afropunk interview: mahalia, on love and compromise

October 9, 2019

Though her latest album Love and Compromise has taken Mahalia from British R&B star to worldwide sensation, the young woman born Mahalia Burkmar is not new to the stage or the spotlight. Having released her first EP at the tender age of 13, she’s been honing her craft before most of us learned to drive or worked our first jobs.

Mahalia’s musical evolution runs parallel to her own personal growth. Once a gifted and too often misunderstood biracial girl from Leicester, England, Mahalia has blossomed into a self-assured 21-year-old who has learned to be confident not only in her talent but also her identity as a Black woman.

Love and Compromise is indicative of this growth. From its mature themes of love, respect, and relationships, to the global Black talent featured on the album (including Ella Mai, Terrace Martin, Hamzaa, Lucky Daye, and Burna Boy), it is an artistic statement as well a declaration of her independence.

A few weeks before she makes her debut at AFROPUNK’s Carnival of Consciousness in Atlanta, Mahalia stopped by our Brooklyn offices to chat about her album, about taking the AFROPUNK stage, and about her unique experience with identity growing up in England.

Interview by Erin Elyse and Timmhotep Aku

What are your hopes for AFROPUNK Atlanta?

I’ve never been to Atlanta, so going to Atlanta for AFROPUNK is exciting! Last year I did AFROPUNK Brooklyn, which was fucking amazing. AFROPUNK Brooklyn made me understand more what AFROPUNK is — you walk away [from the festival] genuinely speechless because there’s so much to take in.

I grew up with a family who couldn’t afford flights or holidays (vacations)  so we would get in the car and we’d go to English festivals. We’d go and we’d camp and it’d be like that. We were going to kind of old school hippie festivals and even those, they’re so gentrified, they’re so white. We were going to these festivals as a mixed family and just kind of getting on and just having fun. But I know that it was hard for my parents because my mum’s Jamaican, my dad’s British and Irish, and then they’ve got four Brown babies so I think going to those festivals was strange for them.

So when I went to AFROPUNK, for me as a festival-goer, it was just incredible to see that many Black people in one place. Not only Black people but also that many people who just were different [from one another]. There’s a feeling of inclusivity but also exclusivity because it’s so ours. You know? And I think that’s really special and really hard to create.

What are you hoping to bring to your festival performance?

Festivals in themselves are quite difficult because most of the time the audience doesn’t know who you are. Or, half the audience will definitely know you, but then some people are just going to check you out [for the first time]. So for me, it’s about working out how I’m going to go in there and make people believe me as an artist. It’s about going on stage and knowing what you want to do and the space that you want to create for that half an hour or the hour that you’re on the stage. Mostly, I think it’s just about being honest on stage. I think people really react well to honesty. Particularly somewhere like AFROPUNK ‘cause everybody’s being their true selves, their genuine selves.

What feeling do you want people to take away with them when they leave your set?

I think it’s strength. I think on the whole journey [I’ve been on] through music, but also just as a young woman. It’s [been about] strength and finding my strength. When I’m on stage, it’s the one place where I’ve [always] felt like nobody could touch me. Being on stage for me [has always been] my shield. When I was in school everybody saw me doing what I was doing as attention-seeking or like trying to be in the light. actually it was just that being in the light made it impossible for them to touch me, you know? So I think that’s the thing that I always want to give people when I’m on stage. It’s like, this is where I feel strong and I want people to feel that from me and leave with that [strength]. Energy is so transferable so I wanna I want to transfer that energy that I feel to people.

Speaking of strength, you have that Eartha Kitt interview clip on the album, and there are all of these sonic allusions to Black American R&B singers like Brandy and Aaliyah on it. Is female empowerment, particularly Black female empowerment, something that you were thinking about during the writing process?

I thought it was subconscious, but now I realize that it was a conscious decision and I also made a point of only having Black features on the record. All of those [musical] influences have been in my life since I was a kid from when I didn’t even know that they were there. There are songs that I sing now that I’m like, “I don’t know how I know this song, but I know this song.” And like that’s [from] my parents, my parents instilled that without even realizing it. My mum played me the Eartha Kitt video four years ago. I remember when that was getting loads of hype in London, I was like, “pssh, I know this video” so it’s my parents [influence].

The tone of the album is really smart and mature. The perspective is like “I’m not just here for your consumption as a man, you have to respect me.” Talk about that.

First and foremost, I think there’s such a misconception with the word “compromise.” There’s so much negative connotation around that word. When I saw that clip circulating, like two years later, people were only getting the beginning when she’s saying, “Why would I ever compromise for a man?” and people were really missing the point. She was saying, “Why would I compromise?” as in, if someone’s gonna be with me, then nobody should be compromising. Then she gets to the end and she says, you know, “If you want to talk about it in terms of analyzing, I fall in love with myself and I want someone to share that with me,” and that’s the point. That is the compromise is that it’s like on the whole album, it’s me basically saying, “I want you to respect me.” It’s not me saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong. You do what I say.” That’s not the message, the message is that I need you to respect me so that I can respect you.

It’s a mutual thing.

It’s literally like when you’re a kid and your parents say to you “Treat people how you want to be treated.” It’s just that carried through life but people forget that as they get older. The message is not that “I hate men” the message is that I need a man to come into my life and share me with me. Like if you said to me, “I need 100% of you” I’m going to say, “You can’t have that. I have 100% of me.” I think the whole album is just about navigating through love and relationships.

Yeah, it’s not an adversarial thing. I feel like on “Hideout” you’re kinda reading a guy in the riot act — like you’re going in on him a little bit.

I was so angry on “Hideout.” [laughs]

The way you describe the anger and the imbalance in the relationship that makes you angry is so clear. But let’s go a few songs down. ‘Cause then we get to “Karma” and it’s almost like after going at this guy for being unfaithful on “Hideout,” now you’re talking to some other dude like, “Hey, you should be with me. She’s wack.” [laughs] And then the next song after that is —

“He’s Mine!”

Yeah, can we talk about that a little bit?

When my mum first heard “He’s Mine,” she hated it ‘cause she was like, “I don’t like the fact that you’re going at a girl like this.” And I said, “I hear you, but sometimes this shit happens and you’ve got to say ‘step back.’” That in itself was me saying I’m not compromising on this. This is my guy. However, I liked the fact that I was the girl in “Karma” and then in “He’s Mine” and I’m the other girl. I wanted to talk about both sides of the story because I’ve definitely been there.

Those are real roles that women do play sometimes.

The relationship that I’m in now — which is the loveliest relationship — this album got me there. Writing this album made me find the guy I wasn’t trying to find and fall into something that was like, “Whoa, this is everything that I’m talking about.”

It’s like you manifested it through writing the album …

Exactly! So when I was writing “He’s Mine” that was a real thing. It was at the start of my relationship and there was a girl and she just wouldn’t let up and I I was finding it really difficult because I’m a really respectful woman — particularly to other women — so I’m like, “I get you, I hear you, I’ve been there, but I need you to stop.” So I had to write “Karma,” the song where I was the girl because I know how that felt but I also had to write “He’s Mine” and that’s why I put them together. We can be on this side goin’,” This bitch is trying to take my man.” But all of us can also remember a moment when that man was with somebody else and you were like, “I want that guy.”

I think that every time! [laughs] In a new relationship, I’m like, I’m thinking about that girl and just how it played out with them. Yes.