laughs]! It’s not even just them. The genealogical shit that I be saying, I have to honor the niggas with the pencil that I have before me. If you listen to what grown women say about hip-hop, once you hear that shit and continue to go forward as a hip-hop nigga and you act in ignorance because of shit you’ve seen, now you complicit. I got a different kind of responsibility, one, because I sought out the shit. Two, because I can do the shit that not everybody can do, and that the people that could’ve done it before me was advocating a certain way. And three, just because I have a moral obligation to African femininity, period. I’m a human on earth and I’m a Black man.
You’ve vocalized your support of Noname before. Recently, she shared her discomfort when performing for the consumption of white audiences. I’m wondering if you have those same thoughts.
You Black, right?
Alright, let’s chat. Noname is one of the greatest rappers of all time. I feel like niggas see her — and they do this with Serena Williams, too — where niggas be scared to call Black women the best when they be the best at some shit. All the dismissal, that shit is completely inappropriate, out of line, period. She’s barring up you niggas. That’s why niggas is taking the rhetorical shortcuts that they’re taking. As far as the issue with the white fans goes, I definitely feel where she’s coming from. I think I get a lot of streams from a white audience, but mainly my performances — just because they’ve been incubated by this DC bubble recently and navigating the creative milieu that I exist in and perform in — has been mostly young [and] Black.
If I had to do a song like “Self Love” — that, in the end refrain is about committing to my niggas, Black masculinity, Black feminity and Black gender non-conformity for our liberation — in front of a white audience, that would feel worthless and extremely demeaning. Especially given that her messaging and my messaging is not only just racial, but economic. A lot of the white fans that are there are not only of unoppressed class racially, but of unoppressed class socioeconomically. If you’re giving a racialized, socioeconomic message, that’s ultimately for either your self-expression as a person who is oppressed on those margins and it be as a guide to liberation, giving that directly to the oppressive is extremely demeaning.
All that to say, we love you Noname. Please keep doing shows, we gonna bring the niggas out. You’re not wrong for trying to find your people. White people cannot understand the necessity of finding your people, because they’re in a place where they’re a fish in water in America. Their people are plentiful, they’re well-off, they don’t even have to be conscious of their position as a racial group. The want to be near your own people can’t necessarily be understood within that framework, and those people just need to sit back and allow themselves to not understand. Allow Noname to want this space and try to provide that space in whatever way she feels is most appropriate.
Considering yourself, Earl Sweatshirt, Pink Siifu, MIKE and others, there’s a lot of revolutionary overtones in your music. What are your discussions with them about the progression of Black consciousness?
It’s nation time. Literally, when we link up, it’s nation time. A lot of our shit be political first or artistic first or gestural first, and it manifests as political ideas. When we talk, we’ll continually revisit the same concepts. If we’re gonna give revolutionary overtones, then we gotta move in a revolutionary way about disseminating information. We have to be expansive but censored in the dissemination. When we see the music manifest in a singular vision, a million different ways, refracted in our different personalities, you get a beautiful, beautiful family of music.
You all are so young, too. It’s like watching a group of old souls, in a way.
Man, we the Soulquarians, no cap. Real deal — me, Maxo, Liv.e, Navy Blue, MIKE, Pink Siifu, Akai, Maasaai [and others], I be feeling like I’m at the X-Men house when I’m with them. I told Siifu when we be in LA — and it be like hella of us not from LA — it’s like all of us mobbing deep as hell. We surrounded a beacon that don’t really geographically exist. We’re like a whole group of orphans.
What was the process of linking with Earl? Can you recall the first song or album by him that you were a fan of?
The first I heard of Earl, I think I was too young for it or something, but I didn’t really like it. The first time I ever heard of Earl Sweatshirt, I was in sixth grade in a band class and niggas had just watched the “EARL” video. They showed me that shit and I was like, “Bro, what the fuck is this shit?”
The first song I liked by him I heard years later on a Instagram page. It was “Sunday” with him and Frank [Ocean] and I listened to Doris, and that was right before I Don’t Like Shit [I Don’t Go Outside] was coming out.
How I met [Earl], he followed me on Twitter the day after Pink Siifu’s Ensley show in New York. The first time he called me, we ain’t even talk about music like that. We talked about my student activism at Howard and that was it. It was like, “I knew I had found my people.”
You’ve spoken about your love of Sun Ra. Do you think Black artists are returning to his majestic ideologies, whether through music or visual art?
Hell yeah, and that’s a good thing, because Afrofuturism is so timely in the current moment. I see a lot of Sun Ra when I see Pink Siifu, Solange, Standingonthecorner. Just the way he threw big band and jazz together, I feel is reflective in a lot of ways niggas genre blend now. A lot of the ways he melds a central idea with sound — he has a thesis that’s a statement and then he uses sound to advance it — I think that’s big. Even in the aesthetics, a lot of things are reflective of a vision for Black people in his music and poetry. Let the Sun Talk is definitely homage to Sun Ra and is inspired, as fuck, by Sun Ra.
Can you explain a bit about your new video? I know that you usually refer to them as “films” in the titles.
It’s for “Moonfire.” It’s a slower thing and it’s a visual exercise in pace and rhythm. Basically, we started it from an idea of a central single shot of me running across the foreground, and it extended into this whole narrative that’s built around the in-between shots that we built with the lyrics. I don’t wanna give too much of it away, but my favorite shit is gestural as fuck. A lot of my music videos, even ‘Love, Of Money” and “Willpower,” I just be trying to play with tiny elements of visual design and master them.
I don’t know if you have any visual cues or people you look towards for inspiration before you film. Can you name any directors or filmmakers that you’re inspired by?
I don’t really be watching movies like that. I’ll watch a Netflix thriller here and there, but as far as visuals that I’m inspired by, I would definitely say Terrance Nance. Terrance Nance is like my favorite nigga, actually. (laughs) Random Acts of Flyness is like the best thing that ever happened to my eyes, and I’m grateful.
What message do you want to instill in your audience?
Blackness is godliness. What I wanna do is embolden Black children and young adults to view themselves in a cosmic way scientifically, and a holy way artistically and aesthetically. An almost religious — but still cosmic — view. To that extent, apply the laws of the universe to human existence. So basically understanding that, because we know things, everything has a place. Possibility is endless. We know certain realities about the physical nature of the earth. We know things about the divine nature of our existence and making those computations from physical to derived in a song.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae