“I put my lighter in the air for you/I see whatchu doing, yeah I see whatchu go through.” The dude offering up this pep talk in a catchy hook is 26-year-old singer/songwriter Mali Music. You know him—that brother with the gorgeous tenor voice and stylish low Caesar-and-beard combo whose “Beautiful” video features an aspiring Black ballerina moonlighting as a stripper? That guy.
“Beautiful” has become an out-the-box hit for Mali Music and a real breath of fresh air for fans of R&B and Christian inspirational music alike, who appreciate Mali’s feel-good, beats-driven take on modern spiritual music. “Beautiful” held onto the top five on Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs chart for 22 weeks straight (peaking at number one in March), and he performed the track on American Idol that same month.
An ear-trained musician who started playing piano at the age of 5 and picked up guitar at 8, Mali Music (born Kourtney Jamaal Pollard) also serves as a minister of music at his hometown church in Savannah, Georgia. Mali was already a buzzworthy gospel-oriented artist before his single dropped, and he’s less than comfortable with being confined to the conventions of traditional gospel. In previous interviews, he’s described Bilal, James Brown and D’Angelo as influential to his music, as well as Fred Hammond and Sam Cooke (America’s first controversial gospel-to-R&B crossover star).
Mali’s brief stint as a gospel MC on Akon’s Konvict Music label back in 2011 caused a slight stir with some of his Christian music fans online. But he weathered that criticism and eventually landed a new deal with ByStorm Entertainment/RCA to record Mali Is …, his third full-length album.
Mali worked with established hit-makers to infuse his faith-based messages of love and positivity with the power of “that knock,” as he likes to call it. We chatted up Mali Music about his great new album, the whole gospel-versus-secular conflama, and the “Beautiful” road ahead of him.
EBONY: Where were you born and raised? Do you come from a musical family?
Mali Music: I was born in Phoenix, Arizona and raised in Savannah, Georgia. My family is very musical. My mom sings and my Dad played the drums. My father is very musical as well. I guess my people do have that love for music too!
EBONY: How would you describe the overall sound of Mali Is…? Who produced it and what topics are discussed? Are there any guest performers featured on the new record?
MM: The overall sound of the Mali Is… album is “versatile soul.” Many soulful tones [are] in every song, but many of them have that knock on them as well. I was able to work heavy with Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis and D’mile. Andre Harris also has a banger on there as well. The lyrical content is what I’d like to call “necessary”! [laughs] Just a ton of truth and powerful lyrics coupled with fun and vibrant melodies. It’s a great-feeling album.
EBONY: How did you originally come to perform gospel music? Who are your greatest musical influences, gospel or otherwise?
MM: As a young boy, I was able to develop my sound by participating in worship at church. So I had several spiritual experiences and teachings that catapulted my mind and focus on the things of God. Based on my steady diet as a young man on the matters of the spirit, “Hallelujah” was my song. And it never will not be! My greatest musical influences are definitely the greats like Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Sam Cooke and James Brown.
EBONY: Why did you transition to a more radio-ready secular sound? How has this transition been received by your core fans? Are you at all nervous about losing old fans because of your newer sound?
MM: I don’t think the sound transitioned into a more secular sound. I believe the sound already was evolved. I wanted to be able to relate and connect with more people. So I pulled back on the speed and focused on making everything said and done digestible and clear. And that broadened my platform. I’m very pleased with the transition. I’m free. Initially there was a little reservation from my core fans, which is understandable, but I know who has the wheel and why I sing, and faith in Him has eased all anxiety concerning that. I’ll let the music do the talking and everything will be back in no time.
EBONY: On a totally different note, how has dating changed since you’ve become popular as a spiritually oriented soul artist? What traits do you look for in a significant other?
MM: As far as relationships go, right now I’m focusing on what is happening for me in my career and in my music. You know success brings good and bad things with it, so I’m just remaining focused and trusting my gut. As far as traits, I love a person who is genuinely good. I love a good-natured woman. One not too attracted to drama and who is sensitive.
EBONY: Where do you see yourself in five years? What’s your vision of that journey?
MM: Well, I got into music to make an impact. To make a difference. So five years from now, I’m hoping to be at a point in my career where I have a ton of influence and pull. I want to use that influence as an opportunity to command change and make significant strides to the relief of broken families, toxic communities, corrupt churches and close-minded schooling systems.
We have to cultivate the genius in children to get the benefit of their gifts as adults. I will travel, write books, do documentaries—whatever I have to do to capture the attention of the lost who desire to be found. I think five years is more than enough time to get a good solid start in beginning this healing process. We are strong, we are talented, but we are a lost and very broken generation, and my [heart] beats to the relief of this epidemic.
Sun Singleton is a Northern Virginia-born singer/journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @sunsing.