Maimouna Youssef AKA Mumu Fresh Is Ready For The Spotlight : What's Good with Stretch & Bobbito The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter talks about her Native American heritage, how she learned to rap and what it's like to navigate the music industry as an independent artist.
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Maimouna Youssef AKA Mumu Fresh Is Ready For The Spotlight

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Maimouna Youssef AKA Mumu Fresh Is Ready For The Spotlight

Maimouna Youssef AKA Mumu Fresh Is Ready For The Spotlight

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/651520777/651615386" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT GARCIA, HOST:

What's up, everybody. Peace. Just a heads up, there may be some strong language in this episode.

ADRIAN BARTOS, HOST:

Ooh, some bad words (laughter).

MAIMOUNA YOUSSEF: So my mother, she tells the story that she knew I could sing by the way that I cry.

GARCIA: Aw.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, and I'm one of 14. So I feel like she was, like, waiting for one to be able to sing.

GARCIA: Wait. Wait.

BARTOS: You have 13 siblings?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, I think I'm like number nine maybe.

BARTOS: You think?

YOUSSEF: I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: Hey, everyone. This is Stretch Armstrong.

GARCIA: (Singing) And my name is Robert Garcia, aka Bobbito.

BARTOS: Jesus Christ. Say your goddamn name.

GARCIA: Listen; we're about to have a guest that has multiple names as well, so we might as well start...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: ...On the right foot. We got Maimouna Youssef, aka...

BARTOS: Mumu Fresh.

GARCIA: And, wow, what a brilliant soul.

BARTOS: A tremendous woman, she is a MC extraordinaire...

GARCIA: A singer.

BARTOS: ...Incredible singer.

GARCIA: Grammy-nominated backup singer for The Roots on the song "Don't Feel Right."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T FEEL RIGHT")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) It don't feel right. It don't feel right. Don't feel it. Don't feel it. Can't feel it no more. It don't feel right. It don't feel right. Don't feel it. Don't feel it. Things don't feel right over here.

BARTOS: A lot of people might be familiar with her for her role as a backup singer and sort of playing the back. But right now she's stepping out front - both as a soloist and with her project...

GARCIA: Vintage Babies with DJ Dummy.

BARTOS: That's right. She has collaborated as a backup with Zap Mama, with The Roots, as you just said.

GARCIA: She's toured with Common.

BARTOS: With Common - but right now it's her time to step out upfront into the spotlight, into the limelight - and, wow, is she going to do it. She has an incredible singing voice, but she can spit with the best of them.

GARCIA: That's right.

BARTOS: Trust.

GARCIA: Real talk. I saw her perform with Common. It was a NPR Tiny Desk performance with the group August Greene. And Common rhymed. Robert Glasper was on piano - three-time Grammy Award winner. Andra Day performed. Brandy performed, you know.

BARTOS: Special (laughter)...

GARCIA: Maimouna comes to the mic and just put it down - shut it down.

BARTOS: She did the destruction.

GARCIA: She did the destruction, yeah, like Big L did in '95.

BARTOS: Amazing.

GARCIA: She's about to really take over the world...

BARTOS: Boom, boom, boom, boom.

GARCIA: ...Not just the world of music, just take over the world. I was blown away by seeing her live. And we hope that the audience will be blown away by this interview about to come up to.

BARTOS: Should we get into it?

GARCIA: Let's do it.

BARTOS: Mumu Fresh, coming right up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: And we're back here with the very talented singer and MC Maimouna Youssef, also known as Mumu Fresh.

GARCIA: What do you prefer - Mumu Fresh or Maimouna?

YOUSSEF: I mean, if you can say my whole name, then you can call me by it.

GARCIA: AKA.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA: We're going to give you both...

YOUSSEF: Yeah, OK.

GARCIA: ...Because, you know, I'm Bobbito, AKA Cool Bob Love. Did you know that?

YOUSSEF: I didn't know about the Cool Bob Love.

GARCIA: Oh, man.

YOUSSEF: I'm sorry.

BARTOS: He has a lot of other names.

GARCIA: It's OK.

BARTOS: And I feel a little like I've been deprived. I only have...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: He's nickname deprived.

BARTOS: I only have the name that my parents gave me and Stretch Armstrong.

GARCIA: Which is exciting.

BARTOS: Which is exciting - that meant it wasn't exciting. Can you tell us how you got that nickname?

YOUSSEF: I think my name is hard for people to say, you know. So it kind of started - people would say, what's your nickname? And my mom would always say, no, don't let anyone call you by a nickname. If they break up your name, they break up your purpose. So they have to say your whole name, right? She would never allow anyone to call me my nickname. It's actually Black Thought who gave me the nickname Mumu Fresh. And then, you know, my web designer was like, hey, listen. No one is going to find your URL. You need to go by Mumu Fresh and have the .com be Mumu Fresh. And so then we started that. And the once we did the Tiny Desk, it was like, you know...

BARTOS: It's a throwback name - right? - when fresh...

YOUSSEF: It is, right? It is.

BARTOS: When was fresh still in the common parlance?

YOUSSEF: It's so true. So Mumu means - as I started touring, and I was using that name, like, it means different things. So like in Nigeria, Mumu means the fool, right?

GARCIA: Oh, get out.

YOUSSEF: So yeah, at first, people were like - when I would, like, talk to promoters, they would say, I don't know if we should promote you as Mumu Fresh because people might think you're the fool. Well, I was like, well, it could be stupid fresh. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: So I just started seeing it as, yeah, I know it means the fool, but I'm stupid fresh. You know what I mean? And that just is my first name long. I have seven middle names and a long last name.

BARTOS: Oh, what are they? What's the full name?

YOUSSEF: (Unintelligible). That's like my full name. So yeah, he was like, yeah, so you're Mumu, OK? I was like, yeah, it's cool. And then I went to Germany, and Mumu means vagina.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Yeah, it's weird. So I was like, well, at least it's fresh. You know what I mean?

BARTOS: It's the best kind to have.

YOUSSEF: So it's like all these place I would go and just find different names...

GARCIA: Oh, my God.

YOUSSEF: ...Like all the different things it meant.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: We are always happy to see family up here at NPR and Maimouna....

YOUSSEF: Aw, yeah. You say it so nicely (laughter).

GARCIA: Thank you. Like, I saw you perform at NPR Tiny Desk. I was in the crowd. And that put you on the radar for a lot of people.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. No, it was a blessing.

GARCIA: Did some good for you.

YOUSSEF: Oh, for sure. For sure. Definitely opened up a whole new audience. You know, what I love so much about it is that - especially the first one that I did with Common - for it to - it came out on Women's History Month, the first day of Women's History Month.

GARCIA: That was the August Greene...

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GARCIA: ...With Robert Glasper...

YOUSSEF: Karriem Riggins and Common.

GARCIA: ...Karriem Riggins, Common. Yeah.

YOUSSEF: And Andra Day, she featured and Brandy.

For it to be about something that means so much to me and for so many people to get it - for it to really, really resonate 'cause, you know, sometimes you can say something and people don't get it. They might not get it. Sometimes it's timing. It's delivery. It could be a myriad of different things. And people got it. And not just women got it because - I'm speaking to women, but I'm also speaking to men. The amount of men that reached out to me, like, thank you so much for that. Like, something clicked when I heard your rap verse. And it changed my whole perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: (Rapping) Sometimes being a woman is like being black twice. I got to scream fire instead of rape. But you tell me to act nice. Look pretty. Stay slim. Don't talk loud. Don't think. Don't feel. Don't act proud. But if I'm at my lowest, how you a hundred percent? God made woman and man for the balance of it. So will the real men please stand up and defend what God made, signing off with love. Will the real men...

That was so major. Even more than Instagram following growing or anything like that, the fact that I feel like I was heard. The Tiny Desk was, like, kind of like the epitome of that, of being able to convey a really important concept - and through hip-hop and through song, you know?

GARCIA: Yeah. People wonder, how revolutionary is hip-hop in the moments when it's derogatory or it's sexist or, you know, it's expressing misogyny? If people of color are expressing themselves and have a platform, then that's revolutionary. Right?

BARTOS: In itself.

GARCIA: But I do feel like hip-hop has provided a space. And it's good to hear you, as an MC, found that voice. But I think, you know, there's plenty of singers who have put emotion and activism into songwriting as well and performed it.

YOUSSEF: Here and there. I definitely don't think it's encouraged among people of color. Like, if you've ever been signed to a publishing deal or been on a label, like, they're never going to encourage you to write about something besides a relationship, the club. You know, you've got about, like, three topics that you're kind of tied to and confined to. What I was told when I was first getting into the music business is black people don't want to think. Don't start writing about anything deep. They're not going to get it.

BARTOS: Who told you that?

YOUSSEF: They were, like, A&R, yeah.

BARTOS: And on the publishing side or...

YOUSSEF: On the publishing side, yeah, because I was not only writing for myself but I was writing for other artists. And I would write all these songs. It was like, hey, you're not going to be able to sell that to the artist that you're thinking about. And not because they didn't want to think - they weren't allowed to think.

And so then I started realizing that, you know, they would say, well, this is what the market wants. But I'm like - hmm, I feel like you're creating the market, though, when you limit artists and writers...

GARCIA: Sure.

YOUSSEF: ...From being able to really write authentically and unadulterated, you know, which is what made me want to be independent, because I was like, I don't like this structure. You all are not allowing the music to progress naturally. This is not a natural evolution. It's not. You know, it was like, you guys are putting all these - you're steering it a particular way. And that's not cool, you know?

BARTOS: So earlier, we were talking. It's unanimous. You have just a incredibly soothing, comforting voice - even when you're not singing.

YOUSSEF: (Laughing).

GARCIA: I want to sing backup for you.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: When you're not singing or spitting, just - I mean, it's like...

YOUSSEF: You got to stop here (laughing).

BARTOS: Your default mode is just - it's just ridiculous.

YOUSSEF: Thank you.

BARTOS: But let's get into your voice.

YOUSSEF: OK.

BARTOS: You know, I think some people have to put a lot of work into the voice. I imagine since your speaking voice is just so ridiculous, you're starting so far ahead of everybody else.

YOUSSEF: Thank you. (Laughing) Oh, my God.

GARCIA: (Laughing).

BARTOS: But the voice that you have when you're singing, is that something that took a lot of work to nurture? Or did it just sort of - you felt like at a young age it just - you had it?

YOUSSEF: So my mother, she tells the story that she knew I could sing by the way that I cried.

GARCIA: Aw.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. And I'm one of 14, so I feel like she was, like, waiting for one to be able to sing.

BARTOS: You have 13 siblings?

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Yeah, I think I'm, like, No. 9 maybe? Or...

GARCIA: You think?

YOUSSEF: I think. I don't know.

BARTOS: That's a lot.

YOUSSEF: It's a lot of us.

BARTOS: Wow.

YOUSSEF: Yeah. But of course, it's so funny. Like, my dad was like, yeah, right. She's not going to be able to sing. And she was like, no, I can tell she can sing. And even now, maybe, like, five years ago, my dad came to me and was like, you know, you can actually really sing.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: Well, what was it about your crying chords that...

YOUSSEF: (Laughter) I don't know.

GARCIA: ...Revealed to her...

YOUSSEF: She said my crying was melodic and she knew that I would be able to sing. So she started - my mother is a singer, too. She was actually Tommy Mottola's - so she was Tommy Mottola's first artist.

BARTOS: What?

YOUSSEF: And she was...

GARCIA: What's her name?

YOUSSEF: Her name is Nataska.

BARTOS: You're just dropping so many things that we got to figure out how to address.

GARCIA: (Laughing) So wait, what's her name?

YOUSSEF: Nataska.

GARCIA: (Singing) Tommy Mottola lives on...

YOUSSEF: (Singing) Lives on the road. He lost his lady two months ago. Maybe he'll find her. Maybe he won't. Oh, wonder that love. La, la, la, la, la...

GARCIA: (Singing) She sleeps in the back...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GARCIA: Yeah.

YOUSSEF: But anyway, she left the music business. She totally made a whole life change and converted to Islam. And she started only doing, like, straight-ahead jazz and, like, Afrobeat and like on some Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela vibe, you know. And so my grandmother, she was a choir director - right? - in Chicago, contralto voice. And my mother grew up singing in her church. But by the time I was born, they had all converted to Islam. So like, technically, I wasn't supposed to, like, learn to sing gospel. But when I would go to my grandmother's house in the summertime, she would still teach me gospel.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: And I would learn all these, like, escape songs, slave songs. And the other thing is that my grandmother is Native American. She's Choctaw. My grandad's Creek. But it was illegal to practice our culture until, like, I think, '76. So the Freedom of Religion Act (ph) was passed for Native people after the Longest Walk. They had to go back and relearn the language and the culture and the songs because it was illegal before. And you couldn't even speak the language or do any ceremonies - any sweat lodge, vision quests, sun dance.

And so by the time I was born, they were going back and relearning those songs. So along with the gospel songs and the jazz and even the African songs my mom was learning from, you know, being on the road with these Afro bands, I would learn traditional Lakota and Choctaw and Tuscarora, Meherrin - all the traditional songs. And I would dance in a powwow; I learned the traditional beadwork - like, everything that we went back and relearned from, like, you know, the Indian boarding schools. Native children were sent there to - basically, it was a program called "Kill The Indian, Save The Man" to basically wipe any kind of, like, Native memory of your Native culture and force you to assimilate into regular culture.

That became another part of my cultural influence growing up, learning to sing those songs. At home, music was something we'd do - like, if people asked my mother to, like, teach them to sing, she's going to make you cook and clean. That's, like, a part of the lesson. Right? She'll be like, all right, shuck this corn and pick these greens, you know? And then she'll just sing as she's doing it. (Singing) I love the Lord. She'll say, come on; sing what you feel. (Singing) Oh, he heard my cry. And she'd be boiling the water. Sweep the floor now. And you know, like, that's how she...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: That's what it was like. And you'd just do chores, and you'd cook, and you'd sing. And it's - I feel like I live such an alternate - in an alternate universe. Like, people ask me - I grew up in Baltimore, but I'll say, I grew up in my mother's house because I'm sure my experience was very different from my next-door neighbors because I was home-schooled up until high school. And I was really kind of incubated in her reality.

And I actually got into hip-hop because (laughter) - so my brother had this rule. Right? He really - he liked me. But I think it was, like, me being a girl was, like, my, you know, innate flaw. And it was like, how can I accept her being a girl, you know? And so he had this rule that girls couldn't come outside in the summertime unless they could rap. So like, you couldn't pass the steps to get outside. So I would just come outside and start trying to freestyle, just start trying to battle him. And he's such a good battle rapper. He's so - I mean, he can just think of the most just degrading things to say to you in the dopest ways, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: My self-esteem would just be crushed every day. And I'd just go back in like, damn. And I'd come back out again the next day. And I'm trying to rap again. And I'm trying to, you know, put words together. So he kind of started taking to me like, all right, you know, maybe I might be able to forgive her for being a girl. So he started saying, well, listen to the Wu-Tang Clan. So he would play the Wu-Tang Clan tapes and say memorize all of their aliases and write down their raps.

So I just started just writing, (rapping) I bomb atomically Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses - have a hell of a time defining me.

So I'm still a little - like, 10 or so. I don't know what year that was - maybe 10 or 11. And so I'm, like, writing down all of these raps. And I don't even think my mom knew I was, like, you know, listening to Wu-Tang - quite definitely not child-appropriate. So this is like...

GARCIA: Ooh.

BARTOS: This is great.

YOUSSEF: So then that was, like, my orientation to hip-hop. It's like I really held onto the things that I could get my hands on and almost, I feel like, Manifest Destiny because all of those artists - you know, Black Star, who I used to sit and write their rap lyrics and just wonder, how could I one day be so - you know, as good as them? - I've worked with every last one of them.

GARCIA: Word.

YOUSSEF: Like, you know what I mean? I've toured with them. Like, they're the homies now.

BARTOS: Yeah.

YOUSSEF: That's still insane to me. Like, I feel like that child manifested that destiny.

BARTOS: So you alluded earlier to your Native American heritage. Your whole family history is just, I think, incredibly rich and fascinating. And...

YOUSSEF: It's a lot. Very interesting (laughter).

BARTOS: (Laughter) Yeah.

YOUSSEF: In more ways than you know.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Well, we're going to try to get to some of those right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BARTOS: Yeah. So if you could just maybe let the listeners know what your family tree is like.

YOUSSEF: My grandmother, she's Choctaw. And my granddad is Creek and African-American. And my dad's side is African-American. But the crazy part is we just recently did, like, an africanancestry.com. And his ancestry actually comes from, like, Israel, Persia, Iraq - that area. But I don't know enough about it to even claim that. So as far as I'm concerned, he's a black man.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: I know. When I told him that, he was like, oh. He was like, well, tell that to the police. Or like...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: ...Maybe I can get some credit now, get a loan. But - so yeah, that's kind of my background. I definitely grew up in the culture - in Native culture - practicing ceremony, dancing in a powwow, learning the traditional beadwork. And then I also grew up in West Baltimore. So...

BARTOS: So what was that like, sort of, you know, having one foot in each of those worlds? How did you balance that, if it...

YOUSSEF: I don't know. It just was normal to me.

BARTOS: It was? Yeah.

YOUSSEF: It wasn't until I was around other people who told me it wasn't normal that I was like, is that weird? Am I weird?

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: It just was - you know, we would be on the block one day. And then the next day, we're like, you know, in the woods praying for the full moon and (laughter) doing sweat lodge ceremony. I mean, my first time sweating, I was 7. The first time to go on a vision quest, I was about 7 to 8.

GARCIA: What is a vision quest?

YOUSSEF: I mean, it's the same thing that Moses did, all the great prophets did. But in the Lakota tradition, you go out on a mountain for four days and four nights without food and water. And your supporters - they eat for you or pour food and water into the fire. And you stay there and wait for a vision. So you prepare for a year for it. And you have prayer ties around you with tobacco. And you're asking God to give you a vision and a purpose for your life's mission and journey. So when my mom went on her quest, I was about 7 or 8. So I came there as a supporter for her to sweat in the lodge. So basically, in a lodge - I guess it's, like, similar in the Western world to, like, a sauna. But it's, like, a hundred times hotter. And you - but it's built like a womb. So you're crawling back into the womb to rebirth yourself.

But that was normal for me. We would all - we would sweat. That was a part of, like, growing up. My son - he's sweated. You know, like, he became 7, and he sweated as his rites of passage. And it was even to the point that, like, some of my brother's homies would be like, what y'all doing in the woods? Like, why y'all be doing that? He's like, well, you know, come through. So then we'd have all the dudes from the hood. They'd come down south out to the land, and they started sweating and learning the tradition.

BARTOS: (Laughter) That was my next question.

GARCIA: Why you sweating me?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, they would start - they would learn how...

BARTOS: Don't sweat the technique.

YOUSSEF: It's true. They learned how to fire-keep. And it was deep because, you know, you'll see them on the block. And they might be talking crazy and being super reckless. But when they come on the land to do ceremony, they're totally different. They don't use profanity. They don't smoke no cigarettes, no nothing. It was - I mean, it was so transformative. Like, I really believe that the boys that were around my brother at that time - like, my mom introduced them into - like, that ceremony really saved their lives and changed their lives. By the time you get out, you're covered in mud. Like, you have submitted. You're in full submission. And no ego can exist there.

BARTOS: Can we talk about your grandmother?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, sure.

BARTOS: Grandma Mountain Eagle Woman.

YOUSSEF: Aw, you got my grandma name over there?

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Yes.

BARTOS: We looked at a photograph of her online. And even through looking at a computer screen...

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

BARTOS: ...I mean, her face...

YOUSSEF: Oh, yeah.

BARTOS: ...Is quite powerful.

YOUSSEF: She is.

BARTOS: And I'm sure she was...

YOUSSEF: She still is.

BARTOS: ...Yeah - quite an influence on you. I'm just curious. What did she teach you? What was the influence she had on you?

YOUSSEF: I think the biggest thing that she reminded me of, to not need other people's validation, in particular because I don't look like her, you know? And I - my hair doesn't look like hers. And so being younger and being in the powwows and in certain settings, there was a lot of scrutiny about - are you really Indian or not? - to the point that I was like, Grandma, look, I don't want to be Indian. It's too much work. I'm cool - black people like me. I'm cool with being black.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Let me just be black because being Indian's too much work for a nickel. And...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: You've got to sweat. You've got to...

YOUSSEF: Yeah, I was like - not even that - it was...

BARTOS: Covered in mud.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: No, it wasn't the ceremony. I love the ceremony. It was proving to other people who would say - well, how come you're not lighter? And how come - you know...

GARCIA: Got you.

YOUSSEF: ...And having to go over the whole history with them, like - well, all Native Americans don't look like that. So I would say to her, like, Grandma, you know, they're making fun of me or they're giving me a hard time. They want to check my Indian card all the time. And I don't want to - just forget it. I just won't do this no more. I just - she was like, you don't let them decide what your destiny is. Like, you are who you are whether they acknowledge it, whether they understand it, whether they validate it or not.

I've had to think back on that lesson - not even having anything to do with being mixed but just being in environments where people, they couldn't see me. They don't know what to do with me. You know, when I would get into the music industry later, they had no idea what to do with me, you know?

So there are times when things might be easier for me if I go along and get along and just don't say anything. But it's not going to be easier for the girl coming behind me if I don't say something right here and now, if I don't say, no, we're not going to do it that way. You know? So...

GARCIA: I mean, that's definitely manifesting in your lyrics.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GARCIA: It's manifesting in your independent career - clearly uncompromised...

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GARCIA: ...You know, clearly controlling your creativity. But along the lines of your grandmother and your mother, you're a mother yourself.

YOUSSEF: I am.

GARCIA: You have a child. And you know, I imagine you have made some very tough decisions. What are the struggles there, raising a child and being an independent artist? And I saw all the tour dates.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GARCIA: (Laughing) You know, so...

YOUSSEF: I wish...

GARCIA: ...Is your kid coming out on the road with you?

YOUSSEF: He does. He does travel on the road with me.

GARCIA: Word.

YOUSSEF: This is - oh, it's funny. This is the first year that (laughter) - his father actually asked me this year if he could come live with him. And that's so hard for me 'cause I'm talking about, my son has been...

GARCIA: How old is he?

YOUSSEF: He's 12 now.

GARCIA: OK.

YOUSSEF: My son has been on the road with me since the very beginning. Like, I recorded a whole album nursing him, you know what I mean? Like, he's been a part of everything. Like, he...

GARCIA: Do you know Erykah Badu?

YOUSSEF: I do, yeah.

GARCIA: Yeah, 'cause she does...

YOUSSEF: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA: She talks about that, too.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Yeah. I mean, like, he sells my merch. Like, when we go to shows - like, this is also kind of how I ended up, like, home-schooling. That's his class. So he takes care of all the merchandising. He does...

GARCIA: At 12 years old?

YOUSSEF: Yeah. I mean, he's been doing that since he was, like, 7 or something.

GARCIA: Wow.

YOUSSEF: So he traveled over - we stayed out in London for a little while. You know, the first summer we went over there, they took my merch - right? - took my CDs - right? - told me I ain't pay taxes on them.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: So I said, look, Pop (ph), this what we're going to do. We're going to buy merch over there. And we're going to have it delivered to a friend's house in London. So this is how much I'm going to pay for it. This is how much I can sell it for. This is the conversion rate. We are going to have to pay taxes at this particular venue. This is how much that costs. And I would make him do everything. He has to do the whole spreadsheet for our loss and our profits. And then he gives himself 10 percent of whatever the profit is.

My son...

GARCIA: Does he try to negotiate with that 10...

YOUSSEF: He does. He does. Yeah, he definitely is saying that it's too much work and he needs 15 percent. And I was like...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: I said, but Son, you have to deduct the rent, all your clothes, the food that you eat. You know what I'm saying? And then he wanted to hire an employee. But then...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: ...He didn't want to pay the employee from his cut. He wanted me to pay the employee. And I said, that's your employee. How am I paying your employee? So he - and I'm telling you, this is what - my son is an amazing person and a brilliant mind because he's had this kind of experience.

GARCIA: Sure, sure.

YOUSSEF: So I try to make every day school because I'm like, bro, if I got to drive you all day long - like, in a car all day long, I need you to read these contracts for me. So it's interesting because people who live in traditional settings, they may feel like him moving around and touring - they'll say, he needs to have a stable environment. He should go to the same place every day, the same time, do the same thing. And I'm like, but says who, though? Can your kid read contracts? I'm just saying.

But you know - like, it is a challenge. It's tough. It's never easy having - because there's been plenty of times, so many times I've had to turn down work or turn down big opportunities if there's nowhere for him to go or if he's sick. I'm not going to say it's not hard. It's almost always hard. But I don't even recognize when things are hard anymore because I'm just so used to (laughing) dealing with hard stuff. I just - you know, we throw it on our back, and we - let's go. Let's keep it moving. Like, (laughter) - y'all ready? Let's do this, get up this mountain.

BARTOS: I want to talk about a song...

YOUSSEF: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: (Singing) If I should die tomorrow at the hands of a policeman....

BARTOS: ..."Say My Name," which is a tribute you wrote to Sandra Bland.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

BARTOS: And I'd love to hear, in your words, who Sandra was and what she meant to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: (Singing) And the papers say, we're going to call it a suicide. Would you even question why?

I think her story hit me really hard because she was a woman. And as I watched the video of her on YouTube - of her being drug out of her car and beat on the side of the road - and then I scrolled down to listen to some of the comments, I just kept seeing people write - I mean, you know, she was too mouthy. That's the problem with black women. Y'all always talk too much. And you know, that's what happens when you talk too much.

And there was so little empathy, as if death is the punishment for being mouthy. And in general, I feel like women of color get a really bad reputation for speaking out against things. And it hit me because it could have been me. It could have been my sister or my mom. And I couldn't get through my day without writing it, you know. And I had started putting down, jotting down, little pieces of it.

And we did the first part in a doo-wop because, you know, in the '60s, people poured out a little liquor to this person who passed. And it was this homage. You know, they were paying homage and libation to that ancestor. And then we went to the hip-hop part because, you know, that's my heart. And so - there's certain things I can only say rapping and certain things I can only say singing, you know? So I'm like, I got to do both of them so you get what I'm saying. But the part that hit me so much, when I said, (rapping) we watched a woman get drug out and beaten, filmed in the highway and all y'all could say was black women too mouthy. I'm vexed searching my timeline, seeing people find time to criticize and villainize and calling it a suicide. But what if Sandra Bland was your child?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: (Rapping) I know the struggle, it get hard. But we ain't backing out. Nothing is impossible. The word alone says I'm possible, so I'm the racehorse that I'm riding for. Audacity of hope...

Her mom called me after that - 3 o'clock in the morning. Like, wake up. Is this Mumu Fresh? I need to talk to you. She and I on the phone in tears, and it was just so heavy. I was like, OK. I'm supposed to be doing this. I'm supposed to be - like, her story was supposed to be told in that way. I mean, when we performed that song on NPR, like, everybody was in tears. I'm in tears. They're in tears. It was definitely like, you know, a spiritual experience we had together there, you know? So I'm grateful for that.

GARCIA: All right, we're going to go to a quick break. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUSSEF: (Singing) Say my name. Say my name.

Corey Fonville on drums, Romeir Mendez on bass.

(Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBITO GARCIA'S "ROCK RUBBER 45S")

BARTOS: Well, you know what that means. Bob?

GARCIA: Yes.

BARTOS: Mumu?

YOUSSEF: Yes.

GARCIA: Wait, she's - is she...?

YOUSSEF: What?

BARTOS: What?

GARCIA: She's Mumu for us?

YOUSSEF: (Laughter).

BARTOS: Yeah. She said whatever you want.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, that's fine.

GARCIA: Well, I'm going to call her Maimouna.

YOUSSEF: (Laughter).

BARTOS: Good for you.

GARCIA: Yeah.

BARTOS: You can do whatever you want.

GARCIA: OK.

BARTOS: I mean, you know, if she's all right with that.

GARCIA: Yeah.

BARTOS: I'm just saying.

YOUSSEF: It's fine.

GARCIA: OK. So back to you, Stretch.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBITO GARCIA'S "ROCK RUBBER 45S")

BARTOS: It's time for the Impression Session.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Woo-wee (ph). And in this segment, we're going to each play you a track...

YOUSSEF: OK.

GARCIA: You react. And it's simple as that.

YOUSSEF: I like that. That rhymes (laughter).

BARTOS: All right. I'm going to go first, as I usually do (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME LOVER FEAT. ABBEY LINCOLN")

MAX ROACH: (Singing) So long I've been needing your love - hear me pleading. Love, my heart is bleeding. Take me back where I belong. I know folks are saying from you I've been straying.

YOUSSEF: (Vocalizing).

That bassline is killer.

(Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME LOVER FEAT. ABBEY LINCOLN")

ROACH: (Singing) But still I keep praying. Take me back where I belong. Oh, lonesome me. Why can't you see? Let bygones be. Take me back where I belong.

YOUSSEF: That's dope. Who is that?

BARTOS: (Laughing).

YOUSSEF: Oh, you can't tell me?

BARTOS: No, no, I can tell - of course. That's...

YOUSSEF: I like it.

BARTOS: That is a song on a - well, it's by Max Roach. But the singer is Abbey Lincoln. Max Roach, the drummer.

YOUSSEF: Oh, Abbey Lincoln. Oh, wow. OK.

GARCIA: Who only recently found out about - I don't know - like, I've known the name Abbey Lincoln for a long time.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: Abbey Linkin (ph).

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

BARTOS: You know, Abbey Linkin?

YOUSSEF: So - I've seen her in concert. She's really, really good in concert.

GARCIA: She's bananas.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, she's amazing. That was beautiful.

GARCIA: What was the name of the song?

BARTOS: "Lonesome Lover."

YOUSSEF: (Vocalizing).

BARTOS: Now I picked that song because - oh, and you were singing along. I'm just going to - I'm going to be quiet right now.

YOUSSEF: No, no, no. Go on (laughing).

BARTOS: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You started it (laughing).

YOUSSEF: That was beautiful. I love that bassline. It's - that time period - I like music from that time period.

BARTOS: Yeah, it's really evocative. I mean, it sounds almost like a musical.

YOUSSEF: It does, yeah.

BARTOS: Like, you can see a chorus of men standing on a stage. I love that song. Even though it's a song about - it's a love song. It's about - I mean, she's expressing a desire to be - I think - to be forgiven for something she may have done. And she wants to be taken back. But it sounds to me more like a spiritual...

YOUSSEF: It does have that - yeah.

BARTOS: ...The refrain, take me back where I belong. The reason why I wanted to play it for you is because your music so effortlessly sort of incorporates your heritage...

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

BARTOS: ...And your roots, if you will. And it just...

YOUSSEF: My DJ always says that. He says, Mu, you always sound like you're singing a Negro spiritual all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: You talking about DJ Dummy?

YOUSSEF: Ay, Dummy always says (laughter).

BARTOS: That's my man.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, we actually did a song on "The Vintage Babies" album, "I Got A Feeling," that was for that purpose, like that kind of call and response.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A FEELING")

YOUSSEF: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah. Higher. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Take it higher. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Like a - we call them ring shouts - you know? - when people will be in the - (singing) yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord. You what I mean? And it's this whole, like - it's like a sermon. But you know, you preaching, talking about something. Yeah, I know what you talking about. (Vocalizing). Uh-Huh. Me, too, you know. And it becomes this whole, like, this dance and this communal, like, communication or whatever through music. Like, I enjoy those. Like - and it's fun to do with the audience, too. It takes them back to a particular, you know, time in history, even if we didn't live through it.

GARCIA: I'm going to play you a song.

YOUSSEF: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEVATOR (GOING UP) FEAT. MONIQUE BINGHAM")

LOUIE VEGA: ...Ever falls. Look what you've done. She'll never fall again. She won't. He should come with a disclaimer. They met on an elevator. And who could blame her? He was going down as she was going up. Excuse me, please. Going up. Please hold the door.

YOUSSEF: It's like house, soul, jazz. Even the way the vocals are stacked, it's almost like bossa nova, the way it's not harmony necessarily always, like the unison octave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEVATOR (GOING UP) FEAT. MONIQUE BINGHAM")

VEGA: (Singing) So they went down. Going down.

YOUSSEF: Aw, that's beautiful. OK. Who is that?

GARCIA: So that's - Louie Vega is the artist.

BARTOS: Louie.

GARCIA: It's featuring Monique Bingham, who is a legend of house music. And unfortunately, she's not, like, a household name and has carved out an independent path, similar to you. You know, for years, for years, for years, for years, she used to sing with a group called Abstract Truth...

YOUSSEF: OK.

GARCIA: ...in the late '90s. And the title of this song is "Elevator (Going Up)."

YOUSSEF: (Laughter) OK.

GARCIA: The reason why I played that for you - not that it's a Baltimore house record. But - you know, I'm just looking at like you grew up in Philly - I think hip-hop. You grew up in D.C. - I think go-go music. I think of the go-go clubs, you know. And then I think of Baltimore...

YOUSSEF: Baltimore is definitely house. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's definitely house.

GARCIA: (Laughter) It's like y'all throw down on some house music hard.

YOUSSEF: Yes, for sure.

GARCIA: Like, hard. So what's your experiences with house music?

YOUSSEF: You know, I really haven't done a whole lot. I was actually talking to Dummy and talking to Terry Hunter (ph) about wanting to work on some house music this year. I think because we started a jazz hip-hop band. And for - honestly, like, when we were younger, we were against dance music, period - like, no dancing.

BARTOS: (Laughter).

GARCIA: What do you mean?

YOUSSEF: I think that we thought that, you know, like if you're going to drop science, you can't dance.

GARCIA: Oh, that's because - that's the era of mid-'90s, when hip-hop was at odds with, like...

YOUSSEF: Right. So that's what we grew up under.

GARCIA: Yeah.

YOUSSEF: So we kind of held that mentality, like no dancing. It was hard for me because I really like to dance. But I'd be like, no dancing.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: I was like oh. And like, my shoulder would get to going. Like, girl, stop that shoulder. My cousin would be like, yo, stop. I'd be like, you right - no dancing.

GARCIA: But you know, hip-hop, at its core, is...

YOUSSEF: Is dance music.

GARCIA: It's pure - yeah.

YOUSSEF: It's really ridiculous. I don't even know what we were thinking. I mean, so many thoughts that you have when you're coming up - like, I always laugh about it when I see pictures from - I performed at "Dave Chappelle's Block Party." In all of the pictures, I look really, really sad because, in my mind, that's how adults looked. And I wanted to look older.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: So I would just look like I'm crying and just, like, dying every day 'cause I'm like, adults look sad. So...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: Those are great choices, though. And y'all put me on to some stuff, too.

GARCIA: Cool. Maimouna, thank you so much...

YOUSSEF: Absolutely. Thank you. Aw, I'm so - thank you.

GARCIA: ...For being our guest on WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH AND BOBBITO. Word.

BARTOS: Thanks a lot.

GARCIA: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARTOS: That is our show. This podcast was produced by Michelle Lanz, edited by Jordana Hochman and N'Jeri Eaton, and our executive producer is Abby O'Neill. Original music was provided by composer Eli Escobar, as well as our own Bobbito Garcia.

GARCIA: If you liked the show, you can find more at npr.org or wherever you get your podcasts, including bonus video content on Spotify on Fridays. While you're at it, please go to Apple Podcasts and rate, review and subscribe. That's how we know you're out there listening.

BARTOS: Or you can follow us on Twitter, @stretchandbob, or Instagram, @stretchandbobbito.

GARCIA: Kaboom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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