Classic R&B is often eclipsed by a pop-infused cousin created for mass consumption, so it’s refreshing to find artists who brings it back to the basics. Mali Music, a Savannah, Georgia-native whose roots began in the church, is the real deal. He fuses his love for gospel with rhythm & blues beats and sultry or uplifting lyrics to create a smooth sound for everyone to enjoy.
Mali Music has been on the scene for a while now, touring and performing on big stages for BET Music Matters, Essence Music Festival, The Queen Latifah Show and American Idol earlier this year. His guerrilla style marketing set the foundation for his success and now Mali has finally dropped his full-length, major-label debut album, Mali Is…, yesterday (June 17). “I am really excited about it,” he says. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Read on to learn more about Mali Music’s story.
Photo Credit: Leann Mueller and Eric Ogden
VIBE Vixen: Your album drops on the 17th. How are you feeling?
Mali: I am really excited about it; it’s been a long time coming. There’s been a whole lot of transitioning. I dropped my initial album The Second Coming in 2009 and I did that independently. I was so close, almost a day close to dropping my next album to be able to feed my audience the album because it’s been so long since I’ve been able to drop the music. I think it’s been like five or six years and I never anticipated that much time to go by but it was really cool. I feel like right in the middle of getting ready to release that I had the opportunity to do the BET Music Matters showcase and when I did the BET awards it was clear that I needed something bigger. I had a greater opportunity and you know, I was grateful how God allowed all that to work out. So now for this to be manifested on this level and for the opportunities that I’ve had on promoting it, I never would have imagined that it would be as big as it is. I’m grateful for that work we put in and the work that we are still putting in, because I am super tired. I’m in Chicago right now promoting but it’s going to take my breath away. So on the 17th I’m going to be in New York and I’m gonna be turned up!
[Laughs] I hope so! It’s been a long time coming and you need to celebrate. You also performed on American Idol, how was that?
It was amazing. It was breathtaking, actually. I think a lot of the things leading up to it were a lot more intense than the performance itself because once I get my microphone, my band and see all the beautiful faces to be able to sing to, everything gets a lot easier. So it was wonderful and it definitely changed the face of my career.
I mean, what was going through your mind at that moment? I’m sure it was nerve-wracking.
Well, no because I’ve been doing it a really long time. Not to make the stage or whatever—like if you’re LeBron James or Michael Jordan, it doesn’t matter if you have a basketball court in China, Brazil, wherever—the kings could be there. I don’t think those things will change the way that you feel about the ball bouncing on the wood floor from ten-foot racks. You could just do what it do because it’s the same everywhere you go. So, yeah, it was awesome. But afterwards while watching is when I got the most nervous because I was like, “What did I just do?” you know? It was like an aftershock but it felt very good to meet JLo, Harry Connick Jr. and to be able to break bread with all these people who I’ve been watching on TV for a very long time. It just really showed me how fast things can move when you focus on something positive.
That’s very true. It seems like they liked your performance and were moved by it.
Definitely. Randy Jackson and all that; it was a beautiful response.
So is Mali Is… a very personal album since it’s self-titled?
Ummm, I think all of my music is but at the same time, it isn’t. Imagine a person who writes the words in a Hallmark card; we don’t hear their name but the people who read it take it personal. So that’s what Mali Is… is. It’s an album full of songs from my heart, so when everybody listens to them they hear their own heart, you feel what I’m saying? So I think that’s the thing that’s gonna make it special. The iPhone is Steve Jobs’ heart creation, but everybody takes their album personally and I think this album and the songs on it are very relevant to everyone.
What track is your favorite?
Mali: It’s an adult one called “Ready Aim,” but I have to mention another one on there called “Royalty.” That is a topic that I am very excited about because you know, everyone is being called every other thing in our day in age and our society to the point where people confidently call themselves derogatory terms. I know it’s basic and maybe very old-school, not to say I’m not hip, but I’m just trying to lure everybody back into a place a truth so they know who they are so we can fix these insecurity issues. You know get some peace back into the community with our young people and our old people. That’s why the song is called “Royalty.” Royalty—do you know who you are? Royalty. Being able to sing that and make somebody think even its just one person will make me happy.
That’s dope. You also choose to use a guerrilla style of marketing.
I think it’s necessary. Imagine trying to explain Michael Jackson or Bob Marley concert to someone who hasn’t been.
Bob Marley is my favorite.
Yeah, it’s like, “Bob Marley was performing and ‘Boom!’ he popped up out the ground and there’s fire everywhere girl, it is amazing.” Her friend is gonna be like “Oh that sounds crazy,” but she will never be able to understand the feeling or connection that every other person in that aren’t felt. So I think that when you carry a light and you carry something special you gotta bring it. Everybody who’s like, “Yo check out this funny Vine,” the people who hear about it don’t get the laugh like the people who tell them about it. It’s only a great laugh when they search it on YouTube or they search it on their Vine account and watch it a million times. So in order to do that, I needed to make sacrifices to be away from my family and sacrifices to be tired because I’m traveling a lot. The only way to truly give cities and the people who matter what this truly is, is to allow them to come into contact with you, speak to them, shake their hands, meet their children, meet the community and be able to sing and do some concerts or whatever like that.
Of course it is very fatiguing but I think it’s the only way to do it when you have something like what I have. It’s not something that you can just zip over the internet even though everyone would be attracted to it, they’ll never be able to fully understand the feeling, truth or depth of it unless I’m there, so that’s really good. I think I’ve been to six cities before today and I am getting ready to take another three-hour drive to Lansing, Michigan to be able to do the same thing and it’s what it is. You know, no one is gonna give you anything and a lot of people are waiting for it. They’re like “Hey, I’m signed so that means I can just lay back under palm trees and people are gonna…” no. That’s not how it and is and I’ve been wanting this for a really long time and the label is really excited about it but nothing is gonna stop my work ethic. I just have a heart for the people and that’s who I want to connect with. I have been having a lot of success with it.
Speaking of home, you transitioned from gospel to more secular music. Why did you choose to go that route?
Yeah, I don’t think that was a transformation. I don’t think it was a change, I just think it was an upgrade. Think of it this way: there’s a dope freshman—and excuse me because I speak in analogies, as you can see, but I guess it’s the easiest way to explain it—there’s a dope freshman that comes into college and he’s a beast plus he plays for Duke. He’s ballin’ so they go to the championship and they win it. Duke is really excited about him being there for the next three years but then he enters the draft. You know how they can feel forsaken? He not changing nothing; he’s the same super talented young kid but he just really wanted to take his talents to an elite professional level. I think that’s all that happened. It’s not that gospel isn’t elite or professional but it’s just that I may have never had the opportunity to be able to touch the amount of people that I will on American Idol stages, Queen Latifah and all these other platforms. I probably wouldn’t be able to be on their radar if I kept juggling numbers of 500 or 700 to, at max, 9,000 people buying my album. So I think it’s just that I wanted to do it on a professional level.
I wanted to be able to have an opportunity to [reach] statuses with people I admire like your James Browns, Bob Marleys, and Michael Jacksons and in order to do it, I had to enter into the professional industry that they were in. Not to succumb or to conform to them, but to inspire them to be myself within and possibly build a platform to make it easier for people with heart like me, people with songs like me, and people with content like me in the future. Imagine if Lauryn Hill and the Fugees never opened up and came into this; if they kept everything underground and Common stayed underground. It’s the fact they went mainstream because they had something so special that it went beyond their core and I believe that’s what has happened. It’s just an expansion, so I haven’t changed. Even my gospel was very different. I’m still unique kicking the same thing I guess I was just able to do it with a major company and people who we never anticipated to get with it love it, too.
What do you mean by different?
Of course you have “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” but I never had those type of songs you know what I mean like, one of the gospel singles from my gospel album was called “I Hate You.” [Laughs] Even when I was in gospel, my whole thing was controversial. One of the lyrics from my quote on quote “gospel” songs is “I’m tired of meeting up, feeling one way, beaten broken down and I’m hungry and I’m needing and I’m wanting and I leave the way I came. Will I ever change? The church is busy shouting raising offering and they never ever pay attention to the needs of the lost anymore. Pictures of themselves in the light not the dark anymore but thus say is the Lord, victory is yours.” So I was always kicking it from a true place. It’s funny because when I would come into the churches everybody is all suited up and beautiful. Then here I am with a t-shirt on, jeans, some sneakers and it’s like, “Alright guys, this next artist is uhhh…we don’t even know what he is. Just uhhh bear with him,” so I was always a part of it but never a part of it so it’s very good. I was like, if I’m not gonna belong to anything I was gonna do it on a major platform and be able to touch as many rejects and outcasts as I can. I wanna thank Mark Pitts for giving me this opportunity and I think that we made something very beautiful.
Do you ever feel like you’d do it again? Are you interested in going back to your gospel roots one day?
Of course. I don’t feel that I’ve left it. I think that it’s just a worry. No one has ever heard the sound that I’m going to release on the 17th, so they don’t know. They’re just thinking “Awww man, Mali’s done…whatever” just because the genre is categorized as R&B and soul, so I think that the only thing that can really define what is, is when everybody hears the song which is why it’s really necessary to go back to that last question and do it in a guerilla mode because once they get there all the thoughts, all the assumptions they found out are wrong. I’m singing, I’m still Mali Music and I’m still RCA but everybody feels refreshed, they feel uplifted, they feel enlightened and they recognize that it comes from a positive source you get what I mean? After that, there’s no more questions and everybody’s excited about the album for the right reasons. So yeah, it is a patient type of thing because hey, I can’t make June 17th come any faster.
So, what do you feel like is the main difference that you see in your creativity since?
Oh yeah, we love that.
I can go and do, play, and sing when or how I want. I don’t have to think about or over-evaluate offense. It’s a lot easier to offend people than make them happy you know? So I think just the freedom of it–like if I wanted to sing a song about this I can because there is no cant’s and I like that freedom because it causes what I do choose to do to have more value you know? I think that’s just what it was. I could be more of myself and I can introduce myself a lot more which is why the album is called Mali Is… because everybody has such an idea kind of like when John Legend released his initial album and somebody only downloaded his “Ordinary People” single, they wouldn’t have heard the hip-hop beat on “Let’s Get Lifted” and they would have categorized him as just a piano balladeer. Not recognizing that he was rocking on hip-hop beats too so when they went to the concert they might have been confused. So Mali Is… is a introduction of all the aspects of me ummm you know with all my heart, my content, my musical liking, my flow, my cadence, my confidence and my humility you know what I mean? So it’s gonna be really good and I think the only word that can describe all of it is “new” or something that I don’t believe anyone has heard before. It’s reminiscent of a little bit of that and a little bit of this but it’s a new concoction and I can’t wait for the world to hear it.
Wow, that was eloquently put.
So we’re gonna do something called lessons learned, are you ready?
Yes, I’m ready.
Lessons learned from social media?
Wow, watch what you post [laughs].Yeah def watch what you post and you can’t pay attention to what everybody says because everybody who is saying something is not important. So yeah, everything said isn’t important.
Lessons you learned from failure?
Oooh. It’s not real; it’s nothing but a peg in the building of what is to come so if you focus on failure and you build your house on it. You’ll never reach why you failed. It’s probably a lesson and you probably weren’t ready.
Lessons you learned from heartbreak?
Ummm, we’re all human and it’s not the end. So, I think the heartbreak was nothing it just taught me that like, I may not know the right thing sometimes. No matter how much I love it or want it, I still might have been wrong and the heartbreak is the truth that I can’t ignore; the fact that the thing that I loved wasn’t for me you know what I mean?
Lessons you learned from Hollywood or the music industry?
Mali: Enjoy it and have fun but keep it separate. Don’t get too into it because its fickle, it changes, and it’s political. So yeah, Hollywood it beautiful ummm and you know being on the good side of media is awesome but all it takes is one flick of a wrist to come out of one bad situation and the whole thing is against you. So if you’re connected to it, it can destroy you. Recognize that it is what it is; its media. Its other people making their money talking about what’s really happening and always know the truth. Never give them any ammo.
Is there anything else you want to say? Any closing thoughts?
No, I am just really excited about it, this is really good. I just want to make sure that whoever hears it sees it follows me on Twitter and all the social media stuff.
Well it was great speaking with you Mali. You’re very insightful.
For more on Mali Music visit Mali Music Official.