Maimouna Youssef Is Already Royal [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

Mumu Fresh Stay

When Common rapped about loving “H.E.R” back in 1994 he could have easily been talking about Maimouna Youssef. Listening to the singer/MC recall her experiences with music you can almost see the words animate themselves, spilling from her lips and crowning her head. If she walked on sand grass would probably sprout up between her toes. If you imagined hip-hop as this muse inspiring roses to grow from concrete, she’d probably look and sound like this. Fresh.

“I was at the soul festival in Australia in the audience watching D’Angelo because I love him so much,” the artists also known as Mumu Fresh tells WatchLOUD of her most recent shot of inspiration. “I went to see the Voodoo concert as a child and thought it was incredible but I remember Questlove, the drummer with the bush (hair) and later on I’d be on tour with him. I remember Anthony Hamilton singing background. I didn’t know their names at the time but I loved their energy. As a child it touched me in a deep way. People were out there crying. That’s why we have to continue to do this music. It’s a mission more than a choice or something we do for fun. The reason they say we got soul is because you’re channeling something from God.”

The talented artist whose name translates to “favored by destiny” has thus far walked the line of notoriety without tripping into that complicated place called stardom just yet. She lent her vocals to Common’s BE album in 2005 and was nominated for a Grammy in 2007 for her contributions to The Roots “Don’t Feel Right.” She independently released her first solo EP entitled Black Magic Woman in the spring of 2011 and her first full-length solo album entitled, The Blooming in the fall of 2011.  Early in 2014 she sharpened her MC chops and released a mixtape “The Reintroduction of Mumu Fresh,” reimagining popular hits of the moment like Lord’s “Royals” and Drake’s “Poundcake.”

She is currently on tour with Common and has just released a new video for the original song “Stay,” a lush lament of lost love (or finding self depending on your perspective) from Reintroduction… and we convinced her to chat a little bit about her musical journey thus far.

WatchLOUD: You cruised the Bahamas this fall as part of the Grammy’s Festival at Sea. How did you become involved with the Grammy board?

Several of my friends were involved in the Grammy association when I moved to D.C. and they encouraged me to become a part of it. They said if you’re going to be a part of this business you might as well have a say so in how it goes. Not to say that just because you’re a voting member you decide per se. It’s like the democratic process, some people believe in it and some people don’t. Ultimately there are definitely key players that make the final decisions but it’s good to be involved and to know how the process works. That’s h0w I got involved. I just registered and they’re always trying to get more African- American voters to be a part of the Grammy organization because you need a certain amount of submissions in each category in order for that category to stay active. If we don’t have enough submissions in an R&B category next year there may not be an R&B category. And that would be weird, but you have to vote and submit your music.

You’ve been nominated for a Grammy yourself?

That was for the song with The Roots, “Don’t Feel Right” from the Game Theory album. It was nominated in 2007 for best rap song. I remember we recorded it in Philly in at Larry Gold’s studio. I recorded it first with Dice Raw, he was working on the song while the Roots were on tour. He came up with the concept and called me to let me hear it. I laid down vocals but I didn’t know what was going to become of it. We were constantly creating things to see what stuck so I’m glad it stuck.

Tell us about your mixtape, “Reintroduction of Mumu Fresh…”

It definitely has more of a hip-hop feel than some of my past work. My first album I ever did was with a hip-hop band when I was maybe 16 or 17. Later on I began to sing more than MCing but I’m a child of hip-hop. My parents introduced me to hip-hop so Iv’e always had a strong love and connection to it.  My first solo project The Blooming that I released in 2011 was definitely more soul, blues kind of feel and was probably over a lot of people’s heads in terms of the intellectual sophistication of the music. Jazz is an intellectual music.  But I work with a lot of youth doing mentorship. I’ve taught literacy through hip-hop and I’ve worked with youth on a lot of levels, and the main thing I hear them say is they don’t like conscious music because it don’t crank. “It’s wack, it’s corny.” So the mixtape was a kind of social experiment. I used the top 40 songs that “crank” and flip the concepts to make them more socially relevant to your lives. I flipped “Royals” because the youth need to feel that they’re greater than their circumstance. You can’t ask them to be great if they don’t feel great. I flipped Rihanna’s song “Pour It Up,”  we changed “Happy” into “Nappy” as a celebration of natural hair. The young girls I work with want to grow their hair natural but meet with so much opposition from their parents. There are so many things we’re dealing with that urban music is not allowed to address on a mainstream level.  I wanted to show what could it be like if Black people made music that reflected our real lives and our environment.

“Tell My Story” (Drake “Pound Cake”) from Maimouna Youssef on Vimeo.

You address the natural hair issue in the video to “Tell My Story” and it gets into your Native American heritage. Can you expound on that?

My grandmother is Choctaw  and Cherokee and my granddad is Creek on my mother’s side. So it’s interesting that she would become a Black Nationalist. I grew up participating and competing in Pow Wows. I grew up in ceremonies like Vision Quest. Those were norms for me as a child. This ended up making me very, very different from people in my environment. I can sit on the front stoop and freestyle with my friends but the next week I could be in the mountains of Kentucky waiting for a vision. I never spoke about it before in my music because it made me [seem] so weird. But these are all the things that came together to make the person I am. With that I had a tough time figuring out my identity and my environment and not really fitting in with how I look, within my grandmothers side of the family, so I wanted to speak on it. It was mind blowing for me to have so many people of different ethnic groups relate to it. They reached out online and told me “your’e telling my story” and that’s whats so dope about music. It transcends color lines. I was in Australia performing with Common and someone came up to me and said they love that song. It was crazy.

That’s great. How did you come to link with Common?

I’ve known Common for some years because I recorded on the BE album, the song “Love Is.” I was gonna tour with him at that time but my son was very small so I din’t go out then. We connected when I was in Nigeria touring to support the Blooming and met Femi Kuti, Fela’s son. He came to NY to do Summerstage and I performed with him there and Common was on break from filming “hell on wheels” and asks me to go on tour. And we started working together since then.

You launched a Kickstarter Campaign to fund your next project but just came short of your goal. What are your next steps?

I’ve never been a person to take no for an answer. I’m applying for some artists grants and I’ll partner with some investors too. You live and you learn. Fundraising is an art and a skill in itself. I’m still recording. I have a pre-production set up at home and I take a recoding system on the road with me so there will be new music in the not too distant future.

What keeps you doing music? What keeps you motivated?

I would say because music is healing and its inspirational and it changes things. It changes communities, it alters peoples perspectives and peoples lives. When you hear Sam Cook’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” you can’t hear that without an emotional response. Nobody can deny that. Something can crank in the club and you enjoy it for the time being but you can’t deny what’s timeless  and resonates on a deeper level.

I read in an article that popular culture loves Black culture but they don’t love Black people.  We have to hold onto our music because it’s valuable and we have to pass it down to our children. It’s important to know that history and pass it on to continue our legacy. But that’s a much larger conversation. I feel like everyday in the music business is opposite day. You really think this is awesome? Stop it. Don’t just say that because it’s on the radio. How does this make you feel? Can you live to this music? Is it life giving or life taking?

Watching D’Angelo reenergized what I felt I was supposed to be doing. I was with Stanley Clark and George Duke last year. Watching them work and being a part of that was amazing. I’m touring with Common and he does “I Used To Love Her” and then Mos Def comes on stage and performs “Respiration” with him and I was a kid when [those songs] came out. My mom had to drive me to the store to get the cassette tape.  It’s so cool, moments like these you have to to cherish. I was listening to the tape trying to memorize lyrics and now I’m on stage performing this song in front of thousands of people with my heroes and they’re my friends! That is pretty dope. Those are the moments I know I’m supposed to be doing this.

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