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“Can you play it from the top?” Carolyn Malachi asks the engineers working on her single “We Like Money” one afternoon in August of 2015. She’d already recorded the song, but like an author with a rough draft, she’s not satisfied until she kills her darlings.
As Malachi’s voice hits high and low notes at full throttle, her lyrics evoke a surprising paean to hard work for little reward: “We grind all the time, overtime/ ’Cause we like money/ All the time, overtime/ We grind all the time, overtime/ We like money.”
She pauses for a few beats, calculating if all that work was worth it.
“Cut the check,” her voice interjects in a tone that really means, “Cut the crap.”
The beat picks up again, leading into another intonation of “Cut the check.” Malachi tells the engineers to get rid of the second command. She’s been serious enough the first time.
Malachi chose to use a go-go framework for “We Like Money” specifically for the D.C. market, updating sounds from 40 years ago with a kind of bluesy twist. But her roots in the District’s music scene date back even earlier: Her great-grandfather, John Malachi, was one of the most renowned local jazz pianists of his time, backing the likes of Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington. And later, he taught Jazz Studies at Howard University.
With “We Like Money,” Malachi is banking on her longstanding critical acclaim, including a 2011 Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance, to solidify her commercial success. The song anchors her new album, Rise: Story 1, which Malachi plans to follow up with two others, Modern and Natural. Together, the three albums will serve as a trilogy, Rise of the Modern Natural. Malachi’s game plan mirrors an ambitious chapter-by-chapter bid for the bestseller list. She reliably delivers critics’ picks, but will one of them turn into a hit and propel her into the life she’s been working hard to achieve for herself?
Malachi is well-versed in the art of reinvention. As a kid growing up in the Brookland neighborhood, she was musically inclined—after all, it runs in her blood. Later, she discovered music production while studying business administration at West Virginia’s Shepherd University and would spend entire days in the lab making her own beats.
The real world provided a reality check when she lost her first post-college job and, like many other millennials in 2008, couldn’t find another. Arts grants from the state of Maryland, where she lived at the time, helped to sustain her over the next two years. So did honing her craft, testing out song lyrics in the spoken word scenes in both Baltimore and the District. By 2009, she released her solo debut, Revenge of the Smart Chicks II: Ambitious Gods.
“In Baltimore, there’s no smoke and mirrors. Zero glitz, zero glam,” Malachi says on a dreary October afternoon in the courtyard of her D.C. apartment complex. She wears no obvious traces of makeup, and her face is as smooth as her sound, even with less than two months to go until Rise: Story 1 drops and her star, hopefully, ascends. “If it’s hot, it’s hot, if it’s not, it’s not, and people will let you know.”
Malachi found the same type of honesty from performing in front of audiences at Busboys and Poets, and she’s still grateful to them for vetting her art. “If it’s not reaching people in its infancy, it’s not going to reach people when it’s all polished and clean and packaged and ready to go out into the world,” she says. Authenticity matters all the more to her as an independent artist who doesn’t work with a major record label. “I am able to stand on the fact that my art connects with people,” she says.
Malachi began recording her follow-up to Revenge of the Smart Chicks, the Lions, Fires & Squares EP, with producer and mentor James McKinney, a trustee of the D.C. chapter of The Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammys of which Malachi is also a member. She released it in 2010, the same year she landed a full-time job in the events department at Prince George’s Community College. But a week into her new job, something incredible happened: She received the Grammy nod for the EP’s song “Orion.”
McKinney urged her to stay on with the college for as long as she could. She couldn’t afford to quit until she started turning a profit from music. She needed to build on her success instead of resting on it.
For years, Malachi’s typical day would start before dawn. She’d write a new bio or pitch DJs about playing Lions, Fires & Squares or her 2013 follow-up album, Gold, then head into work for the 12 p.m.-to-8 p.m. shift during the academic year, 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. over the summer. At lunch, she’d do a local news hit, knowing she’d never make it back from northern Virginia to Prince George’s County in under an hour. Her “angel” of a manager let her make up the time on nights and weekends, but those hours increasingly filled with performances as far away as South Africa.
Year after year, Malachi told herself it’d be her last as what some of her colleagues affectionately called a “weekend superstar,” flying out to gigs on Friday nights and returning on red-eyes in time for the Monday blues. She’d still be outfitted for the stage when she walked into work—flashy clothes, heavy makeup—and would head straight to the bathroom, wash up, put on a suit, and transform into “that Carolyn Malachi, not the Carolyn Malachi,” she says. “You want to talk humbling?”
By 2014, Malachi was more ready than ever to leave her day job behind. She had found her current team, JRNE Management and MaSheva King of the Zimari Entertainment Group, and more imminently, she had accepted a month-long gig performing on a cruise with Grammy winners and nominees. But she knew she’d have to finally quit working full-time at the college to go through with it.
Malachi wasn’t sure she could. But a two week vacation-turned-tour across the country changed everything. “I was out long enough to have tasted the life that I wanted to live,” she says.
She typed up her resignation letter within an hour of her return to the office.
Malachi is the first to admit that “the life” isn’t easy. She sometimes keeps that dawn-to-dawn schedule, like when D.C. go-go legends Rare Essence recently pulled her on stage at Aqua on New York Avenue to perform at 2 am. But there’s no going back. Malachi readily admits that she’s a disciple of elementary-school mantras in the same vein as, “If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”
She’s equal parts humble and earnest when she speaks about “the power of the mind and being able to see oneself in a certain position,” whether that’s someday selling out Madison Square Garden or, for now, at least somewhat unpacking her whirlwind schedule. “If I say to myself, well, I’m going to do this for two years and then, if I have to get a 9-to-5, I have to get a 9-to-5—I don’t even want that thought in my head,” she says.
It sounds like an extension of wisdom gleaned from her great-grandfather. John Malachi gets his own short tracks on the album—snippets from a previously unreleased interview that could double as spoken word. “The grass is always greener on the other side,” he says in one of them. “You want this, and I’d like to be where you are.”
But the cautionary notes could have come from the younger Malachi’s latest album. Whatever success looks like, whatever the “it” is, she’ll only get there through her own blend of determination and perfectionism. She must know that. Why else log so much studio time just to record the same lyrics over and over?
“I’m ready for harmonies,” Malachi tells the engineers back at House Studio DC that August afternoon a year and a half ago.
“Her stacks are crazy, man,” the studio intern says.
That’s one word for them. Another would be irresistible. Malachi’s “Oohs” and “Aahs” stack up faster than lasagna, the layers melting into each other, each one more tempting than the last. One, two, three aren’t enough for her. The sound swells, propelling the lyrics, the familiar plea to prove “it” can be done.
“When the bill’s long and the money is short (Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh)/ My people get creative. We endure. (Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh)/ ’Cause we ain’t tryna live like this no more.”
Carolyn Malachi performs at 6 p.m. at The Kennedy Center on Friday, Dec. 30. Free. 2700 F St. NW. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.