“There’s a lot of beauty in trauma, there’s a lot of beauty in struggle,” says hip-hop artist Mamadou, a junior at Columbia by way of Harlem and Deerfield. He should know.
1. Your parents immigrated from Mali to Harlem shortly before you were born. Tell us your
It starts from a lot of love. My parents were young. My father was a security officer. My mother was an African hair braider. When I think back on my childhood, I’m really thankful, because there was hardship, but we just kept going. My parents really fostered Malian traditions. We’re grateful, we’re humble, we’re very religious. I grew up Muslim. I grew up around holiness. Keeping family together, that’s a big thing too. And family is not just bloodlines. You grow with people because of life events and experiences, and then over time, you become my family, and I can call you my sister or brother. There’s no alienation in the human nation.
Especially because we were first generation, my parents really honed the Malian culture in the house. They didn’t want us to forget our identity when we left. I think throughout the course of my life, that’s something I’ve really had to grapple with – being from Harlem but also being Malian. How do those two identities intertwine in my day-to-day?
2. Is that the question driving “Childhood Memories?” That song is beautiful – but melancholy, no?
Yeah. At first when people hear it, they’re like, “Oh my God, this song is so fire,” and later,
they’re like, “Dang, this is so sad.”
3. What’s the chorus?
I don’t want to go outside no more/still hear police knocking on my front door/Go inside, come inside/I cannot control/Still gotta do the dishes and gotta sweep the floor.
And later, I talk about the buildings in the project blocking out the sunlight on my face. I was
reflecting from a sad place. For me, with that song, the question was, how do I mix beautiful
instrumentation and my reality of a sad or hard situation to make a new sound? Because there is poetry in everything, in trauma, in happy moments. Everything is flow in life.
4. Your upbringing in Harlem was interrupted, though, to put it mildly. How did you end up at boarding school?
It started in 7th grade with an English teacher who found a way to give us a creative outlet. It
was very hard to do within the curriculum of the New York City schools, but because of him, I
learned that poetry and writing were my escape. Then I went to a charter school.
Because we won the [New York City Charter School] lottery. That was part of the American
dream my parents came for – to achieve better than what they had in Mali. Mali is so rich in
culture, but it’s also rich in poverty. This idea…this glorified America…was the route to give
fortune to your children, so it could be passed along, generation after generation. Winning that lottery and attending the charter school led to me attending a three-week program at Deerfield, to see if going there might be something better for my life.
6. And you decided it would be. And they agreed --
Yeah, but I don’t think I was the smartest kid. I don’t think I was the most gifted kid. I just
worked. I had parents who fostered that, “You got to try to do something, we’re starving here. We’re Harlem. We came here for this American dream. You gotta manifest something.” So me and my sisters took that head on. “We gotta go get it.” In school, I wasn’t playing a lot.
[Deerfield] was, especially at first, very hard…You’re so young at 13. How do you manage this
sudden independence, going through puberty? I was not from that environment, I was not from that elite, legacy alumni world, where everyone knew each other. I wasn’t around for any of that growing up. I was far from the city, not around my type of people, African, in the middle of nowhere, in a bubble. There was dress code, we had to wear blazers and ties. It was a lot of change. Everything was different.
With life, that’s when you grow and evolve. It got better. I had friends and mentors.
7. With college, why return to Harlem? You could have gone anywhere.
I appreciate you. The answer is, I wanted to be back home. My family is unconditional.
8. You’re majoring in creative writing. Are you a poet or a musician?
When I was younger, I thought there was a big difference. There was music and there was
poetry – I segregated those categories. But over time, through experimentation and having fun with it, I realized how intertwined they were. I try to have music be my form of poetry. Life is poetry. Everything you do can be poetry.
The biggest thing I have to tackle as I become a man is how my family feels about music.
Growing up, even though there was Malian music around, being played in the background, we weren’t really proponents of people making music and becoming musicians because there’s a stigma with my last name and ancestry about that. It’s looked upon as taboo. It’s the lineage. Yetisi – traditionally, we’re doctors, or actually, anything but musicians. So, I’ve been struggling with that. It’s something I’m trying to understand more.
9. What do you want people to feel when they hear your music?
The biggest misconception with music is that you have to relate in some way in order to get it. That’s not the point I want to put out on my music. I want to put light on whatever topic I’m talking about, and letting it be put on a platform where people can be educated or resonate with it, so that conversation can happen. Truthfully, there’s a word for it – sonder. It means the realization that people are living a life as complex as yours.
10. That is an excellent word.
The English language, it’s endless. Sonder. With my music, they can learn from me, and I can
learn from them, and there can be an exchange of emotions and understanding.
Check out Mamadou on Quadio!