The Vibe With Maimouna Youssef
Militant stance with political advances, Maimouna Youssef represents a genuine form of hip-hop. Fusing her concoction of Afro-centric lyricism and boasting the beauty of Black, with popular mainstream hits such as Lorde’s “Loyal” remixed to spread the message “we were already ROYAL” to dropping more knowledge on Drake’s “Pound Cake” instrumental for the melodic autobiographical “Tell My Story,” Youssef’s latest full body offering, The Reintroduction of Mumu Fresh educates with energy that captures the ears of hip hop lovers and youth.
Showcasing both her vocal and emcee ability, Maimouna has rocked the stage with the best in hip-hop. The lineage beginning with The Roots led to a Grammy-nod, rocking stages with idols Mos Def, Big Daddy Kane, Q-Tip, Raekwon, MC Lyte, Jamla recording artist Rapsody plus more and reuniting with all while touring with Common, has given the West Baltimore native a solid wave in the fickle music industry.
Her purpose: to enlighten and let it be known that “You are greater than your circumstances. Circumstance does not define you.”
And with that, kick back and get familiar with Maimouna Youssef, aka MuMu Fresh:
JET: What was your first introduction to the art of hip-hop?
Maimouna Youssef: My parents put me on to hip-hop, my dad used to play Public Enemy in the car and KRS-1, when I was small and then later on, my brother was into the Wu-Tang Clan and I started getting into that. He’s really the one who kind of taught me how to rap, and took an interest in me knowing how to rap. He would battle me all the time and put me in circumstance where I had to battle. Cause you know battling used to be like verbal abuse (laughs), zonin’ like disrespectin’ your whole being and you know you had to have a comeback. You couldn’t say “Oh I don’t battle rap.” You had to come back. He pushed me in that way and I just got really into hip-hop and started loving it. So when I was able to start buying my own music, I was buying Common, Black Star, Fugees, Tribe.
JET: When preparing to release The Reintroduction of MuMu Fresh, did you go in with a goal to produce knowledge but fuse it with mainstream records, for further impact?
MY: It was kind of a social experiment. I work with a lot of youth. I’ve done literacy through hip-hop programs, self-esteem through the arts program, singer/songwriter programs through summer youth employment. I’m always trying to expose youth to the music that I was exposed to as a child, that I feel like shaped so many of my views and just so much of who I’ve become as an artist.
One of the things that I often hear from the youth is that they don’t want to hear conscious music because it doesn’t “crank” or they feel like they can’t relate. And so one of the conversations that I had with a group of students was if I use the same beats that you like and can “turn up” to and I gave it social context that’s relevant to your life…because when you think about is any of the stuff that you’re listening to relating to your life? Do you live any of that? Can you afford any of the name brands that they’re talking about, have you been to those places?
When I teach the songwriting class, one of the main things that I have to really work on is having them write from their own voice and not the voice of the radio or someone else. What makes you special is that you are YOU. Write your story. That makes your music timeless. So this project was really inspired by those conversations. Wanting to make sure that some ears who were not tuned into the frequency of my last records, that they could get it cause if not, it’s like preaching to the choir. I wanted the youth to get it, and the best way was under the guise of some of the songs that they already know. They gave me a lot of feedback saying it was effective.
JET: Definite respect. One of the lines from the project that really stuck out to me was: “Soul of a freedom fighter in a new Bugatti…” It basically sums up the content, the flow, the message. It’s just pure dope.
MY: It is a mixture, also with my own upbringing. Both of my parents were involved in the Black nationalists movement. My mother is Native American and also involved in activism in the Native American community. But you know, the whole time growing up my daddy was a hustla (laughs) so, there are all of these complexities of nationalism, deep spiritual richness, street ghetto realness. I grew up in Baltimore and then you know it’s the arts within all of that.
So with my daddy being like this kind of ghetto superstar hustler, he was also a ridiculous classic painter. He would paint these amazing murals of classical and realism pieces. He also played the piano and my mother’s a singer. So all of those things come into making me who I am.
The reason I can go into some of these communities and talk to youth is because I know where they’re coming from. My saving grace is I was home schooled. Home schooled by nationalists who had knowledge themselves. That’s what made all the difference. All of that has really helped me to take the complex form and it creates that paradox that actually works well together.
JET: Entering the industry with legit talent and highly respected names backing you, did that better prepare or anticipate more pressure when you dropped your first project, Subversive Activity?
MY: Both. Before I went on tour with The Roots, I grew up listening to those guys. They were the reason I moved to Philadelphia. The picture that they painted on Illadelph Halflife, it made me want to live it. That album was so incredible, I felt like I was living every word.
Same thing when I met Common about 10 years ago, I told him I remember being like 11 years old and saving up to buy his tapes, like Can I Get A Dollar, Resurrection… all that so it’s really dope because so many artists I grew up listening to I now rock with as peers and they’re friends, they’re my homies, it’s crazy!
We were just in Australia with Mos Def and we were doing I USED TO LOVE HER… which was also insane. The first time I performed that with Com[mon], I was like you don’t even know what this is doing to my world! So we’re doing the song and Mos just started walking on stage and he just started dancing, like he was feeling it. I’m like yo Mos this is crazy! We’re all crew, in the van together and I’m like yo’ I ‘m still a fan, I don’t care if ya’ll are over it, I’m still a fan, it’s amazing. (Laughs)
JET: When you made the decision that music was going to be your career and livelihood, did you envision it would be to this magnitude, rocking the stage with the greats, legends?
MY: To be honest, I did envision it being this way. When I was like 7 or 8 years old, I wrote all of Grammy acceptance speeches and I was thanking all the girls on the block for supporting. (laughs). So, I feel like it should be this big because in my mind, that’s how I saw it. I saw my heroes having it and it being that way for them. That was my example.
I think along the path there were definite times where I thought, man, maybe it won’t happen that way. Especially because, in the USA, there’s not a strong appreciation for music with social and political awareness, in particular, I’m a woman who’s not naked. So there are definitely times throughout my career where I was like, ‘man, am I too before my time, was I born too late, too early?
At this point, I’m just like stay consistent because good art is going to be good art. People who feel it will feel it, the entire world may not like it but then again the entire world, may not like any one thing. You find the folks that rock with you and are fans. When I have people tell me that my music helped them make life altering decisions or have got them through life-threatening surgeries, that’s when I’m like ‘aiight, aiight, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’
JET: That’s a reward in itself. So, the tour run with Common is complete, what’s the next move for you?
MY: Just record more music. And also make music that’s relevant, speaking and documenting the times. We are living in some really interesting times right now and now that I’m off the road, I’ve been having so many feelings, different conversations we’ve had and ciphers, just discussing after shows and watching the news and Common’s involved in the movie Selma, so we’ve talked a lot about civil rights, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the police department, the President… it’s an interesting time to be alive and on the cutting edge being a person who can make statements that influence people.
This next music is going to be documenting the times and things I’ve been seeing, hearing and feeling. Yeah, there’s nothing else to do but put out more music and feed the people.