In The Midst Of A Challenging Year, MAVI Found Inspiration Where The Sidewalk Ends

In The Midst Of A Challenging Year, MAVI Found Inspiration Where The Sidewalk Ends

The 21-year-old rapper and college student discusses his phenomenal new EP END OF THE EARTH

Despite the title END OF THE EARTH, MAVI’s new EP is not as dark as it might seem. In his first release since his critically acclaimed 2019 debut album Let The Sun Talk, the 21-year-old rapper and Howard University student ruminates on themes of frustration, Black trauma, and re-familiarizing himself with beginnings and unknown endings. The deeply personal 14-minute project is grounded in MAVI’s hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he produced and recorded the whole thing, confidently pairing his dense, poetic flows with meditative jazzy instrumental loops.

While some are quick to categorize MAVI’s music as lo-fi hip hop, comparing him to the likes of MIKE, Earl Sweatshirt, and AKAI SOLO, the young rapper is resistant to labels that don’t leave room for personal and artistic growth. However, across MAVI’s projects there is one constant — a comforting lyricism. When he spits lines like “Another hundred thousand miles, another step/ I saved up for sum but now it’s nothin’ left,” at the opening of “THOUSAND MILES,” it feels like second nature, an effortless translation of the exhaustion that goes along with slow progress. The track — which gets a music video from director Lonewolf today — ends full-circle, carrying the same reflections on trauma that MAVI begins with. He raps, “I could walk to the end of the Earth, I get there still hear the screams.”

As the project that sits in between his debut and highly anticipated sophomore album Shango, END OF THE EARTH solidifies MAVI’s attentive and detailed approach to his craft, as well as signals his willingness to constantly evolve. I haven’t been able to stop playing the EP since its release in February, so last week I called MAVI to discuss his state of mind throughout an unexpected and tumultuous year, learning how to navigate being under the limelight, and his nostalgic tribute to poet Shel Silverstein.

I heard that you’ve spent most of the pandemic year in your hometown. What has being back in Charlotte been like?

MAVI: It’s better to be in Charlotte, because I’m surrounded by people who want to see me win from a really genuine place. Being home just feels really recharging, especially just seeing my parents. My parents really remind me that I can do anything, and now seeing everything that I’ve done so far is like seeing the foundation of where I came from. My parents gave me a lot of things, but they absolutely did not teach me how to rap at all. I like having something that I can take back to them, and they are impressed with it and proud of me for that. That gives me the recharged energy and guidance on how to do this shit and do it in a way that is honorific for the people I’m trying to do it for.

Being in Charlotte also just makes me feel more free. I completely freestyled a song today, and it was really a good feeling. I don’t be doing that too much, and it just made me feel more comfortable experimenting and developing my sound. Sometimes when you’re growing indiscriminately, you don’t know which way is up.

One of the lines in END OF THE EARTH that really resonated with me and many others is “I can’t write all the time because I can’t lie” from “TOWN CRIER.” Where did this mantra come from, and is it in response to anything in particular?

MAVI: Half of writing is living, and you can’t even approach the undertaking without the inputs. I want to allow myself to live and breathe through my writing process. In my career trajectory, I just make sure to maintain my balance, so I don’t have to do this shit all the time. I can’t do this shit all the time.

As you find yourself increasingly under the public eye, do you think that there is more of an expectation for you to continuously put out music?

MAVI: Sometimes, yeah, but really, no. It’s always self-inflicted when I do feel like that. Honestly, it’s on me to continue to do what I love to do about what I’m called to do, and I’m going to continue to be called to do it. And I got to continue to reinvent my love for it. That’s always going to be part of the journey.

As someone who is doing online school right now, I’m experiencing a lot of burnout throughout this year. With being a student and making music during the pandemic, have you experienced that as well, and if so, how have you been managing it?

MAVI: Yeah, I have been experiencing burnout, but not necessarily in music, just sort of life a little bit. It’s not in a super bleak way, but it’s just been a tough year to watch and be in. Last year and a little bit of this year has definitely weighed on me, but it’s also given me more to fight for. It put a lot of shit into perspective. A lot of shit that were like minor contradictions in my life became a big deal. My time management between school and music just became really urgent — just how I was bearing the workload of music or trying to share it with people in problematic ways just taught me where to keep control and were to cede it. All types of shit man.

Whenever I feel burnt out, I just really try to stay looking at something beautiful as frequently as I can, listening to music that’s not just like part of my psyche as frequently as I can and being around people I love as frequently as I can. Just recharging. I don’t know, sometimes the timing on this shit we can’t define. Timing is everything. This thing can be a treadmill, or it can be a hike to a mountain top. It’s all based on time. Just learning that lesson has been my toughest thing. I had to sit still a lot to really understand that lesson.

When we spoke in August of last year, I remember you were telling me about the upcoming release of Shango, but never mentioned END OF THE EARTH. What made you want to release an EP between Let The Sun Talk and Shango and when did you start working on the project?

MAVI: It had been a long time since I released anything. I was anticipating dropping Shango somewhat earlier than I have, because originally, I was going to drop it around November of last year. I started writing END OF THE EARTH around Jan. 14 and it was done Feb. 7, and I made it mostly just to regain confidence in myself. It had been a long time since I put together a project, and I wanted to reinvigorate my process towards that project by not letting it get stale and allowing me to reinvent it and feel confident in new directions.

Did you achieve that confidence? Was there any part of that process where you were scared that it would make you feel less confident?

MAVI: Yeah for sure, I was definitely considering that. But then I just kept listening through to the entire tape and it felt good on my ears and good on my body, just like feeling it all the way through. And I understood that even if this was a fleeting feeling, I could at least use it as justification for what I made and I went with that, you know? When I decided to write END OF THE EARTH I was pretty frustrated and angry with myself, because I wasn’t doing what I felt like I was supposed to do or what I wanted to do. I was angry at the world a little bit too. I was feeling a lotta ways bro, feeling defensive and wary, but it was a good process you know? It’s like a quarantine year in review.

Are you still in that frustrated mindset that you were when you made this EP?

MAVI: Yeah, to some extent I’m still frustrated, but I’ve grown to accept more things. I’m not allowing the things that I can’t control to destroy me. It’s not that they no longer exist, but that I know that how I choose to operate within the constraints of God or nature, or physics or whatever it is, can increase the quality of my life, even though I can’t control the whole thing.

What prompted you to lean into that and create something as opposed to taking time for yourself?

MAVI: I do create when I be feeling good too — a lot. But what caused me to lean into my frustrations is just there’s something humanistic about fearing. I think that’s really as negative as I get, and that’s really so I can just put it on a piece of paper and burn it up. I wanted to try to put it in a rap and make bars that sound witty enough for me to flush it down the toilet. During that time, I was frustrated by a few things. I was frustrated, because I felt decontextualized by the set of success from Let The Sun Talk. I wanted to add emphatic context to my Charlotte existence and my Charlotte life, because that’s central to everything I do here. Some people have misunderstood things that I had done earlier because of misperceptions about who I am, and I wanted to clear that up before we go forward. I felt misunderstood in my multidimensionality and versatility as a writer.

You often talk about people feeling so eager to put others in certain boxes or genres or associations. For you, how do you see yourself kind of not falling into that or being perceived as that? Or do you feel that in some ways, it might be inevitable?

MAVI: I think that in a lot of ways it’s inevitable. It’s kind of a lot to ask people to bring creative thought to a listening experience of music. It is what I’m trying to do a little bit, and what I’m trying to do is difficult work. Sometimes the quality of my message really has to do with the efficacy of what I’m using to get it across, and that’s what I use to continue to self-revise.

END OF THE EARTH feels like quite a vulnerable project, not only because you open up about your struggles rising to fame and carrying Black trauma, but also due to the inclusion of elements such as a voicemail from your grandmother at the end of “TIME TRAVEL.” What made you want to make this project more personal?

MAVI: I feel like it had to be done, especially after this COVID year, where I conduct so much of my business on the internet. I just feel like the internet depersonalizes art, when it’s just supposed to be a collection of things or moods or content and not an actual person with a grandma. The voicemail was really important for me, because my departure from home, spiritually and physically, was a major, major, turning point in my young adult life. And so I just felt like my grandma’s endorsement, like “just go get your food,” or like “eat it while it’s hot,” grounded me back to Charlotte, where I also wrote and recorded this whole thing.

On the contrary, in “LIFE WE LIVE,” you say, “Still alive I just don’t feel it” — can you talk about these darker lyrics?

MAVI: Yeah, I just didn’t feel alive. That’s the valley that the end of “TOWN CRIER” is the peak for. It basically just represents when I don’t know how to feel about what I’ve done and what I’m doing, I just self-reflect like, what type of life did we live at the end of this shit? And it’s just like a thematic loop back to the beginning, because the ending is what makes me embark on this journey. When I wasn’t releasing music, I wasn’t feeling like myself, and writing this EP was me trying to get back to feeling like myself. It’s also about the beginning. It’s a different year, but the same n****s smile like we was kids, you know, and that’s such a blessing. I’ll never take that for granted. My grandmother is proud of me. My mother is proud of me. These are the things I feel like I’m winning at, and that gives me the confidence, the competence, and the support to try to go elsewhere and try to win elsewhere, too, you know.

Why did you title the EP END OF THE EARTH?

MAVI: The title came from “THOUSAND MILES,” which is about walking into the earth metaphorically in terms of trying to escape everything. And that ties into the cover, because “Where The Sidewalk Ends,” the Shel Silverstein poem, is about the narrator leading you to a place where everything is not as it is, where things aren’t supposed to end. And that really felt like a real dilemma that a lot of people were feeling last year, you know? Down is up in some ways, and in some ways, the righteous fight is about being so, so heavily suppressed. I’m trying to be free. I’m trying to remain free. I was hella fuckin dead broke, but I made music anyway, and when I leaned into that earthly deprivation, once I let go of what I thought was swaggy and what was dope, and all I did was make my fucking music that I was called to make, and I did it with passion and attention to detail, I ascended to another level. That’s what I’m trying to do again and again.

I grew up reading Shel Silverstein, so seeing his influence on the cover of END OF THE EARTH was such a pleasant surprise. What is your relationship to his work?

MAVI: I love poems. If you have writer’s block, you’re supposed to read poems. I’m convinced of that. Shel Silverstein is awesome. He gives the whole package — the visuals, the graphics, the arrangement of the words, the poems. He’s just a beautiful artist, man. So many of his poems and illustrations burn in my mind, and so I was thinking, “How do I depict the end of the earth?” like not only as a time, but also as a place. I was a little scared of following up the Let The Sun Talk cover, but I knew I wanted to hit that mixtape-y kind of feel, so I wanted to go for that feeling of distant nostalgia too, you know?

You have a music video with Lonewolf for “THOUSAND MILES” debuting on his YouTube channel — what’s it like working with him and being in front of the camera?

MAVI: It’s still growing on me. Lonewolf is a super cool dude. I really like working with him and I hope we can work again, but it just really felt really organic. Sometimes when you do creative work with certain people, it really feels like work, in the social sense as well. It just didn’t feel like socially draining to work with him. The whole video was shot in New York, and we just kinda went on a whole adventure. But every time it’s still like a readjustment to be in front of the camera. Even though it’s not my first time, there’s always a lot of space in between when I do get in front of it, so it always takes me a while to get comfortable. But we did do another video for Shango like the day before, so we had already been working by the time we shot the “THOUSAND MILES” video.

END OF THE EARTH is out now. Purchase it here.

more from Q&A