With a hair coiffed as eccentrically as the music she creates, Maimouna “Mumu Fresh” Youssef is no newbie to the process of reinvention. The Baltimore bred singer, emcee, songwriter and poet has spent the better part of the last decade consistently reimagining her own personal process, while contributing her singular brand of soul-inspiring urgency to the palettes of Erykah Badu, Nas, Jill Scott, Mos Def, Zap Mama, and Angelique Kidjo. Her breakout moment arrived as the role of the alarm-toned warning on The Roots’ 2007 Grammy nominated hit, “Don’t Feel Right”. In many ways, Youssef served as a common thread as she was featured in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the era-defining documentary that encapsulated the edgings of the Neo-Soul and Hip Hop movements of a decade ago.
After spending the subsequent years honing her craft and voice on tours with both The Roots and Zap Mama, Maimouna released her first Solo EP, Black Magic Woman, in 2011 and followed up with her first full length solo album, The Blooming – a sharply crafted collections of sounds showcasing a talented, though developing, young voice in the new generation of soul. The Reintroduction of Mumu Fresh, the latest mixtape from the chameleon-like soulstress, provides the world a look into the latest incantation of Maimouna Youssef – a streetwise griot, using her experiences, insight, and personality to inform a generation-spanning base of her views on race, politics, gender, and class with an ever-inclusive tone and sound.
As she prepares for her mixtape release concert this Sunday in NYC, we sat down with Youssef to talk about her many lives lived, the never-ending journey of artistic re-invention, and her favorite moments at the party that defined all parties.
EBONY: How did growing up in Baltimore and D.C. influence your sound?
MAIMOUNNA YOUSSEF: My family and family structure probably influenced me even more than the cities themselves did. I grew up in “my mother’s house”. I was homeschooled by my parents, who were both heavily influenced Pan-Africanists. My brothers were more into the Baltimore street dynamic, and my older brother taught me how to rap. Having eight brothers, most of my “streetism” comes from them. It’s informed me as I travel to other cities and countries. I’ve gained a certain realism and wit about me that you can hear in my music.
EBONY: How would describe your sound in comparison to what’s out there?
MY: It’s reflective of my experiences. My mother is a jazz singer. My grandmother was a gospel choir director from Mississippi that was influenced by the blues. My uncle is a heavy metal bassist. My mother was in an Afrobeat band and we have been to Africa several times. Those were the sounds that I experienced in my household daily. People see music as a very separatist experience – in that if you are from this place and a certain age, that you are limited to a single experience. That’s not honest to me or who I am.
EBONY: How did you find your way into the industry?
MY: I recorded my first album at 17 while I was working at a non-profit organization. I was already performing at different clubs and events would see friends like Raheem DeVaughn on certain bills and be like “I need to get on that stage!” The bookers I would talked to liked me, but kept telling me I had no product to push. I had a band that I gigged with in high school and approached them to record and the non-profit helped us finance putting the project together. That album caught the attention of [The Roots’] James Poyser, who invited me to Philly to work on the next album. That lead to recording and then touring with The Roots.
EBONY: That was Subversive Activity?
MY: Yeah. [Laughs] That name makes me laugh. We went really so hard! We were baby revolutionaries. Our history curriculum was heavily focused on Blacks in science and we would discuss the Dogon tribe and how their agricultural system was built to inform when new light and leadership would arrive. We were like “We gotta bring a new light to the industry!”
EBONY: How did James Poyser’s guidance affect your development?
MY: Well, his main guidance was in helping us to become more radio-friendly! [Laughs] When we first met, we were far from it. We first met at Electric Lady, and even though we were very raw and real, he could tell we were really great musicians, had talent, and went hard on every track. He felt he could help us hone and develop that. We learned a lot from him in those sessions and I am better equipped in the art of stacking vocals and sounds and advancing my writing style when I produce myself now.
EBONY: How is the creative process that you're independent?
MY: When you are a young woman in the industry, everyone tells you what you should sound like. What you should be. I wasn’t really sure at that time. I really wanted to know what I sounded like now without those influences. I have the gift and the curse of being able to do just about anything, but I had to learn how to bring that out without stifling and suffocating myself. I needed to take my own self-voyage to find my voice. It took some years, but this project is the result of that. I’m an artist through and through. If I am not creating the way I want to, I would be somewhere depressed.
EBONY: What has inspired you this time around?
MY: I found a lot of happiness in creating without the pressure of a label asking “Can we sell this? Is this viable for radio?” and still connecting. People reaching out to tell me a song of mine got them out of an abusive relationship. There was a young boy in a gang that was trying to make different music but was afraid to be criticized by his people. He reached out to me to tell me how I helped him realize that he could still be a conscious and progressive voice to the world and still crank and rock with his homies. I took leap of faith on my own away from the safety net of the industry, but the music I make still helps people in profound ways. I believe I can have it all. That I can have an audience that knows where I come from and this greater audience that can stand to be exposed to this black woman with a different experience.
EBONY: What’s the meaning behind "The Reintroduction Of Mumu Fresh?"
MY: It started as a joke on tour with The Roots. Scratch was gone and there was no one left to beatbox. So I would play around during rehearsals and on the bus scratching and blending. I am by no means a DJ. Black Thought and everyone found it hysterical and started calling me Mumu Fresh. At the time I was very much into myself as an emcee and then, for years, I was uninspired. I don’t know if it was my son growing up and just now being old enough to listen to the music that I never played around him when he was young. I just took him to his first KRS One concert. I just started re-engaging and rekindled that love affair with Hip-Hop. So I wanted to use records that people were familiar with and insert my social context. And I’m a person that enjoys humor, so I would do a song like [“Drunk in Love” rework] “Crunch ’N Grub," and have fun and release the pressures of not having to make an album and create a masterpiece. We still ground it with a video like “We’re Royal,” that shows the block I grew up on. It represents our legacy outlined in chalk and not knowing were your greatness comes from.
MY: We recorded some music with Femi Kuti that we are going to work on releasing. We have a European tour coming up in November and December and are planning on another full-length project for the spring.
EBONY: It is a timely reintroduction, just as Dave Chappelle is kind of re-emerging this week with his own shows at Radio City. What did being a part of the Block Party experience mean to you then and now?
MY: It was definitely one of the most memorable events of my career. It was more than a concert. It was a meeting of minds. Everyone that was present as a performer had a particular mental and musical trajectory. We could feel how epic it would be while we were in the moment. As it was happening. The climax for me was Dave reuniting the Fugees. I got a chance to meet Lauryn Hill at rehearsal and then again backstage before they went on. Huge highlight of my career and one of the most completely fulfilling experiences for most that were present. It felt like the best family reunion ever.
EBONY: What can one expect from Maimounna Youssef show?
MY: It’s electric. High energy. Fun segues. Mixed genres. Very interactive. I was performing long before I was recording and writing. We laugh together, cry together. And people leave feeling like we all know each other a little better.
Maimouna Youssef performs this Sunday, June 29th in New York City at Drom. Tickets are available here. Listen to The Reintroduction of Mumu Fresh here, and for more information, music, and tour dates, check her website.
Ugi Ugwuomo is a Music and Culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter @rLfNowhere.