MAVI Is Looking for True Love
// Photo by Mika Simoncelli
MAVI opens his set at Pitchfork Fest with a reclamation: “Praying they still make love in my size / Sober up and wipe the crust out my eyes.”
These are the first lines of “High John,” the heart of the Charlotte rapper’s magisterial new album Laughing So Hard, It Hurts. It’s just him and a DJ up there but his sheer charisma — he’s only 23 — injects a bolt of energy into the Friday crowd.
MAVI glides through a series of cuts from the new album and beams when he sees himself on the screen: “Look at me up in this corner!” His words wrap around the lo-fi wash of “Spoiled Brat” and the stuttering “Reason!” After a misstep in the beginning of wavy highlight “Doves,” MAVI cuts the beat and asks the audience to dance with him for a minute to get his bearings. “I’ma get it right this time,” he says, grinning. “All I needed was you.”
There’s old stuff too: the not-on-streaming “NUN NEW,” which MAVI turns into a come-up anthem, flipping its understated refrain — “I been underrated / This ain’t nothin’ new” — into a shouted call-and-response with the crowd. The vulnerable, hopeful standout “Self Love” from his first album, Let the Sun Talk, which he recorded while studying biology at Howard.
The crowd is rapturous. MAVI stands on the stage, head tilted, taking it in.
WHRB spoke with MAVI for about an hour before his set. We talked about streaming algorithms, Luis Barragán, Afro-pessimism, and true love. In conversation MAVI is brilliant, full of the same humor and wisdom that makes his music so singular.
Benjy Wall-Feng: You just finished your tour for this album [Laughing So Hard, It Hurts].
MAVI: Hell yeah. It was an eye-opening-ass experience because, you know, it used to be that every point of engagement with your audience, and people who share your music with you — all of those points of engagement used to be really human. You’ll see people at a show or, like, people will send you a letter. You would see people dancing to you on the radio or in the club. But I guess now shit so deeply algorithmic, and so much numbers for numbers sake. And so I struggle to visualize or conceptualize what my music may do for someone, or who those someones could be. So just being able to access everybody different story and living memory with my music felt hella good.
Most of the music that’s listened to damn near on Earth, or at least in America and shit, is literally not even on purpose. So no way it could be personal, you know what I’m saying? Like, you just listen to fucking playlists of, “You like this song. So you might like this shit.”
BWF: And you feel like going on tour is way to make that connection more personal?
MAVI: Not even for me to make it more, but to ground what I might see on the number side in something more visceral.
BWF: What was your first solo tour like? You'd been on tour previously opening for Jack Harlow.
MAVI: I like opening for people because it’s lowkey. I like being in a position of having to win people over. When you meet people on the level of, our only common ground between the people who are looking up at me and me looking at them is that they’re here to see live music, and I’m here to do live music, it’s lowkey hella pure. You got the element of surprise.
But I will say, while not having that fun little challenge is different about touring by myself, it’s also super fun seeing the audience come prepared to see me. Like I practiced the song and they practiced the song too.
Mika Simoncelli: Do you still have school ahead of you or are you done?
MAVI: Yeah, I got 30 credit hours left, so about two semesters. Biology.
MS: Do you feel like there’s any connection between what you’re studying and what you’re rapping about?
MAVI: Yeah. I wrote this song the other day just about being a caterpillar. But actually about being — it’s not no grand metaphor, it’s just about being a caterpillar. And then you so excited to be a butterfly and shit and then you realize you’re a moth. I wrote that shit.
Science and art is not so different. We all got a shard and we tryna see the full mosaic, type of shit. Sometimes science as opposed to art can have this competitive or analytical or uptight kind of perception or connotation. But to me it’s like, science, everybody finding a piece of the truth and then building a pillar to it, like building an altar to their shard, and they build it up strong enough at the theory level where eventually some kids can lead someplace over the top and walk across it and build a piece of they shard. And I also think that’s how the cultural lineage of art history and stuff works too. The reason why I’m related to Earl Sweatshirt on an arts level and a science level is the same reason me and Earl Sweatshirt are related to MF DOOM. So yeah. My old shit is like trying to combine my science mind with my magic mind.
MS: Do you think art is magic?
MAVI: Hell yeah. Art is magic because it’s an un-understandable science. Science is understandable magic. Art is un-understandable.
MS: Do you see a divide between your life as an artist and a person?
MAVI: Is it weird if I get Afro-pessimistic?
Personhood is complicated for me. Because ... I’m gonna get weird. I lowkey never really got to be a person. I feel like there’s Black people, right? And then there’s like n****s. Like all n****s are Black people. All Black people is not n****s. And I’m a n****, which is a designated political underclass. My homegirl, she wrote this shit the other night that said — I’m gonna read it. She said:
Thinking about freedom and secrets, only being free behind yourself in a way that could and should never meet words. Something I have in common with my ancestors across generations. The unspoken and sacred purpose of my own skin, the entire body.
So basically, I feel like personhood is unsecret freedom. I feel like my only freedoms in life are secrets. They’d be on purpose for historical safety, or like a time capsule. My work is one of the only humanizing things I can do that don’t come as a result of cultural isolation. Like, being on tour, creating great works, is one of the only things that make me feel like I’m a full person where I contribute. Obviously, I feel like it contributed to my own family, Black, and regional history. But to where I can contribute like a scientist, like to the story of humanity as a whole, this is one of the only ways I’ve ever felt like that. And that was one of the things that made college weird for me because I went to a school for Black people but I’ve always been a n****.
BWF: You mentioned regional history. You’re from Charlotte — how has that informed what you’ve been talking about?
MAVI: My parents, we’re a first-generation Charlotte family. Before that they both were two cities on the east, southeast side of Columbia, one is Sumter, South Carolina, one is Hopkins, South Carolina. Both of my family, they stayed in the same spot since the mid-1800s. I had to go to church on both of my family’s sides and see in terms of birth dates and death dates, who was the first people to be born free among them. So somebody uninitiated might be like, how are you not a person, you're a person, not an animal. But when would I have became a person? Can you be a person born to a non-person?
I’ve been victim to violent acts, carried out violent acts, victim of medical neglect. So it’s like, I don't know. The struggle toward personhood is so different from socioeconomic liberation that I’m not really worried about it outside of making art in a way that makes me feel free. It makes me forget about my body.
I lowkey think “humanity” as we colloquially refer to is a colonial idea. You know what I'm saying? Proximity to the Beast is literally just distance from the colonial project.
MS: What are your inspirations outside of music?
MAVI: I've been getting really into architecture.
There's this guy my friend put me on [Luis Barragán]. This Mexican architect, right? He basically uses all concrete and shit. He does this cool-ass contrast painting where the walls that face the sun are painted a bright color and the walls that are in the shadows are painted a darker color, and so the entire coloration of the house is a continuum. He's really spiritual. His philosophy, he'll say, I'm only in communion with solitude. And so he builds these floating staircases, sheer floating staircases, the width of one person's footpad, up to a study that opens up into this vast thing. The master bedroom would have a bedroom, a bathroom, a closet. And then a dressing room, which is just for putting on your clothes and just for praying.
Structuring stuff to where you put stuff becomes a damn near foregone conclusion, or just a matter of completion — that's kind of how I'm trying to do my work, in terms of visuals for the album art, and how I structure the song and how I structure the album. Structure, placement, you know what I'm saying? In a non-hierarchical sense, but in like an experiential sense, that's super inspiring.
MS: Have you been to any of his buildings?
MAVI: No. I want to go so bad. You ever heard what he say about green? One color he never uses in any of his architecture is green. Cause he say I let God do that. He’s so hard.
BWF: Do you have a favorite track off the new album?
MS: Or a favorite track to perform?
MAVI: It translates to the space much better than I intended. Or much better than anything I ever made. I really like “Spoiled Brat,” I like “High John,” I like “Last Laugh.”
There was a fucking excerpt my fucking label made me take off. I’m finna tell y’all a funny story about even working in the rep business or working in the music industry, you realize damn, I’m a n****, not a person.
Whole album is inspired by “High John” by Zora Neale Hurston, it’s an essay. At the end of “High John” [the song] after I stop rapping, there’s this excerpt from a reading of that essay, Zora Neale Hurston, right? So everybody listening to the album — like, I went to Howard University, I wrote on The Hilltop newspaper, which is founded by Zora Neale Hurston. So they’re like, “Yo, they’re saying like, the end of ‘High John’ is like someone named like Zara Neale Hurston or whatever. And I don’t know if we’ll be able to clear it on time, she seems really obscure, we don't really know ...”
It was insane. I’ve kind of been talking about this being the onus for the album. “High John” is the most important thing. Basically how laughter liberating, you know?
BWF: What are you up to this fall or after Pitchfork?
MAVI: I’ve been working on our new album and shit.
I told my mom — I had lifesaving surgeries when I was four. They had to take me back to the hospital after I was born, like two weeks, I was an infant newborn. And I had lifesaving surgery again when I was 20. I was telling my mom like, bro, like, n****s have tried to kill me and shit. So I was trying to tell my mom, like, I always feel like I’ma die young. And I don’t know if that’s like some egomaniacal, Christ complex or what. I feel like I need to just be super nice and loving to everybody I love, tell everybody I admire, say what I gotta say because I’ma die soon.
She was talking about my uncle, because everybody said to my uncle that he’d die young. He was almost 70 when he died, like 65 or 66. He died of having a heart attack as a result of getting chemo, like some regular medical emergency shit.
And she was like, n****, you can’t live like you think you’re gonna die tomorrow. What happen if you don’t die tomorrow, and you don’t die the next day, and you don’t die the next day? You’re gonna be like how your uncle is and look back over your whole life, and living like you finna die, trying to die the same way you live, will be everything you did. And if you gonna live like you gonna die, try to die in the middle of doing something valiant or beautiful or loving or heroic, not self-destructive, because that was the kind of path I was on.
BWF: And that’s where the new album is coming from.
MAVI: Hell yeah. Exactly.
BWF: I know you’ve talked about this past album, about writing it over a short period of time.
MAVI: I wrote it like 10, 15 days. I was with my girl. And she was having an abortion. And it was just hella bad, bro, it was fucking horrible. I’m feeling uninspired, she’s feeling frustrated about having to do all of these things just to be able to get to a whole lot of things. So that thing hits us like a ton of bricks. I was out there taking care of her, like, as soon as she told me that I dropped all my bread that I had on an Airbnb for us for a month, two months, and a flight. I was just like watch over her in the night, write this shit. Yeah, I wrote it fast. And I ain't had no beats, I wrote the whole shit acapella. We both wrote a lot of shit in that time.
Yeah, that's why I ain't give a fuck what n****s have to say about my album. I made it for my baby girl. It was her poem at the end of the album, at the end of “Last Laugh.”
BWF: Now that this album is out, do you feel like the process of writing your next album is more relaxed?
MAVI: I guess last album I was just trying to grab onto a rope. Like rescue as completion. So once I grabbed the rope I wasn’t trying to do shit else but feel the helicopter lift me up out the water. This time it’s like I'm trying to get strong. When you trying to get stronger maybe you have a set of 10 bench presses you want to do, then if you feel like you can do five more it’s like fuck it, let's do five more. So I’m just going over, over, over, and being able to make it from a place of abundance and not a place of lack and struggle.
[For Laughing So Hard, It Hurts] the inspiration part was really humanizing. But it made me feel like a factory worker with the timescale you have to do this in order for the next stage to be unlocked and shit like that. Like all these qualifiers on art made it feel weird for me.
You find true love, you don’t give a fuck if they short, tall, you know what I’m saying. You don’t care if they laugh weird. You don’t care if they watch Pokémon videos on YouTube to fall asleep, if they watch Modern Family to fall asleep. Whatever they watch, if they your true love, you fuck with it. I’m trying to find true love on this shit right here.
BWF: Do you watch anything to fall asleep?
MAVI: Hell yeah. I be watching wrestling, I be watching n****s speedrun video games. I be getting weird, bro. I be watching history shit, like about wars and shit. It gets weird with me. My YouTube shit is weird.
MS: What’s your biggest dream for yourself as an artist — do you have a dream collaborator, dream show. Or just a state of being?
MAVI: I don’t know.
Being at rest in a way I never have been able to. And to feel like myself as a result of doing it. That’s my dream.
BWF: Thank you so much for talking to us.
MS: We’re excited to see you later.
MAVI: It’s gonna be a good one. I’m excited.