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Mahalia on embracing break-ups, the scandal of British R&B and her new album: “I want world domination”

 (Dave Benett)
(Dave Benett)

Hackney-based R&B artist Mahalia is not happy about turning 25. “I just got a f***ing letter about going for a smear. I know the procedure and I’m not in the mood,” she tells me. “I had an epiphany a couple of weeks ago that I’m never gonna be 18 again. I’m fuming about 25. Not quarter life.”

Born in Leicestershire to a Jamaican mother and British-Irish father, Mahalia Burkmar is known to the world simply as Mahalia, or May to close friends. Fittingly, she celebrated her birthday on May Day, but rather than wallow in her old age, she used the opportunity to announce her third album instead.

We meet on a wet Tuesday evening at a Vietnamese restaurant on Hackney’s Mare Street. Tucking into a large bowl of stewed beef noodles, she tells me she needs the fuel for the long night ahead. She is open, unfiltered and seemingly unafraid. Hence the title of her new album, IRL; the abbreviated form of ‘in real life’.

IRL also comes from a frustration of having had to put life on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I just didn’t want to leave people waiting so long, it was less about me and more about them. Going on Instagram and seeing all the comments asking for new music – I thought that just happened to Rihanna but apparently it’s all of us!” she says.

To be fair, there’s been a four year gap between this album and her sophomore, Love and Compromise. “If Covid hadn’t happened, it would’ve been two years, not four. I definitely didn’t want it to be four years, though I probably wouldn’t have written this same album if it had been sooner. I’m someone who likes to write and release music and keep moving, so those two years feel like lost time.”

Though she’s older and wiser, the new album is an extension of her first two. It features catchy, life-manifesto-style choruses, while retaining the honest, storytelling quality that she’s known for. Mahalia’s sound is less like the R&B coming out of the US today and more like the variety that the UK was producing in the early 00s. It’s reminiscent of British icons Samantha Mumba, Jamelia and The 411. Sonically, it has the peppy, pop-twist of the Noughties, moving away from the seduction of the 90s.

Her first single from the album, Terms and Conditions is already nearing three million streams on Spotify. The lyrics, “If you want my love then let’s discuss the man you’re required to be” were co-written with London singer-songwriter RAYE. Mahalia’s own, personal terms and conditions for a relationship, she tells me, are ‘‘communication, openness, getting back as much as you give”.

She’s less concerned about aligning with someone politically: “When I was younger I just thought politics were about who you voted for. That actually isn’t my thing now, I really don’t care who you vote for, what I care about is the why. I care about the why in any part of life. It would be nice to align with someone politically, but if we don’t that’s when communication comes in.”

While she sets her standards high, she welcomes both love and heartbreak with open arms. “Sometimes I look at my boyfriend – who I love – and I think, ugh, I need you to just hurt me a little bit,” she cackles. “No I’m joking. Having been in a long-term relationship, there’s so much to write about within that. Relationships are a full time job, it’s not perfect and it does get difficult, so I’m finding more inspiration in that now. Obviously I don’t enjoy heartbreak. But I do enjoy what comes out of it. Even separate from songwriting, the growth that I feel as a person, I enjoy that.”

Raised by musical parents – her mother fronted Eighties act Colourbox and her father toured as a singer and session guitarist with Erasure – Mahalia had written her first song by the time she was eight, and was signed to Asylum Records at 13.

“I felt a lot of pressure to live up to my dad because he’s the reason I started playing. I looked up to him so much, he could sing and write and play. In my late teens I was so scared of disappointing him. I was scared of disappointing everybody to be honest. If we’d done this interview three years ago I never would have said any of that. But I’ve been having therapy for three years now.”

Entering the industry at such a young age didn’t stop her from experiencing British teen culture to its fullest. “I had a f***ing amazing childhood. My parents made sure I went to every party. I drank underage and started smoking cigarettes way too early. I had all the boyfriends, I went clubbing and got my fake ID, I was able to live and explore and be silly. If I hadn’t done it all then, I’d probably go off the rails now.”

Mahalia has been signed to a label since the age of 13 (handout)
Mahalia has been signed to a label since the age of 13 (handout)

Today, artists are feeling the pressure to be more than just singer-songwriters; to be multi-hyphenates who surpass the realms of music. Mahalia has mixed feelings about this. “I have been very clear from the very beginning, I want f***ing world domination. Well, actually, I do want kids. So maybe not world domination. But of course I want to be globally successful, I don’t understand what artist wouldn’t want to be. But I don’t know how to be an influencer, a comedian, a songwriter and a f***ing fashion-stepper at the same time. How do I do all of those things? That’s what I’m finding hard,” she says.

Social media, for her, is a tool, but instead of using it for self-promotion, Mahalia sees it as a platform to speak out about subjects she feels passionately about. She made headlines in February this year when she criticised the BRIT Awards for their lack of R&B representation, calling for the genre to have its own category rather than being combined as Best Pop/R&B act. “Nothing short of disrespectful” were her feelings towards the BRITs at the time.

“I think artists could be doing more to support each other. I kind of wanted Harry Styles to say something when he won the award. I love Dua Lipa because she’s been nominated twice but will only ever say ‘I’ve been nominated for Best Pop Act’. She never says Best Pop/R&B act.”

Mahalia made a statement with her outfit for the night too, wearing a Burberry trench with the words ‘Long Live R&B’ spray-painted on the back. “Even wearing the jacket at The BRITs was political. That was a fight. It was insinuated that when I get there I should take it off at the table.”

Her demand for change doesn’t stop with award shows. She wants to see radio stations, festival organisers and record labels open more doors for British R&B too: “In the UK it’s always felt like there’s only room for one [R&B act]. I find that really frustrating because, why? There’s room for all these pop stars. Do we really need to hear another f***ng indie band?”

“When I was younger indie music was what I wanted to make, it was my love, so there’s no hate there, but have you listened to f***ing Radio 1 in the daytime? It’s just that. Why don’t we just diversify the playlists a little bit? Why is it that predominantly black artists who make black music only sit on the 1Xtra station?” As she talks, singer-songwriter James Morrison plays on the radio in the background.

“People are listening but they’re choosing not to hear. That’s why I’m doing things like Mahalia Presents” she says, referring to the bi-monthly club night she’s been hosting at Moth Club in Hackney for just over a year. The event showcases emerging R&B artists, handpicked by Mahalia and manager Rich Rose, and so far has hosted the likes of FLO, Saint Harison, Amaria BB and Kali Claire.

Due to its popularity, Mahalia Presents is moving from Hackney to a bigger venue and has even gone international – it’s now happening in New York City, too. “I was worried we wouldn’t sell it out, I definitely didn’t think we’d be expanding. Sometimes you just hear a voice and think, oh my God, I need to experience that in real life, not just on record.”

While we’re on the topic of Mahalia Presents, she remembers that’s exactly where she’s supposed to be. We slurp up the last of our noodles, hop in the car and zip down Mare Street for an evening of talent, joy and fierce, infectious energy. Very much like Mahalia herself.

IRL (Atlantic) is released on July 14; Terms and Conditions is out now