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MAIMOUNA YOUSSEF: In Bloom

Maimouna Youssef shares her take on music, life and being spiritual; how coming up it all intertwined and then some.

Words: Marjua Estevez
Image: Courtesty of Maimouna Yousef

In an era of glossy prints, retouching and make-up overkill, there are a select few who try to keep it real. Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh, is one of those, offering her music as a beacon for empowerment, upliftment and self-knowledge, while keeping it all the way funky and soulful. With a firm, yet humble belief in the competence of honest music, this Native American/African-American Baltimore native, who has toured the globe with the likes of The Roots, carries a heavy torch; bearing the light of those who came before her, her blended traditions and her dream to better understand and serve the world through her music. While it may sound preachy to some, Maimouna has a pow wow with STARK to discuss what it all means.

I love your name, Maimouna Youssef. Is that your real name? Where does it come from and what does it mean?

Maimona means kind hearted; it’s used all over west Africa and the Middle East. I’m not positive of the origin. Arabs will say it’s an Arabic name, you know, but in Senegal they’ll say the name is traditional. Either way, I was named after a friend of my mother who was from Sierra Leon.

Tell us about your experience being African-American and Native American and how that plays into who you are. Do you merge them or celebrate them separately?

Well, it was all I ever knew. I didn’t notice it to be anything different from the norm. The cultures are actually very similar. They are both indigenous lifestyles. They are both connected to Earth and God.…

Can you elaborate?

Yeah, they are similar in their traditions, very congruent. My mother was a very courageous soul and she was very open about our backgrounds. People tend to feel like they have to choose one ethnicity over the other, but she always honored our ancestry wholeheartedly.

And your traditions…

It depends on what the ceremony is. For instance, we have land in Virginia where we have a spiritual retreat center and we do sweat lodge, a native ceremony of purification.

Oh wow….

Yep, Lakota style. We may pour a libation before going into the lodge and traditionally libation is African. However, Natives will pour water and it’s considered to be something like libation…. It’s not something where we’re doing one thing African and then another Native American. Nothing like that. I go by my intuition as opposed to anyone else’s guidelines. That’s how we were raised. When the ceremonies became legal in the ‘70s, my grandmother was adamant about us learning the ceremonies and learning the dances, and the pow wows.

Have you begun any new traditions?

No, I can’t say I have began any new ones. As I develop as a woman, I gain new perspectives on the same traditions. I pray for my own evolution constantly, for peace, contentment, satisfaction. Especially being an artist, there still was a lot of discontentment because it’s a capitalist society. We don’t live in the moment, but the spirit does. That’s what I’m learning now, what I’m all about. How to stay in the moment and be aware of what the elders have been trying to teach me. We try and try to become something and we become so engulfed in becoming who we think we’re supposed to be. Ultimately, [we] end up feeling so unsatisfied—only to feel incomplete—and still have lost all that time in the midst of it all.

I can’t even focus on this interview when you’re dropping so much knowledge.

[Laughs] I’m serious, it’s true…

Okay, so you’ve toured nationally with Uprising. How old were you when you joined them and how was something like that vital to your career today?

Uprising was a family production so it was extremely vital. My aunt started it and I had to thank her so much because it set the groundwork. It was a company of social change. It set the framework for what I do and why I do it. I’ve chosen a hard road of doing Social Change music. It is difficult to speak on society and help people try to find a way out of the madness; It’s a joy and a burden. It would be so much easier to make Dance/Party music, but Uprising was that catalyst for me. I was 10 and through Uprising I learned about so many issues in the world and issues dealing with people of color. I learned about our struggle, our joy, our spiritual awakening. I saw people be moved and changed at the shows we’d put on. And I knew that’s what I wanted to keep doing. That feeling of being able to offer something to someone, offer the idea of doing better and being better…. A lot of times all we need is a different perspective to act on a situation differently. I don’t pretend to know it all, you know. But I feel I’ve been blessed to have good intuition and a voice for the people.

No… that’s amazing.

Toni Morrison once said, “We give voice to the unspeakable” and I think I’ve been blessed with something like that. Uprising made that clear for me. It made me realize how important it is to have a beacon of light for the community…. And Uprising still goes on today. The new youth are carrying the torch.

Some actors and actresses wait their whole lives before snatching a lead role on Broadway, but you’ve already done it with Once on this Island. How did that happen?

Honestly, I’m not really sure [Laughs]. I landed it with the help of my mother really. All I remember was being a part of the production. I loved the play; It’s a great story. But my mother was a singer/actress. It was something where my mother knew someone that knew someone and all of sudden we (my brothers and I) were auditioning. I didn’t look at it as a career opp, we just had a good time. So yeah, my mom helped out with that one.

Performing with family is not new to you. You performed alongside your mother and grandmother in the Three Generationz showcase. What did you gain from that experience?

As a child I didn’t appreciate it as much. I wanted to go outside and play like all the other kids. Then my grandmother passed when I was 14. It hit home when she died. She was so adamant about us having this group. And we used to go around and perform, even at different colleges and get paid for it. My grandmother was such a beautiful woman and such an honorable leader. She was a part of NAACP. She connected with all people of color, all people really. When she passed, she had children from all over the world come celebrate her impact. I appreciated it much more later on, when I understood why she had us do what she did.

The music of Three Generationz is extremely healing. We were all in tears when we performed after my grandmother died. It’s almost magical and healing. Three Generationz recorded an EP and are finishing the LP now, titled Journey Home.

Have you married those two art forms, acting and producing music?

You know it’s funny, I don’t really consider myself an actress. I have the respect for it and the ability to act, but I have not honed it as best as I think I could. I stick more to music. I utilize it when it’s necessary but I would definitely like to perfect it before I have the confidence to say I’m an actress.

Who’s your hero or heroine?

Undoubtedly, my grandmother and my mother. Those two women mean the world to me. They take on a lot and come out victorious every time. I look to them a lot on how to move forward.

What things do you do to get your creative juices flowing? Where do you place yourself?

I think the creative process happens wherever it happens. A song won’t necessarily come if I want it to come. Songs come to me a lot in the shower [Laughs] or driving! Ironically, where you actually can’t write at the moment.

Of course [Laughs]…. You have a much more eclectic resume then most artists out here today, would you consider that a critical attribute in being the type of artist that you are? How important is it for you to be versatile, well rounded and organic?

Yes… I do. I can only tell you that I am the sum of all my experiences. So yeah, definitely; I am that type of artist now, and I look forward to the type of artist I am going to become.

As a Baltimore native, how did winning the Baltimore Idol title affect you? How do you even win something like that?

It was a competition the radio station was doing— 93.3FM. I didn’t know it was the American Idol actually.

Really?

Yes. I was in the process of recording my independent album, so I figured that winning the $50,000 that came as a part of the award would help me finish the album faster. I found out later it was American Idol. It won me a lot of fans and a lot of great relationships (I was just in the Baltimore area and saw some friends from the Idol); It just added to a great foundation for me, for the group [Cirius B]. It’s the difference between a few people knowing you and a whole city knowing you. It was a great feeling. Baltimore has definitely been very supportive of me.

Which goes into my next question, when someone mentions Cirius B to you, what do you feel because that’s kind of what ignited everything for you, right?

It’s my roots! It’s my family. I started the group with my first cousin and my aunt was the manager. It was grassroots; a family project, a project of love. The musicians were trained by Charles Funn. He played with Duke Ellington and with all the greats. He made us take our craft very, very seriously. There is a very strong Jazz element, an Avant-garde element to Cirius B. I attribute that to his guidance.

And you know, I love The Roots. How was it touring with them and what did you learn from them?

By far one of the greatest experiences I have to date. Some of the most professional artists—they were great, great mentors. They were very hard on me—Questlove in particular was very hard on me [Laughs]. But they wanted me to be great. It was amazing. I can’t explain it any better. It was amazing. They were always tickled by my wonder and awe, I think. I think that’s why they enjoyed working with me. But it was different being on a world tour. The schedule and the amount of fans…. It was different from what I knew in traveling. You’re 19 and have never performed in front of so many people, and there I was, in front of SO many people. I almost fainted. It was a whole other level of performance. Roots do very long shows; It was tough. So it really taught me endurance. I was a background singer, but also a hype man. I was just all in there, heavy in the mix and I’m so appreciative of The Roots.

“I Got a Man” is the lead single from your debut album The Blooming. To me there’s such an awesome concept behind the song. What does it mean for you?

Well, Jazzy Jeff called me and I was actually writing for another artist at that moment—which we do a lot. But he had this song, I came by and he played the track, and I heard the story line in my mind, so I started to write it down. Actually, I just found the paper I wrote it on the other day all mangled and everything [Laughs].

Funny how that happens…

Right… well, for the artist I was writing for, I wanted it to be honest and so much it might have been embarrassingly so. I pulled some thoughts from my own experience of course. But because you don’t know what the other artist went through, I want[ed] to make sure it [was] relevant for everyone. It’s rare that you’ll meet a guy that has been through anything I’ve been through. So it’s that combo of being with someone who loves you but can’t see you, then there’s the friend who sees you truly, but you can’t call your man. I opened it to where an number of women can relate to it. I have had tons of emails saying how much “I Got a Man” hit home for them. I was happy to hit home with that one. I love to be able to do that for people. It’s just wow. And Jazzy Jeff is awesome.

I gotta ask, speaking of having a man, do you?

I do have man…

And…

And I am madly in love [Laughs]. It’s funny ‘cause everyone thinks it’s about him, the song. But I wrote it before we were together…. Have you seen the video?

Me? Of course, it’s dope that’s why I had to ask about your concept.

Well, when I was talking to the director I was like, “I want the video to show the conflict between [financial] security and personal freedom. A lot of times we stay in relationships for money, but it doesn’t serve our spirit. Then in other times it’s vice versa and then we become what we weren’t intended to be. That’s the dialogue I wanted to create about that.

I think you managed to do just that. Looking back, did you ever think the shoes you fill now are the shoes you were always meant to wear?

Absolutely [Laughs]. I feel like I’m doing what I was born to do. I look forward to working hard and continuing to fill these shoes. I also have a deep love for education. I have a 5 year-old and I home school my 5 year-old, and I see the void of education materials in children of color. There is a lack of awareness, socially, spiritually, of self and it’s heavy on my heart. So I want to do that too, educate [outside of music]—reflect more of what our children need as whole beings, especially in children of color.

Amen. What else is on your mind?

You know what? Just thank you. Thank you because you did your research. I can’t tell you how many times someone interviews me and it’s like “Who are you again?” or they just don’t know what to ask. So thank you very much, I have truly enjoyed our time.

Oh wow, [Laughs] thank you very much. This means more than you know.

Yes, I’m glad we got to do this and to the world, just buy my album [Laughs]. Just go. This is my soul, I’m inviting you to come look inside! My goal is to be able to continue to be able to do this. Untainted. Let the people make a choice. People say there is no market for the music I create, but we create the market. So I need to believe that there are people out there who are willing to hear what I have to say. I’ll push this to the end, to my last breath. A large number of people appreciate positive music and will pay for it, but mainstream will make you believe otherwise. I want to prove this point, so go buy the album.

For more information on Maimouna Youssef, visit her site HERE.

Purchase Maimouna’s debut album, The Blooming, HERE.

Follow Maimouna Youssef on Twitter, @MaimounaYoussef

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