Weekly updates:


MAVI: Grinning Through the Grim

The North Carolina rapper’s sophomore album is an internal journey of tragedy, traversing adversity through food-for-thought raps. He talks us through the grief that guided him to this point, and how it’ll propel him to his penultimate destiny.

Posted by

“Praying they still make love in my size” are the first words MAVI raps on ‘High John’, the opener for his newly-released sophomore album Laughing So Hard, It Hurts. The line, while simple when compared to the food-for-thought lyricism he possesses in his repertoire, oozes vulnerability. It’s a confessional that contrasts the wide-spanning quests for liberation in his previous projects Let The Sun Talk and END OF THE WORLD, and the question he poses in this introductory bar isn’t rhetorical, but a plea for the truth to be revealed. Thus begins his journey into the abyss of self-exploration.

As MAVI joins the Zoom call to talk me through this body of work, he offers a singular word to summarise his feelings about the release of this project: ‘Afraid’. It makes sense as you occupy the passenger seat on this 16-track voyage, accompanying the North Carolina rapper as he confronts feelings of grief, insecurity, and fear, pulling no punches as he survives every squabble. The bloody and bruised nature of these introspective bouts rings a bell of hope, as his footwork moves to the tempo of a soul-infused sound palette. It’s like even in the darkest times of this soliloquy, MAVI’s perseverance propels him to the glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel. In every song he traverses this adverse terrain, creating a time capsule that speaks to his character, and assembles the catapult that’ll launch him to the summit of his ambitions. He’s afraid and aware of the accountability and pressure this project foreshadows because, over our 30-minute discussion, his words detail a destiny that dwells beyond rap music.

Why do you think the release of Laughing So Hard, It Hurts makes you afraid?
I don’t know, I feel like I waited a long time. I’m glad my music stuck last time, but I don’t want people to be married to that version of me because it’s no longer here. I hope that I make shit that’ll earn a greater license to make what I will make in the future, and I hope this will allow me to continue mixing shit up. I just want this project to represent a new dimension that I can revisit. 

This album is very much an internal exploration and feels centred on a journey of healing and self-growth. When expressing this through your music, is there a sense of trust you need to have in your audience growing with you?
Fuck yeah, but it’s not necessarily about trusting the fact that they’ll grow with me. My last album was very much about being a Black man, and my right to humanity as a Black man. This album is about drawing on that right to humanity people promised me after hearing all that, without beating them over the head. So that’s a really good measure of trust, where you discover if that license to humanity is sincere, or if I’m just placating certain people’s guilt, or if I only earn people’s trust when I take a racially righteous stance. It’s trusting that the humanity people lent to me when I begged for it will be given to me when I ask for it. 

When you’re writing music about your journey, separate from the happenings of the outside world, is there a sense of loneliness?
For sure, because I think the expectation that I set up with my last album is that you don’t do that. But I’m going to do that every time in different ways now. I think this being the first time I’ve done it like this, with the stakes and the current juncture I’m at in my career, is going to embolden me to this in more adventurous and fulfilling ways in the future. 

Your quest to reach this adventurous future reminds me of a lyric from your END OF THE EARTH closer ‘TOWN CRIER’, where you rap “Every day I burn and accrue mileage.”
Damn, I didn’t even think of that. But yeah, the shit I go through definitely has legitimised the things around me. I go through things in pursuit of things that before certain shit happened in my life, I even felt free to chase. Sometimes I fall and scrape my knee during the process, but at least I’m chasing it. 

Something I’ve noticed in my own life is that when I confront my suffering, it’s somewhat comforting because I’m discovering a way to deal with those emotions before they begin to affect the people around me. Is that a feeling that you experienced creating this album?
I actually kind of felt bratty in a way and frustrated with that fact. When artists get vulnerable, they take on so much pure suffering as a result. It’s gentle, but also somewhat taxing. When people tell you that you’ve saved their life, it’s a compliment, but it’s also an acknowledgement of my suffering being their suffering. In real life, however, it’s not. When I was going through the things I had to go through to make this album, there were times when the only thing I got from the people I saved was “Where’s the album?” That loneliness got to be frustrating, but it just led me on a journey to find value in my strength; that’s what people were drawing on in the first place. It’s my job to continue to share that, and maintain it in the music. 

Grief seems to be a major propeller on this journey towards strength. How do you use those bleak times as a device for motivation?
I think my strongest emotions always motivate me. The linchpin of grief is that it’s like an uncrossable boundary between you and a person or thing that didn’t originally exist. I see music as the thing that allows me to cross that boundary, even if that’s a foolish route to take. Art allows me to reach the layers that my body can’t. 

Do you think crossing that boundary makes the healing process easier?
Fuck yeah. There have been songs I’ve written on the day people in my life died. It doesn’t feel like I’m exploiting my pain, but it’s my way of eulogising and dedicating something to those I love because sometimes it can feel awkward.

Music is something you use to deal with the healing, but does grief ever make you question the point of art altogether?
For sure. Losing somebody makes everybody the same height again. Nobody gets to be the star of grief, you feel me? 

For sure, but even when dealing with these dark moments, the sound of the music on this album alludes to the shining light at the end of the tunnel. Do you think there’s hope to be found even in the bleakness of grief?
Yeah, because the people who I lost didn’t sacrifice their life for me, but they went so I can live. One day I’m gonna go, and I want somebody to live harder and more seriously after I leave. In my family tradition of grieving, we understand that when somebody passes, they’re free from the suffering of earthly life. That’s something to celebrate, even if it is a sad celebration.

This kind of reminds me of your line on ‘Doves’ where you rap “Good days is a double-edged blade.” Do you think you fear the prospect of a good day because there’s an impending feeling that something will go wrong?
Oh yeah if I’m having too good of a time, some crazy shit is about to happen. It’ll be something that makes me feel stupid for having such a good time [Laughs]. I think that’s why it’s hard for me to choose what individual joy means to me. I feel that when I reach that most self-indulgent joy, my pride, which to me is just an accumulation of the lessons I’ve learned, has a way of bringing me back down. 

‘MOONFIRE’ from your previous project finds you rapping “Still the guy with sutured innards.” Do you think you’ll ever be able to approach the double-edged blade of a good day while those stitches are still exposed?
I think at one point I must, because the power of healing doesn’t necessarily lie within a good day, but instead how you approach the bad days. A good time is like adrenaline, where it doesn’t matter what’s happening in your body. You could be finna’ die, and feel great off adrenaline. That’s why happiness doesn’t seem like an accurate barometer for if I’m living my life on track. At least that’s how it seems with what I’ve grown to know in my early 20s. 

When do you feel at your happiest?
Making a good time, spending time with my family, walking the dog, all the simple shit in life. All the extra stuff means nothing to me. I literally spent money on the Jordans my daddy went and bought me in the 7th grade, and my momma has always told us “We might not have shit, but we used to shit.” Being used to shit means that the more complex forms of happiness have never been a necessary part of my life. 

On ‘Last Laugh’, you explain your fear of the spotlight changing you. Is there a fear that too much shine could result in the simple joys fading away?
For sure, and the fact that I’ve known since I was a kid, and especially throughout my adolescence, that I want to be a certain type of family member as an adult. I’ve always wanted to contribute to my family and my vision for Black success and liberation. I would never be able to forgive myself if something as trivial as rap music diverted me from that responsibility. I fear losing the closeness to the makings of my life by chasing this thing. 

To me, the title alludes to the feeling of a tragedy becoming so common, that it borders on comedy. Do you feel as if that’s the overarching theme of this project?
Yeah, and that 5 generations ago, my family were slaves. Is it fair to assume they weren’t laughing? That’s why there’s a comma in the title because it’s two separate clauses. Laughing So Hard and It Hurts are kind of like two different titles, but they fit beside each other. 

It sounds like you live a selfless life. Because of that, did the self-exploration of this album ever feel selfish?
Yeah. When you’re insecure about something, you search for anything to justify that insecurity. I’m really sensitive towards any commentary from anyone but me that individualises this album. It makes me insecure because I already felt wrong for making it in the first place. 

I often feel that the fear of my insecurities being justified is so strong, that I’d rather self-sabotage than reach that point.
My thing is that I’ve always been a band-aid ripper. If I suck, I need people to tell me that I suck. But at the same time, that’s a method of living for other people that I want to grow out of. 

Between the presence of insecurities, is there a moment where you allow yourself to feel yourself?
Hell no! That’s when shit finna be over [Laughs]. 

I saw you referencing Toni Morrison on Twitter the other day, who wrote in her novel Tar Baby that “at some point in life, the world’s beauty becomes enough.” At this point in your life, and after the introspection of Laughing So Hard, It Hurts, do you think the world’s beauty has become enough for you?
Nah, I got more to do. We all got more to do. 

When do you think you will reach that place?
I need to make the people around me so happy that I can’t make them unhappy anymore. I need to get to a place where I can’t disappoint. 

Is the happiness of the people around you what you need to be happy?
Oh yeah, man. I can hardly sleep through the night, especially since I stopped smoking and doing drugs. So many of my family members have died, and it’s a surprise I’ve even been able to do this much. 

From my faraway view, I think you’re doing them proud.
Thank you, man, and I hope they agree. I know some of the shit that matters to me, and that used to matter to them, doesn’t matter to them right now. I want to make those things matter again. 

You’re positioned as someone in your family lineage to break the generational curse inflicted on your ancestry throughout the grim timeline of history. How do you deal with the pressure of that?
That’s a big reason why I have a fear of the spotlight changing me. I always want it to be about my family, and I want rap to be the thing that enables me to do that. 

Rap is not the closing chapter, but the literary device you’re using to create a whole different story.
Exactly. Rap is the literary metaphor I’m using to change Black existence.

Follow MAVI here for more and stream the new album ‘Laughing so hard it hurts’ here.

Weekly updates