MAVI’s vision for a free, black future
The Charlotte, North Carolina rapper on keys to Black liberation and the messaging in his debut album, Let The Sun Talk.
MAVI has a fighter’s spirit. During a recent phone conversation, the 20-year-old Charlotte rapper told me that when Black people are born, their side in political struggles is already chosen for them. He comes from a family that encouraged him to sidestep tradition and shape a future in his own vision: his grandmother was part of the first class to integrate her middle school and, in his youth, his father encouraged him and his siblings to become critical thinkers and challenge the world they live in. Now a junior at Howard University, MAVI’s found himself engrossed in the arts scene of Washington D.C, a city with a record of influencing and developing the careers of prolific black musicians and artists.
MAVI calls himself a “stakeholder to the people.” He believes what he wants most in life — the liberation of Black people — will be obtained when Black people are “fully tapped into the power of their bodies and values of their minds.” On “terms & conditions” — the first track on his debut album, Let The Sun Talk, released October 18 — his vision of Black liberation is explained in just ten words. He wants Black people to finally be able to enjoy the benefits of centuries of exploitative labor and to be able to cultivate a culture that can both support and unite Black people across the world.
For some, the admissions on the intro would serve sufficient, checking a box on a to-do list for including pro-Black messaging. But for MAVI, it’s simply the abstract of the drama in three acts that is Let The Sun Talk. He wants to make it clear why he stands for those principles. He isn’t afraid to be vulnerable about the strains that going to college in a different state has on his relationships with family and his fears of failing as an artist. In the album’s 33 minutes, you learn so much about the rapper born Omavi Minder and leave with many more questions.
What was the arts scene like in Charlotte when you were growing up? How do you think it affected your development?
In some ways, I felt a little stunted by it at first. Especially before I met my friends — we're in this rap group called KILLSWITCH in Charlotte. A lot of times when I was coming up, it was hard finding people on my caliber to challenge me lyrically, people who had my same ear musically and just had the same intentions for making music. It wasn't very much of that coming up. It made me really value how I do business, and the relationships I build because meaningful artistic relationships in Charlotte were so sparse.
On the other end, it created a little impostor syndrome too where it's like, Hey, am I really doing this thing? Does it count if I don't feel welcome or if I don’t feel like the champion of my hometown? That's really what “the mayor” is about, when I say, "MAVI for mayor" and shit. It's like really representing your city and being a leader for the community.
What have you found in the scene at Howard?
The arts scene at Howard, especially right now, is on a real Afro-futuristic and Afro-spiritual bud recently. That's definitely something that's been coming through in my art. Art over here, just because it's majority Black women at this school and that make up the artistic community at this school, is real honorific of women which is something that's been important to me before I even came here. It's colorful. It's daring. This is a school where people take a lot of risks fashion-wise, visually, and sonically. It encouraged me to continue to take risks and find my own rhythms within the landscape because Howard students really shirk a lot of tradition and conventions behind what makes and what qualifies as art.
How do you balance life as an artist and a student?
I don't really, to be honest. It kind of takes me away from being able to do either of the work to the fullest potential. But when it does click, the added difficulty level comes through in the music. How much more complicated my feelings are when they are understood through the lenses that I'm learning things through at school, or just how my relationships with people at home, my functional and non-functional relationships, evolved because of me moving. Shit is different when it's not all in your face and you gotta sit back and kinda piece together a home. I feel like I learned a lot from my home as a result of being here.
There are days where I have school, but I have way more rap work than I do school work. How I maneuver those days is starting to become real high stakes. It's come to a time where I need to go ahead and graduate so I can do what I need to do artistically.
What are you reading right now?
I'm reading, Diary of a Slave Girl, Beloved, and Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski. “Recitatif” [too,] it's a short story by Toni Morrison. Those are some of my favorite things to read.
I was devastated when Toni Morrison passed away this summer.
I think she is the greatest writer in the English language to ever live. I was in high school, and I had this substitute teacher, he told me, "Shakespeare is the greatest writer of any language of all time." I was like, Bro, this is a white man from the 1600s, how can you say something like that?
When I read Paradise by Toni and I saw how thoroughly she built a world, how thoroughly she navigated it, and how remote the mechanisms she was using to get across real specific or localized messaging. She's willing to go really far to pull you close for a message. That's something I wanna do with my writing as much as I can.
I know you're a big wrestling fan too. Who's your favorite wrestler?
My favorite wrestler is probably Raven from ECW. He used to give these promos in a real poetic but dark side. His character was this emo, real alt-style, lost soul, anguish type nigga. He led a cult. I fuck with that about him.
With wrestling in general, it gives me, and all my niggas really, a framework for [our] shit-talking so that [we] don't come off too mechanical, but there's still a level of formality. The beauty in a fight and in a struggle is something that comes through in wrestling. Just how you watch two niggas tangle up and there's something emotional about it. That's something that symbolically has a lot of value to me and my niggas. This shit is a non-stop fight. We aren't able to get out of the ring.
I can taunt, I can speak. Wrestling, the world that's created, that subculture that's created, is so culturally unique. In a way, I feel it’s one of the only art forms that mirrors hip-hop in how weird and zany and outside of the box it's willing to go to get across good versus evil. That's a real exceptional thing. It goes way beyond your suspension of disbelief to bring you there. It's kind of magical too, the fact that it's a sleight of hand thing, that you're not supposed to see how the show is made.
That's something I was talking about this summer with a friend. He warned me about not always needing to learn how the sausage gets made.
It's true! That's not to say that being scientific and pedantic about things is unmagical. What your friend is saying is right. You should not track down all the dark corners of music and just flash a flashlight on them and stare at it. That feeling that makes you want to venture into those dark corners, the artist is responsible for placing that on you, for hiding it from you in such a way that you can dance to it without knowing it and not knowing it as far as the lyrics — I mean knowing it, knowing it. That kayfabe is how you keep your swag too. Everybody can't put on your show if they don't know that the show is a show.
You're hitting on topics like social justice, mental health and ideas surrounding Black identities on Let the Sun Talk. How have your life experiences shaped the way you’re thinking about these things?
I was born to thinking people. Myself and my biological brothers — those boys are way different. I didn't know I was way different until I had moved. My father raised us to be real critical thinkers and he's a programmer too, he works with computer code. The binary nature where nonsense just doesn't work really pairs well with his mind, he has a really philosophical mind. Even in ways that my mother moved, just as a result of being in the household with all of us, we just a different kind of family unit. We wasn't really religious, but we was always super pro-Black and spiritually honorific of our family members.
As far as the social justice aspect, that's the Black spirituality and pride. I have a fighter spirit. My grandma integrated her school. We got the wild blood that's necessary to uphold the Maroon. You know what Maroon is? Marronage is when they brought slaves over, sometimes the slaves would run off into the swamps. They would just link up with the Indians and build their own society for themselves outside of the purview of the growing colonies. That Maroon spirit is definitely in me and it's something that's encouraged at Howard because Howard is two different places culturally and institutionally.
Can you tell me about writing “Chiasma”? It seems like there’s a lot of emotions all happening at once in that song.
I chose the title because it refers to this area of the brain, like in the midbrain, that's a crossing-over point. If you've ever heard of chi, like chi squared in statistics studies, that's the letter "X." The writing process for that song, it was an all-in-one-go kind of song, like "ONE FOOT" or "Daylight Savings,” where the whole song basically came to me at one time.
I wrote it originally to a different beat and I had lost the song but I sent the voice memo, just the verse over the beat, to Ovrkast at one point. Months later when I'm wrapping up the middle of the album, he hit me like, "Yo, whatever happened to that verse?" I was like "That shit hard, but I don't know where the beat at." I redid it over one beat and I sent it to him and he was like, "Nah, nah nah. I'll make some shit specifically for it." That's where that real nasty piano loop came through. I appreciate Ovrkast so much for giving me that beat because it really matches the arguing tone.
There's a powerful repetition that happens on "Self Love," where you're chanting "we ain't free until she free too."
That just comes from my study of poetry. Poets will invoke sounds past words. They will use words because that's their medium as a poet to create sound and then go to that sound over and over. Power in repetition is something I want to harness. Especially as a nigga who don't do the traditional hook in the middle of the song kind of song that often. I try to make it so each line has a place, has an impact. How do you separate one impact from the next except by repeating it?
In a recent tweet you said "Guernica" is your favorite song on the album.
Yeah. [From] how I wrote it, and the beat is my favorite. I wrote it in one of those one sitting type things. That "cold world just embrace us for the marketing," I feel like I was just really talking to my brother on some shit. Like my littler brothers too — not really old enough to really understand what I'm doing. We gotta watch our backs because these niggas will only ever care about what we think in order to sell you something. You are a commodity. Attaching that to like, "I know what it mean to be the nigga getting left / Already seen how niggas get when it's the scent or a whiff of a cent." It's a tribute to me and my little mans. I love my brothers. I gotta protect them and speak to them in a way I don't see anyone else responsibly doing.
What does a future where blackness is free look like to you?
What that looks like to me is securing all ten things that's at the front of the album, which is love, peace, happiness, food, clothing, shelter, guns, money, land and useful knowledge for all of us, on a unified basis. It's having the fruits of all our labors. We really propped up one of the greatest empires in modern history economically from zero dollars, just off the equity we held in our bodies and the expertise we held in our minds.
What Black freedom looks like to me is us holding that. When Black people is fully tapped into the power of their bodies and the value of their minds and vice versa. Nigga, there's no stopping us. We're the original people. We the OGs of this. We not new to this, we true to this.
Even us being in this position of relative squalor is just part of a cycle of some other shit, because we never went nowhere. We're indigenous folks. Black freedom to me looks like Black indignity. Black comfort. Black familiarity. It looks like Black people sharing their culture on a non-exploitative level. Or not sharing their culture, having that source. Having that source to present themselves as multiple, as full people. That's what Black freedom looks like to me. It requires us to have a lot of shit, to be a lot of shit, and to do a lot of shit that I'm willing to work towards in this moment with this music.