Over the course of the past few years, the rap genre has opened its ears and hearts to a wave of young, thoughtful, powerfully-voiced artists. Albums like Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs or Medhane’s recent release, Cold Water, are layered examinations of introspective feelings and racial injustice - a topic that rightfully grows more necessary by the day. Perhaps no young rapper has pushed himself to the forefront of these topics through his music like Mavi, a 20 year old Charlotte native whose sound, style and voice have led to national recognition and support. Omavi Minder has been honing his craft and gaining traction since his Freshman year of high school. This fall, nearly seven years later, he’ll be entering his Senior year of college - pursuing biology and psychology at Howard University. In that same breath, Mavi has much to say about the treatment of different communities during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Biology is the equalizer,” he tells me. “70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Chicago are black people - why is it easier for black people to transmit and contract a disease that has equal opportunity to strike?”
Mavi sees beyond the smoke and mirrors. In October of 2019, he released his beautiful debut full-length, Let the Sun Talk, to widespread acclaim. His focus is razor sharp from start to finish on the project - the album’s spoken-word opener, “Terms & Conditions,” is a direct testament to healthy, thriving black communities. In an interview with Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce, Mavi explains the importance he puts on creating “music through who you’re related to, artistically, through the generations.” “The roles don’t change,” he says, “only the actors.” This could be a reason for his heavy usage of sampling - the sounds he chooses to incorporate into his records draw literal correlation to eras passed. In more ways than one, Mavi is a torch-bearer for one of the music world's most important sub-genres.
Since joining Stray Dogs Music Group this past year, Mavi has formed a strong bond with the collective's creator/manager, Jarred Howard. “I really respect that man. Probably how I don’t respect no other man under 30” he tells me. The relationship they share is an unequivocal knowing that a line of respect exists between the manager’s penultimate goal and the artist’s musical/social vision.
This summer, Mavi expects to drop another album, as well as a mixtape with producer Coffee Black and tape with Killswitch, a Charlotte rap collective composed of Mavi, Amir the King, Skullcrack and Messiah. In April, Mavi released a single, “fire alarm (!),” with Brooklyn’s Maassai.
Today, we sit down with Mavi to discuss samples, artist/manager relationships, and the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a 6-part series covering and speaking with one of music’s most exciting new assemblies - Stray Dogs Music Group.
Carter: Do you think that the feelings of isolation that many have associated with quarantine have played into your music at all? If so, how?
Mavi: "Kinda but kinda not, cause I’m not all that isolated. I got four folks in here that I live with, so it’s been a cool time. I will say this, the lack of seeing other people has definitely made things feel slow. Mostly for creating. A lot of how I do shit is driven by the things I experience out in the world. I really allow myself to double back on my experiences - not just recently because of quarantine but over my whole life. I’ve been writing songs about ways that I felt in the past - I’ve been writing some crazy shit. I just got a laptop, I’ve been working on beats, I’ve been working on all types of shit."
Your new song [fire alarm (!)] with Maassai is beautiful. Between that and Let the Sun Talk, I've always been super curious about how you sample. Do you find most of these sounds yourself or is it more of a collaborative process?
"It's definitely a collaborative process between myself and the producers. I definitely have a general knowledge each time going in, whether it comes when I first do the beat or the research before I record, as far as who I’m sampling. Sometimes, with producers, I'll really stress - I'll just tell them sample this shit and then different shit come of it. A lot of the people that are making my beats are people that I spend a lot of physical time with, so it’s lots of old shit that we listen to. It ends up being those sounds that define our taste."
In that same breath, what would you say is your favorite genre to sample?
"I’d say Gospel."
Any particular artists within that genre?
"I actually don't know a lot about particular Gospel artists, it’s more of just that Southern Baptist sound. The stylistic markers of a black church’s choir have a lot of vocal movements. They sing it from their belly, all the way out. They got a lot of different emotional content to them too. They deal with a lot of hardship. That's really inspired me, I love gospel."
I was on your Instagram live a week ago and saw that you were talking with Na’Kel Smith - you had made a comment to him about COVID-19 where you said that “biology is the equalizer.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that. What does that mean to you?
"Race is a social concept that's not even 500 years old. It’s very new in our world history. A lot of the superiority and beyond superiority the calling cards that we use to reference the potential of individuals from different ratios. Those differences are being revealed as not that interesting because everybody is able to get this virus - whether you’re rich or poor, sick or healthy, young or old. Biology is the equalizer - everybody is at equal opportunity to develop and contract this virus, regardless of race. If you set one thing that’s balanced, we’re still seeing that the scales are really, really tipped the opposite way. For example, 70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Chicago are black people - why is it easier for black people to transmit and contract a disease that has equal opportunity to strike? Then you start revealing stuff about the infrastructure you develop a distribution of environmental factors."
The virus affects all of us the same, but the way in which certain communities are hit says a lot about how the country is handling it.
"Bingo. The urgency in which we respond through our imagery and numbers of contractions, infections, and death all reflect who’s vulnerable when all other things are kept equal."
Let’s talk about Stray Dogs. I spoke to Jarred [Stray Dogs Music Group founder/manager] last week.
"He's gonna be the president of someone's company one day."
One thing he really preached about Stray Dogs is how every artist has a unique, different sound from one other. All four of you guys.
"Me, [Papichuloteej] and [Lil Shock] don’t even make the same genre."
Do you think that that's what makes Stray Dogs unique?
"Jarred makes it unique... He’s been able to see equal potential and invest in all four of us. These are styles that I wouldn’t have been able to see the damn dots for. That’s why we fuck with him - he sees things we don’t see. And that puts him in a position where It's just like, “ok, I can fuck with this nigga and Teej and Shock and anyone else he fucks with.” He knows what can be what without being caught up with what's cool to everybody, and while never being lame."
Do you have an end goal or end vision in mind for Stray Dogs?
"I want it so this nigga Jarred can leverage his connections, my discography and the other artists discography that he works with to do cool shit for himself and young niggas. Period. I see what he's been able to help me with at this level - you know what I'm saying - and that just motivates me to go hard so that when he walks in the room, being Mavi’s manager means something to people. Being my manager means something to me. My vision for that shit is for that nigga to have his company and his vision realized, so that he’s giving artists the power and maintaining their visions as well."
Okay, okay, so you want it to be a symbiotic relationship where it's a give and take thing between your music and his ultimate vision.
"Yea, that's my nigga. I Really respect that man. Probably how I don’t respect no other man under 30. My respect for Jarred isn’t like my respect for most people - where I fuck with some shit that their doing and then I find out that they cool. Just of what he showed me alone and each time I would be with this nigga I'm like, “now I trust your ability.” At first, it was like, I trust your ability to understand what I'm doing with way larger leaps and development each time we talk... and then it became a thing where it's like, I feel really confident in your ability to get me to the places that mean stuff in rap in 2019. That's when we started working together and he hasn't disappointed me once since. He’s got a heart. Like, he’s got a non-music industry nigga heart. He’s got music industry nigga execution."
So you’ve got a couple mixtapes and an album on the way, what can we expect from those?
"I got this 1 album that's basically done, and I'm trying to drop that in the Summer. I’m working on this mixtape now with this producer named coffee black - he's fire - and just some shit to hold niggas over. Then with Killswitch, this group with me and these Charlotte rappers that I grew up with named Amir the King, Skullcrack and Messiah – we're dropping a little compilation tape."
Okay, so how important is Charlotte to you?
"Charlotte’s vibe is like a smaller Atlanta. Charlotte made the jump from town to full-fledged American city powerhouse in our lifetime. It’s on big city time now. Still, it’s got that old southern town feel but we’re not that far south. It’s just got a lot of interesting blends of urban and rural lifestyle type personalities and old & new ideas from people moving down cause it’s a cheaper cost of living than New York, Chicago and other bigger cities. It also reflects the movement of people north from places further south in the smaller towns. It's really cool, but as far as rap shit goes, it’s a really difficult city to make it out of.
At the time when we had just started fucking with each other, Jarred was telling me about this city initiative by the new mayor. We lost this prominent basketball tournament in our city to Baltimore so they were trying to think of new ways to bring revenue to the city. They were talking about really just pushing the music industry to the forefront around more spaces, with different genres. That was the main thing in city. Still, they shut down smaller rap shows like every time. It’s just hard for a young nigga to go out and do things on their own. It basically made a scene where it's a lot of older but not really-that-qualified artists got a lot of control over the capital of studio and video shit just by a way of being older. Sure, they’re more connected, but not necessarily better at rapping or even a good rapper. The mobility of a rap artist is very low here."
Do you feel like the scene is getting better though? It seems as though there’s a lot of musical talent coming out of Charlotte right now.
"Think about this: a nigga like me is 21 this year. I’ve been rapping on a scale where people in Charlotte knew me since my freshman year of high school. So even though we hovered around a few thousand listens at that time, the reach it was getting in the city was concentrated, but still big as far as other artists go on discovery platforms... other artists in Charlotte like Big Baby Gucci, Isaiah Farrow, like niggas from way different parts of rap I've been knowing.
Everybody was respecting everybody in the city - nobody else was respecting our art. Even if, stylistically, we were doing it way different. That kind of gave us the space as artists to go and find our own unique sounds. This feeds into the musical resource control I was telling you about - it basically makes us all DIY. Think about even DABABY, Charlotte niggas is like a NOLA niggas where every time they come out to do work they’ve got a video crew they’re already fucking with, they pretty much know how they're going to sound because the development is often done from within."
Where are you at right now? Are you in Charlotte currently?
"I’m near Howard University, I go there. I started going in 2017. Last year I got an apartment right outside of DC and Mount Rainer, Maryland. I'm just here in Maryland coolin’, and I ain’t been in Maryland since August. I think imma stay another year, I just registered for the fall. I got 30 more credits to graduate, so hopefully I can knock that shit out/"
How’s the online class experience?
"Well, I'm not excited about being on FaceTime with my classmates and teachers. I’m going to be taking organic chemistry 1&2, and biochemistry. I'm about done though so it's like... “Yeah, I would rather just have the space to do that from a controlled environment.” Imma ace that shit bro."
One thing that’s always fascinated me is the relationship between you and your listeners when it comes to your music on vinyl – it's almost like a gift that you and your fans share. What importance does music in physical form play to you?
"I feel like success in music isn't necessarily about what you sound like, but rather immediately about what you sound like... that first listen, that feeling you get. Does that make sense? Here: think about the first song they listen to - they listen to it literally against their better judgement to go to their more familiar artists. After that it's about who you are as a person. Like, Pop Smoke made only club bangers, but caught so many people’s hearts including mine. It’s ‘cause you bring them into your mind as an entity, as a person, even if you don't understand the full person, at least a dimension of the person.
You share memories with that artist. My shit is just about introducing myself to join the people's life as a person that they can feel, and the physicality of the vinyl can merge shit. It allows people to tie those feelings to inanimate objects. Also, if the objects are physically beautiful in addition to playing music they already enjoy, that’s a whole other thing entirely. It’s a different medium to have fun with this shit, in order to just carve out your space and be like "alright, I'm figuring this out.”
I see what you are saying. That’s beautiful. Alright, I’ve got one more question for you: whats the best movie you've seen in the past year?
"American Ultra, I enjoyed that. It’s about a nigga, he’s a sleeper agent for the CIA but he’s like a stoner ass nigga. Its fucking fire, he’s a killing machine and don’t even know it. Also, I’ve watched some old shit like Life with Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy, that’s a 10/10 joint."
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