Mali Music Talks Commercial Success & Being Embraced By The Pop World
Exclusive: With a top 10 R&B debut of "Mali Is..." Mali Music details the influence OutKast and his family have had on his material and musical outlook.
Mali Music has steadily made a name for himself with his soulful voice and smooth melodies. His hit song, “Beautiful” peaked at the #34 spot on Billboard magazine’s R&B/Hip Hop Airplay chart, and its success has allowed Mali to perform on American Idol. The success continued as the single was remixed by A$AP Ferg, and Mali Music’s album Mali Is… subsequently debuted at #16 on the SoundScan Top 200 Albums chart and shared the company of Michael Jackson and The Black Keys.
Mali Music is broadening his audience by working with Akon, Mark Pitts and Jennifer Hudson. He doesn’t seek monetary wealth as much as assurance that he is giving hope to the world.
“I think a marriage and a house staying together and a group of children coming up in a home that isn’t broken is a lot better than a million sales or a million views on YouTube,” he says.
Even with that mindset, the video for “Beautiful” has over 1.2 million views. But Mali Music knows that his journey in the mainstream R&B scene is only beginning. He is learning his way around the industry and has frustrations about some of the roadblocks he has faced. Mali hopes to be the change that will stir up the industry and bring something fresh to listeners. He combines his soulful R&B sound with anthems like “Ready Aim,” which Mali shows off his rapping skills, and “One,” which has a groovy, island sound. He wants to bring people good music with a message of hope and love.
Mali Music Responds To The Commercial Success Of “Mali Is…”
DX: How has that transition been for you into the mainstream arena?
Mali Music: It’s been really good…no regrets on anything. I’m grateful for the platform and the opportunity that I get to do it. Going mainstream was more than just trying to do it to not be independent or low key or whatever; it’s not like that. I wanted to have the opportunity that all of my other colleagues and everybody else who’s really into doing music does. I think it took some renegotiating and some prioritizing in my mind on what I wanted to put forward. I had to be honest about what people said to do it the way I was doing it. [Feedback] was coming from people who did not have the opportunity or the gifting that I had. Therefore, I had to make some changes. I had to follow God. I had to listen to my own heart, and in doing that doors flew open. Now we’re here, and I’m grateful for that.
DX: Who have you had kind of help guide you—even just as a mentor on this journey?
Mali Music: Well, I wish it could be like that. For example in basketball, there’s a level of a guy like LeBron can get to because he doesn’t have the amount of rings that Michael Jordan has. So there’s somebody. But it’s different when you’re the first version of what you are. There’s not much mentoring that you can get, and all the mentoring you can get is from people who have not been in your position. But maybe if they’re in similar positions, they can kinda feel where you’re coming from. So I think it’s more like that. That’s been a blessing. But most of it is really just trusting what I know, my upbringing and making the best of it.
DX: So how has the response been so far to your album, Mali Is…?
Mali Music: Oh, man. People are very, very blessed by it. They really appreciate what it’s offering, and I’m just very glad to see the majority of the people who listen to it be excited about the entire album. That feels good, ‘cause you don’t even get that—not even with top 10 Pop tracks. You’re not getting the whole, “Oh, man this album is crazy. I haven’t heard stuff like that since Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation...since Nas.” You don’t really get those, [kind of responses on being] excited about albums. So I guess I’m grateful to be alive in this time, because it’s a lot of things happening that aren’t really happening in this culture nowadays. My deejay, DJ Slow Motion, he calls the album “no-skip,” so that’s really cool. It’s a blessing to have that, and I can’t wait to maintain that level of truth, openness and expression. It definitely was not luck.
DX: Mali Is … debuted at number 16 on SoundScan’s Top 200 albums chart. What does that chart success mean to you?
Mali Music: It’s awesome. Coming from doing it independently, you’re not as trained to be as aware of it, because you’re probably not gonna be up there. So it’s really cool and refreshing to see it rise and to see it just compete. It feels really good, and it’s a blessing. It’s a much different situation than what it was before on previous albums. I’m learning the system. I’m getting a feel for the time period of releasing, people listening and how long it takes for your audience to be able to respond. It’s good to see it grow, and it means a lot. It really does matter and count. In business meetings and all this stuff like that, to be able to have that type of leverage is a blessing, and it’s really gonna help me get a lot of ideas out in the future. [I can go in] without as much fight or as convincing as might have had to happen in the past. That’s a good feeling.
How The His Single “Beautiful” Opened Doors For Mali Music
DX: What specifically has the song “Beautiful” done for you, your career and even for the album?
Mali Music: It’s a really good song. I think the opportunity for me to be able to perform on American Idol and it being as just as popular as it’s become, it’s really been a blessing. It’s allowed me to be able to travel with a hit song, and that’s always good because you have a lot of artists who are very talented, but they don’t have that one song that you could just really get with. It’s really cool because whenever those chords start ringing out—no matter where I am—I think that’s when a lot of people get it. A lot of people could be enjoying my show, but when “Beautiful” comes on, it’s like, “Oh, that’s the guy.” Then it’s a totally different thing. So I’m grateful for all the work that “Beautiful” is doing. And on top of that, it gives me a great opportunity to be able to bond with my audience who understand. And when I’m singing the verses, I’m literally singing to the people sitting there and that exchange, I think it causes a galvanizing between artists and [fans]. From that point, they really, really continue to run and spread the word, and I think that’s what makes it happen. A good song and a good spirit really causes the people to spread the word, and more people come when you continue to be aggressive.
DX: Yeah, it’s definitely doing its purpose. How did the A$AP Ferg remix to “Beautiful” come about, and what was that collaboration like?
Mali Music: I think it’s how most remixes may come about: some people might be enjoying the song. They might be vibing with it in the studio and put their theme on it. I think once they sent it to Mark, Mark Pitts is a strong Hip Hop head, so they put that, “All About The Benjamins” beat on it. It just really kinda grew into something more than just the love ballad that it was. I was really honored that A$AP Ferg was able to get on there and just really just spread that same beautiful vibe to his audience. He’s like the Trap king. So it’s really good that the music is transcending the direction people think it should go and just go to the people who need it. I feel anything that helps it, fuels it, and gives it life is beneficial.
DX: You mentioned Mark Pitts being a Hip Hop head. How did you two get connected?
Mali Music: I got connected with Mark Pitts through the relationships of my management team. My mom manages me with my co-manager, Holly Carter. I don’t know if there’s anybody that isn’t in her Rolodex. I think it was just a necessary connection. We knew that Mark was building something over there at Bystorm, and we thought it was just a perfect fit.
DX: Mark Pitts has worked with people throughout the history of music from Nas, even today with Miguel. So what has he been able to teach you from those artists and from his experiences?
Mali Music: With Mark being in the industry as long as he has been, he just brings that poise. He has an understanding of the way the seasons flow. He just has this uncanny ability to be in touch with what’s supposed to happen. Hate it or love it, he’s very accurate in his choices and his decisions. At the end of the day, he just wants the best for all of the artists. I’m actually leaving lunch with him now, and he’s just… I guess he just has an ease. It’s something like having a solid coach on the sideline. You may be in a tough situation, but you know that they have something up their sleeve that can help you get the points you need easy. He’s been very, very good at expanding me, being patient with the creative process, meeting with him as well and very liberal with all of his knowledge and wisdom about the moves to make in the industry.
DX: You also said your mom is your manager. What does it mean to have your family supporting you?
Mali Music: It’s very good. It’s a blessing to be able to have people not only that believe in me, but people who I can trust. So I can really keep my head down and continue to create and hear music that’s profound and that’s gonna bring light instead of having to deal with constant battles of things not happening the way they’re supposed to. I don’t have to worry about things like dishonesty or a lack of trust. Those are things that I’m grateful haven’t been red flags, or beeping lights. I’ve been able to just really keep everything grounded, and we’re all able to move together. So when everybody wins, everybody feels successful. It’s definitely not a one-man show.
How OutKast & The Fugees Influenced Mali Music
DX: Is there a specific song or artist that you can remember that made you really want to rap as well?
Mali Music: Yeah, OutKast. I grew up on OutKast growing up in the South. I don’t know if there was a young cat in music that wasn’t jamming all of their albums. They just had the sound of the South. From them and Goodie Mob and all the stuff that was happening and listening to Cee Lo eloquently go through his lyrics, that’s when I knew that was something that I wanted to do.
DX: You recently released the B-Side track “Fugees Flow Million Times.” Tell me about that inspiration and what the Fugees mean to you even.
Mali Music: I’m really excited about it. On Mali Is…, you got songs like “Walking Shoes,” “Royalty,” “I Believe” and “Heavy Love” showcasing a lot of my singing. But I’m just as passionate about bars and rapping. I really love the whole flow of all that stuff. “Ready Aim” didn’t originally have the rap part in it at first. Then you’ve got Mark Pitts, who’s like, “Hey, Mali, you should put a rhyme on here.” “Fight For You” didn’t have nothing on there, and Mark was like, “You should spit right here.” And I think that’s normally where people go out and get features. I’ve always been very, very cool about it, but that’s not really popular where we come from. It was really good to be able to do it, and afterwards, too it’s like, “OK, we’ve got the singing stuff out. We need to let everybody know what’s happening.”
They sent some like Nas beats over, and they sent a Fugees joint over. I was just vibing with it on the airplane, and a “Million Times” came out of it…just really, really blessed me. It was good to see where I was in that particular place and where I’ve been in the past, and I think that’s a very, very good fit.
DX: How did you come up with your stage name, Mali Music?
Mali Music: I wish it was something super cool, but it wasn’t at all like that. In the South, they would call me Mali, with my middle name being Jamaal. I guess from there, it just kinda flowed. Music is how I get my ideas out, so it was how it worked, and it was awesome. It kinda flowed off the tongue, and I knew it was right, once I heard the call.
Mali Music Reflects On Winning A Grammy With Lecrae
DX: Yeah, sometimes, we don’t even get to pick those things, it just happens that way. I first heard about you from Lecrae’s “Tell The World.” What was working with him like and what did that song do for you personally?
Mali Music: It was really good. Lecrae is just such a monster on so many levels, not just lyrically, which he’s bananas and not just as an artist, but he has a powerful brand. He has a branding mind with his label, Reach Records. He’s just really, really doing his thing. With that being the case, I feel that he doesn’t have to come out. He’s to himself, he has a circle and so I was really honored that they thought to send something and us to be able to collab. His friend Rudy Currence, who’s an amazing artist and was working in the studio with him consistently, was reaching out. They sent an idea I loved, but I have a lot in my head. So I rarely go with what I get. Once I got the beat and just really started vibing on what he was saying, it was just like, “I’ma tell the world, tell the world, tell ‘em every.” It just started ringing out, and I’m like, “Yeah.” I just really wanna create that moment on stage, and I believe the audience appreciated it as well, and so did Lecrae. That and many other great songs on that album received a Grammy, and that’s a gift.
DX: You also got some help from Akon, right?
Mali Music: Yes, Akon was very instrumental early on in the whole transition. He was one of the first people who on the major side of the music industry really saw something special and acted on it. And over time, he just kinda developed into a big brother. His words are always good, and he always has something to show for what he’s saying. He’s not one of those stagnant mentors that aren’t growing or aren’t doing anything. He was very, very instrumental in my view of multiple streams of not just income, but output. The way that he thinks to use his influence to be able to make change is very, very inspiring. On top of that, he has a great ear for music. He’s straight to the point, and he’s been through many of the stages of music, so he’s very wise and just a really good friend. He’s a good person to have to be able to call, and he does pick up as busy as he is. He’s really a mogul and a huge bridge for where music has gone and where it’s going. Lady Gaga came over that bridge. T-Pain came over that bridge. Many of the people that we know, Akon has a lot to do with the back-story. So he’s a guy that I really, really do respect his mind, his business style, his viewpoint, and also who he is just as a person. He’s a very, very loving man who really does care about people, and I love that.
DX: That’s cool to see him beyond the music. I heard that you also write all of your music? Why is that important to you?
Mali Music: Your pen is your scroll. That’s what you’re saying. When the music goes off and it’s just a blank page, that’s what you were saying in your song. I don’t want anything that I’m ashamed of or anything making me say, “Well, I didn’t write that part.” I didn’t want that. Also, the industry can be very strange with credit and creative ownership. It’s really scary. On top of that, that’s where a lot of the money is involved. It’s crazy. Aside from those just basic reasons, I do it because I love to, and I can. I’ve learned a lot of people don’t write their lyrics because they can’t. It’s a great gift, and I just had to. If not, I wouldn’t have these songs for sure. It causes me to be serious, and I already had an idea of the vision of what I want to say at the end of the day. I’m grateful for the grace that God has given me to be able to articulate my idea.
Why Mali Music Says Some Songwriting Makes The Industry Stagnant
DX: Would you be opposed to singing a song written by another artist?
Mali Music: No. It would just have to be the perfect song. I think I’m really big on identity. I don’t know if I could meet a person who can talk about how I feel about love or whatever better than me. If somebody’s like, “OK, well Mali’s not really good at introducing himself so I will,” I don’t think that’s something anybody will ever say. I don’t want anything associated with or identifying of me from anyone else to be second-class to the way it would be if I was able to do it myself. I love so many songs. But what I do is so unique that even if a person does try to write for me, it’s always kinda cheesy, because it’s what they try to do based on what they think I would do. It’s not as genuine because I ride a very, very fine line of swag and popular approaches with very, very strong spiritual energy. So if that’s done wrong at all, it could just be terrible. I guess I don’t really trust too many people with it, because it’s mine. I created it.
DX: Do you write for other people?
Mali Music: I do. I love to. I have a few songs on Jennifer Hudson’s album coming out. We were able to make some really good music, and I love to do that. But I don’t know...writing songs has become as political as producing songs. Now, it’s not even about who has the best song, it’s all about who you know, how many hits they’ve written already, and all this other weird stuff. It causes the industry to become stagnant. It’s really cool, and I’m learning a lot and finding out the reason why these go-to people are as depended on as they are. You gotta be able to take it from where it is to where it’s going, not just be refreshing and new. Everybody isn’t as excited about that as they should be.
DX: How was working with Jennifer Hudson?
Mali Music: It was awesome. It was a lot of fun. She’s such a strong personality. I just really, really love how she gets down. She’s serious about music, her sound, and getting her ideas out. But she’s also very, very reverent of what God is doing and has done through me and with me. It’s very, very, very good. We had a great time, and I think we could make hundreds of great songs together, non-stop. We had to stop just because we had to. I think it’s just great. We both respect each other’s gifts, each other’s angles, and it just is a blessing.
DX: I read somewhere, you even talked about this earlier, that the live show is very important to you. Why is that such an important part of your music?
Mali Music: That’s where it’s the most evident. That’s where it’s the clearest right there, no doubt. Once you get the opportunity to come to a show and I’m really able to express myself right in front of you, because it’s always gonna be new and fresh and inspired. I think that’s the thing that causes people to leave and really get it. That makes me the happiest.
DX: How do you define success?
Mali Music: I guess I define success as the most basic form of the word. Success is the accomplishing of a thing that an individual sets out to do. Flat out. So good or bad, if a person says in their mind or in their heart, sitting down one day, “I want to do this,” and a day later or a moment later, it’s done, that success. Success isn’t a good or a bad thing. It could be used for bad, it could be used for good, but success is standard. Success is what comes when you accomplish a thing you set out to do. That’s what it means to me.
DX: Do you think that you have success or are on the path towards success?
Mali Music: One hundred thousand billion percent. I think that this is one of the healthiest successes, because it’s not one that’s degrading. So when this wins, everybody wins, and it inspires everybody. People don’t feel degraded because of the success that comes from it. People feel empowered by it. That’s when it’s special, when your success is connected to the happiness of a generation, you’re doing something real good.
Mali Music photo by LEANN MUELLER, courtesy of RCA Records