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Maimouna Youssef has an artistic vision seasoned well beyond her 26 years—-due mainly to her upbringing in a musical household and the time she’s spent collaborating with artists like The Roots and Dead Prez.
I interviewed Youssef for last week’s One Track Mind column, but I couldn’t fit nearly everything in. Here’s the rest of our interview—-in which Youssef discusses her childhood, attending the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and how she made it onto the stage at Dave Chappelle‘s Block Party—-in time for her performance tonight at the Kennedy Center.
Washington City Paper: Are you from this area originally?
Maimouna Youssef: I was born in Baltimore and went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts. But I’ve also lived a lot of places. We moved to Virginia when I was 10 or 11. I was homeschooled, too. When you’re homeschooled, you’re in your own world [laughs], so you’re not always aware of things that happen in your city. That’s a good thing, because you are aware of the world. I moved to D.C. when I was 14 to go to Duke Ellington. When I graduated, I moved to New York, then I moved to Philly, then I moved back here.
WCP: Why’d you do so much moving around?
MY: I went to college, starting at the New York Film Academy, then I left. It was just too stressful living in New York. My mom was living in Virginia at the time, but I came back to Baltimore to live with my aunt.
WCP: You went to the Film Academy. Did you know you always wanted to be a singer, or did you want to be a director?
MY: I knew I was gonna be a singer; I’ve been singing since I was five and my parents had a theater company. At that same time, we had a group called the Circle of Liberation and we would do poetry at different events. My mom trained me as a professional—-how to hold the mic and work both sides of the stage, making eye contact, things like that. When I went to Duke Ellington, I was originally in the vocal department, but I didn’t like the vocal department. At that time, they wouldn’t let us sing or study jazz. And if you wanted to study gospel, you could, but you had to stay after school. We got out of school at like 5 o’clock. Who really wants to stay in school later than that? And where I lived, I was not trying to be on the bus at night.
I didn’t get along with the guy who was running the program at that time because he would tell me, “Fix your mouth a different way, you’re singing too black.” You really have to change your vocal pallete to be able to sing classical music. And if you’re trained in that way, it’s hard to switch to a gospel-style, R&B-style pallete. So I would sing it a certain way, then we’d go into the spirituals and he was still singing in European style. If we’re gonna respect the style of that music, why don’t we respect the same style that the spirituals are written in. They were written out of pain, so I felt we should not change our pallete and sing it with the conviction of church. We can’t sing it pretty because this is not a pretty situation.
So I was hanging out in the literary department, I talked to the director because I was gonna end up having to leave school because I wouldn’t go to class. I talked to the literary department director, who asked “Do you write?” I wrote out some of my rhymes for him and he let me transfer to his department. Once I got there, I really enjoyed it. I did storyboarding and screenplay writing. It kinda goes hand in hand, because even when I listen to my music, I always see the visuals for it. It’s a passion that I want to get back to at some point in my life.
WCP: At what point do you think you’ll go back to it?
MY: I guess when I have the money for it [laughs]. Kanye did it independently because he didn’t want the message to be tampered with. Tyler Perry probably got that a lot, so he had to do it himself—-the hard way—-because they were trying to alter what he wanted to do.
WCP: Your mom is an accomplished singer. And you’ve referenced how you didn’t get an opportunity to go outside and play, things like that. Do you think that helped or hurt your progression?
MY: I feel like it helped it. It was kinda hard because I always had a social life because I have a lot of brothers and sisters, but I was really focused. There was one point in life when my mother got sick, and I had to finish my senior year living with a friend of the family. I had a 4.0 that year. I think being trained to be focused allowed me to be focused on my own. Even before she left for Virginia, my mother didn’t have to be really hard on me because I was already trained to be serious about what I wanted to do.
WCP: What was your experience living in Philly?
MY: That time period characterized a lot of who I am. My son was born in Philly. I met The Roots in a studio that [producer] James Poyser recorded out of. He asked us to come to Electric Lady Studios in New York, where he and Erykah [Badu] were recording Worldwide Underground.
WCP: How did you manage to get on stage at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party?
MY: James was performing, he was playing keys there. I remember when Chappelle’s Show first came out, everyone would stop recording and would all come to the main lobby area in the studio to watch the show. So everyone was excited when they heard Chappelle was gonna do this. I thought, “I’ve gotta be there,” mainly because Prince was supposed to be there, but he ended up not doing it. When I heard Lauryn Hill was gonna be there, I was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna be there.”
Honestly, that was my sole purpose, was to make sure I met her. So I talked to James about it and he was like, “Eh, I’m not really sure. Some heavy-hitters are gonna be there. You’re still kinda new in this game.” I was good friends at that time with Martin Luther. I had already toured with him and Cody ChesnuTT. So I was talking with Martin about it, and he said, “You should just come through and feel the energy, and I know somebody’s gonna ask you to do something.” They had a rehearsal the day before, and I came to the rehearsal with him.
At one point, they ordered everyone out that wasn’t performing and I waited in the lobby. During a show with Cody and Martin at BB King’s, I performed a song that my mother wrote called “Oklahoma Track,” and it was totally impromptu. I had the whole audience singing all the background parts. I see stic.man from Dead Prez at the rehearsal and he started singing the track I performed at the show. He asked if I could sing one of their songs. There was such a special energy during that time. Everybody was happy to be in that moment. I thank God that I was a part of that.
WCP: So how did The Roots’ relationship come about? Did they approach you because of what you did at the block party?
MY: I knew them already and I had recorded several tracks for them. It was such a passionate thing in the studio. I would just knock on the door and they’d be like, “Listen to this track, do you hear anything?” I’d say, “Yeah, I hear something,” and we’d record it. We just lived in the studio. We were there all day and night. I recorded several hooks and “Don’t Feel Right” happened to be the one that they chose.
WCP: You were on the block party and you were on The Roots’ song. Why are you just now coming out with solo material?
MY: I had a baby then my life had changed so much, so I was waiting for my life to settle back down for me to be able to dedicate my time the way I am now. I’ve been writing songs the whole time. The songs I wrote then, I don’t wanna use now because they don’t reflect what my views and my life are like right now. I was also talking to some labels about signing certain deals, but the contracts were not what I needed for me to do my project the way I needed to do it.
It would be a waste for me to not do it the way that my heart says do it. I’m not saying that I know it all, but I know I hear things a certain way and feel things a certain way. I feel like the labels I dealt with, I would’ve been miscarrying my artistic baby, if I put it inside of this formulaic box before it even got a chance to tell me what it wanted to be.
Youssef performs at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage, 2700 F St. NW. Free