Sometime last autumn, it started with a tweet. Leicester singer and songwriter Mahalia went from ‘steadily putting out music every couple of years’ to quite suddenly breaking in the US – all without setting foot on North American soil. You know the COLORS videos, where someone performs in front of a really vivid wash of one shade, like a Pantone chart made real? It was one of those.
“There was a Twitter handle, I think called @UKUnderrated, and the majority of its followers were from Canada and America. It had around 50,000 followers,” she says, thinking back to last September. “They tweeted the COLORS video – but the actual video, as opposed to a YouTube link. That started getting loads of retweets and went viral first. So that goes viral out there, and then this guy tweets it again in America, and his tweet gets like, 58,000 retweets and goes viral too.”
We’re sitting in the back of an Uber, and as a text notification pings from her lap, she whispers “turn my phone off,” giggles a bit and reaches to toggle the sound off on the side of her iPhone, all while barely breaking eye contact with me. She continues: “So these two videos from two Twitter handles were pumping out there. Then things started to go crazy here – that’s how it started.” And, with the swiftness of her near-breathless story, she zips her phone away in the front pocket of her bag. We’re on our way to soundcheck before her biggest UK date so far (at Electric Brixton in south London), and in the short afternoon we spend together, I pick up on just how much momentum propels her days along – it’s all go, though she’s not fazed. Granted, I have just piggybacked onto a day that’s seen her arrive in London from Wolverhampton, head to her flat and quickly chuck some fresh clothes into a suitcase to take on the last leg of her headline tour.
Mahalia’s one of those rare people who couples a propulsive energy with a soothing, open-hearted presence. She’s just 20 years old, and when we meet it’s almost a year to the day since Noisey premiered her single “Hold On,” with its hip-winding, more ‘on-trend’ afrobeat production. In the time since, she’s won the hearts of American fans and collaborated with everyone from Londoners Little Simz and Kojey Radical to Jay Prince. Most importantly, she’s found a way to blend her soulful vocals, intimate songwriting and adolescent folk leanings into music she’s often termed “psycho-acoustic soul”. What that really means is that she connects with listeners using lyrics that revolve around relationships, from the romantic to the sexual to the platonic. As a women of mixed ethnic heritage, she’s struggled with being pigeonholed as both an artist and just a person, for years. Now, though, she’s on the cusp of fully blossoming into the truest version of herself that she’s always known – but hadn’t always been able to share.
Even though social media played a major role in kicking off this stage of her career, she’s not totally sold on all of its merits. “I have a love-hate relationship with it,” she says, opening a Sprite her publicist had been juggling with two Kinder Buenos when we waited outside her flat earlier. “I like how personal it is. I love that you can be a version of you. But that’s the same reason I hate it: cos it’s a version. And it’s a version you want people to see.” She pauses. “I… I struggle with it. I struggle with the whole ‘cancelling’ generation – and that’s my generation! But I’m like, ‘you lot are really quite mean?’” she laughs, sort of in disbelief.
She remembers how overwhelming social media felt, during the Grenfell Tower fire one-year remembrance anniversary. “Everyone was posting photos.” She reaches for each word carefully now. “I posted a photo… of… the fire when it was happening. And the comments I was getting made me take it down within minutes.” I ask what people were saying. “Like, ‘this is so disrespectful, you should put up how it looks now.’ Everything they were saying, I understood. But it was just that feeling of being… of being like, ‘oh my god, get away from me.’ And I deleted it. That totally freaked me out.”
But, she’s quick to point out that social media lets her express herself, too. It helps her understand her audience more. Though that COLORS session (now with more than 19 million YouTube views, by the way) introduced Mahalia to people clearly gagging for a sound like hers – one that nods to 90s throwback R&B but injects it with sharply contemporary textures – she was signed at 13. She put out her debut EP, Head Space, in 2012, ie: when she was 14. The EP slips between acoustic guitar strumming toothache-sweet harmonies; listening to it now, she really does sound like the child she was then. Her voice shows signs of the husk she’d later develop more robustly but at this stage, she’s mostly flexing her precocious songwriting muscle. Three years later, she followed it with EP Never Change, then a debut mixtape called Diary of Me in 2016. By then she was incorporating more “typically R&B” elements into her work, sliding between elements of neo-soul and pop.
Honestly, her late-teens songwriting reminds me of Taylor Swift, pre-Reputation’s Future features and trap-lite. Mahalia has a knack for distilling the intensity of emotion in a way that initially sounds like it’s ‘just’ for girls, but with enough melodic heft to actually appeal to anyone. In its raspier moments, her voice on Diary of Me curled like incense smoke as she sang about everything from the mushiness of early love, on “Marry Me”, to bullying, on “Silly Girl,” about a girl who targeted her in school. “The first line is ‘oh my god, whatever, she’s such a silly bitch’,” she says, cackling.
She encountered that bully when she’d left her small hometown in Leicestershire, to attend performing arts school in Birmingham. No doubt some inspiration had rubbed off from her two musical parents – her father still performs in a band and writes; her mother sings, with “this really interesting, jazzy, soulful voice,” she adds. “The thing about my parents is that they’re so… in tune with me and my three brothers.” Looking back, their relationship was airtight at a time when most kids are kicking back against the authority of their parents. They’d be in constant conversation about both life and work, especially since her father was managing her for a bit. “Now, I’ll call my dad and be like, ‘can you work out these chords for me?’ or ‘how can I change this here?’ Or I’ll call Mum and be like, ‘I don’t get this accounting stuff, can you explain it to me?’ They’re just really good parents. And they’ve mastered the ability to be both my parents and my mates, at the same time.”
Mahalia put up with some challenges outside the house, though. As the taxi drives us over Tower Bridge and we get caught in the tangle of Elephant & Castle traffic, she slows down. “I grew up, maybe with a bit of a complex. When I lived in Leicester, in a predominantly white and Indian area, I was this ‘different’ girl…” She thinks back to a memory, of “walking into school, and the boys honestly dying laughing at my hair – it grows more up and out, rather than down. So I was called Bushy. I wore it out once, and then never again.”
Other children would call her racial slurs to her face, but at primary school age, she didn’t know what they meant. That’s not unusual for non-white children who grow up in societies steeped in a learned, insidious racism. They’re both too young to really understand the words being slung at them, and yet are already being conditioned to know that they’re an ‘other.’ “I’d be like, ‘what does that word mean?’ and they’d say, ‘don’t worry Mahalia, it means a white person.’ And then I found out when I got older that it wasn't, and that they were being racist. It was this long growth. And I felt like it stunted me a bit, because I grew up thinking they weren’t being mean and got older and realised, ‘oh, you were being horrible.’”
She says all this, running her long, blush-coloured nails over her jeans or pulling absentmindedly at the drawstring of her highlighter-yellow Ejder hoodie. She’s not moaning, or feeling sorry for herself – the words on the page might give off the wrong impression. Really, she’s reflecting on how the sting of those experiences later fed into her work. After a pause, she goes on: “I spent a long time wanting to be validated. I know I did. When I first started out, I was doing shows and my crowd was predominantly white, and I remember thinking, ‘I wanna at some point be able to speak to people of my own, too. And speak to black people how I know my mum did, or how the artists I love did.’” That’s not to say that she doesn’t love her and appreciate her white fans too, but there’s something important about tapping into both parts of her heritage.
Now, she’s well on her way that stage. In the US, her write-ups come from traditionally black outlets like BET, Vibe (and, to an extent, Complex), and she played Afropunk’s original Brooklyn festival in August this year during a sold-out four-date US tour. “I was so emotional,” she says, grinning and remembering it. “I even get emotional now. I was stood onstage in Brooklyn, and there were all these faces out there. And I was like, ‘this is what I wanted.’” Softly, she starts to cry, and apologises. “It was that thing, where no one has to say anything cos we’re just together. That was really important for me when I was there. America was a massive thing for me.” She apologises for a second time, wiping her tears like she’s giving herself a face massage. I tell her not to be sorry. Outside, Stockwell’s high road bleeds into Brixton’s. We’re near the venue, where soon she’ll be hugging her friend Raia Maria-Laura and tweaking her backing band’s levels during soundcheck.
It’s been a journey from her acoustic guitar slow jams to the fizzing, vibrant energy of this year’s “I Wish I Missed My Ex” and the sultry, jazz-chords-on-electric-guitar you hear on this month’s “Surprise Me.” Mahalia has plenty of stories to tell. Even though our talk has turned emotional, she laughs easily and listens thoughtfully, as the car does a U-turn towards the venue. Thinking about how she’s been working moments like tonight, she grins to herself. “I used to have a grudge about a lot of things, but I don’t anymore,” she begins. “I used to have a massive problem with always being called an R&B artist. My thinking on that was that you call me that, I’m scared that if I put out a song that doesn’t fit into your idea of R&B, you’re not going to understand me. I never called myself an R&B artist – that’s what I was called.” But she went to the US and learned it wasn’t a constricting label. “I feel like you naturally let go of those things you hold close, cos when people start to get you, they just get you. For me, I know what I am and what I wanna be. However people want to take me, I don’t have any qualms with it.”
Mahalia's 'Seasons' EP is out now, in all the usual places.
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.