By Nia Hightower, DC Music Live
Even before she hit her teenage years, Maimouna Youssef used her vocal prowess to tell the stories of the world around her.
Born in Baltimore and raised in the metropolitan Washington area, the vocalist and emcee, also known as Mumu Fresh, blends funk, soul and blues, jazz and Afrobeats to tantalize her listeners.
Since her 2007 Grammy-nominated collaboration with The Roots, the D.C.-based artist has been busy recording, touring and promoting her first full-length album, The Blooming – released last fall. DJ Jazzy Jeff, Zap Mama, stic.man from Dead Prez are among the artist she worked with on The Blooming.
She sat down with DC Music Live to talk about returning to the D.C. music scene, making “honest” music and what continues to inspire her.
How long have you been on the music scene?
I started my first band when I was about 16, not musicians at my high school, but at my cousin’s high school. He and I started this band [Cirius B] together. We got in the studio and recorded our own album, independently. It caught the attention of some major record labels, and we wound up getting an artist development deal and kept on going from there.
How did things start to progress after that?
When we got our artist development deal, we moved out to Philadelphia. I had moved to New York before for a while for college. Then I moved to Philadelphia. So, I had been living there for some years.
Talk to me a little bit about how you got connected with The Roots?
It’s just a little being at the right place at the right time and having good people around you.
The studio that my group was recording in happened to be in the same building that The Roots were recording in. So, it was very much like a nurturing, home, family-like space. The studio was a conglomerate of about four or five different rooms that people owned, and we would all kind of go from room to room listening to what other people were recording and sometimes collaborate.
That’s what happened when I started recording different hooks for The Roots. Dice Raw and I would start brainstorming on different ideas. When the group came home from touring, they listened to some of the stuff and liked [what became] “Don’t Feel Right” [from the 2006 Game Theory album].
When did you return to D.C.?
I came back to the D.C. area about 2009. You know when you live in a city as a teenager, it’s a lot different. I became more acquainted with the D.C. scene and all the people here, and they have been very welcoming. They have embraced me. Everyone has been very supportive, very talented and motivated.
How often are you on the road?
As much as I can possibly be. I love being on the road. Especially since The Blooming has been released, we’ve been fortunate to be getting a lot of calls from different places.
I was in Detroit last week. Two weeks ago we were in Montreal, and we are setting up a Canadian tour for the fall.
When The Blooming was first released in September, we did a 10-city tour. From there, we’ve just been getting calls.
How often do you perform in the D.C. area?
It depends. There could be some months where I’ll have six shows, and then it could be one show every couple months. It just really depends on what events are going on.
I’ve performed at most of the major venues in the city for independent artists – the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, Kennedy Center, U Street Music Hall, Bohemian Caverns, all those places.
Do you have a favorite place to perform?
I really like Carter Barron because of the outside environment. When the breeze blows at just the right time when you’re on the right verse of your song, it just makes for a great mood or expression.
How would you describe your music?
I would say I make honest music. My music blends everything from jazz to blues to hip hop, a little bit of bluesy rock-n-roll, as well as an indigenous sound because my family is Choctaw. So a lot of times, I’ll do vocalizing that lends itself to having a more traditional native tone.
I make music to connect with other human beings that may inspire them to be greater. It’s always amazing to me that I will have people from thousands of miles away, that I’ve never met, listen to my songs and contact me on Facebook or Twitter to tell me how it changed them or altered them or how it was a source of healing for them. That’s such as honor. It’s one of the reasons I continue to make music.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I’m influenced a lot by Nina Simone, Outkast, Lauryn Hill, Miriam Makeba, Zap Mama. I guess it is a pretty wide spectrum, but it seems so natural to me because that has been my experience. My parents are artists as well. Where I draw my inspiration comes from my childhood. My mother introduced me to Zap Mama and Miriam Makeba because she was into Afrobeat and Afrojazz. So, all those things became kind of second nature to me.
How would you describe your style as an emcee?
I think I have an old-school style. My favorite time period for music was like 1994 to 1998. I don’t know why. There were other great time periods in hip hop as well, but I think that influenced me a lot since that was during my formative years. I must have been around 11 and 12, and that’s when I began to rhyme with that style of music.
During that time hip hop was extremely honest. It was very much defined by your ability to use literary devices like internal rhyme scheme and alliteration and metaphors, and I still stay true to that. I can’t say what the rhyme or reason is behind a lot of rap music today, but that’s the standard that I hold myself to as a lyricist and emcee.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I recently recorded this song with this artist, Lyriciss, called “Never Grow Old,” and it was produced by J-Scrilla. The song touches on our culture’s obsession with staying young. The paradox is that you’ll never grow old if you die young. It looks at growing older and the wisdom that you receive. In the music business, they want you to be 18 forever.
How do you keep going in an industry that wants you to be young forever?
I don’t mind speaking to young people. At my shows, I generally see people from middle school to like 50, and they are all able to enjoy the music together. I will always speak to youth, but I will always address them from where I am in my own growth and maturity.