Soulful, Candid, Original and Independent
Maimouna Youseff, known on the hip-hop scene as Mumu Fresh, is breaking barriers in the indie landscape with her candid lyrics and soulful style.
The Baltimore-based singer/songwriter, MC and producer has toured with Common, The Roots and Queen Latifah. She’s also shared the stage with Nas, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, D’angelo, Mos Def, Dead Prez, and more.
Family Musical Roots and Childhood Start
Grammy-nominated Mumu Fresh comes from a family of musicians, so talent runs in the family. She started singing around the age of five, performing traditional African and Native American songs on stage with her family. By the time Mumu Fresh was in junior high, she and her cousin Omari “AzIz” Forman-Bey had formed a band called Cirius B.
In high school, Mumu Fresh started sneaking into clubs, and that’s how she met Raheem DeVaughn. It was the late ’90s and DeVaughn was hosting an open mic called “Organic Soul” at Club Intellect. To Youseff, he seemed like he knew the scene, so she got into his ear for advice on breaking into her own music career, and to see if there was anything she could do.
“He said you’ve got to have a record. No one’s going to book you if you don’t have a record,” Mumu Fresh recalls. “So I was like, ‘alright, cool.’ So, that means we need to record music. So we just started writing [more] music.”
By the time Mumu Fresh was a junior in high school, she had a part-time job, and she started buying studio time at a recording studio in Baltimore for Cirius B.
The Roots and a Powerful Moment
Around 2006, She wrote a song for the Roots and went on tour with them for their album, “Game Theory.” She happened to be recording in the same studio with The Roots, and Dice Raw would frequently ask her to reference vocals or lay down ideas. Mumu Fresh presented her idea for the song “Don’t Feel Right.”
“And it was so funny because I was so tired that day. I really wanted to go home,” Mumu Fresh remembers. “I didn’t feel like recording.”
“He was like, ‘come on, just lay this verse for me real quick for the record.’”
“I just laid these vocals and thought I was going to do it over again later and make it better. And that ended up being on the album when they asked me to come on tour. And then the song got nominated for a Grammy. I never got to do the vocals over.”
Learning on the Road…Literally
Mumu Fresh had to learn everything while on tour. There hadn’t been any rehearsal. If she needed help, she looked to Questlove, who would give her cues of what to do.
“I remember getting on the bus, I didn’t really understand what that really meant,” Youseff says. “I met with Questlove one time, to like, talk about the show really loosely, and I’m thinking ‘we’re going to have real live rehearsal.’ Um no, they told me when the bus was pulling off….So I literally learned on the road.”
Mumu Fresh says that while on tour with The Roots, often the show would change. Questlove would get inspired, and alter the show accordingly to match his new vision.
Mumu the Recording Artist Emerges
“I had no idea what was going on,” Youseff says, recalling the tour from 2007. “I just had to fake it until I made it. And it worked out. I definitely learned a lot on that tour in terms of performing. I learned a whole lot on that tour.”
Mumu Fresh released her first Solo EP, “Black Magic Woman” in 2011, and later released a full length solo album, “The Blooming.”
In her latest album, “The Reintroduction of Mumu Fresh”, Youseff takes top 40 songs and transforms them. On the album you can catch sounds from artists like Lorde, Pharrell, Lauryn Hill and more. The neo soul sound on the mixtape is reminiscent of power female artists like Erykah Badu, Goapele and Missy Elliott. The album, meant to be a social commentary, speaks on topics like modern society and culture, her Muslim influences, the Haitian Revolution, her Native-American roots, hair, and student loans. Youseff writes all of her own songs. The tracks have fresh introductions in spoken word, mostly by DJ Dummy.
“I, on purpose, showed issues that I felt were relevant that you never hear songs written about,” Youseff says.
Combining the Best of Yesterday and Today
“I was kind of trying to prove a point that urban music can do this. We can go back to those days where, you know, you had a song like “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by The Temptations,” says Youseff. “And Earth, Wind and Fire covered amazing topics. They did it so eloquently and beautifully and well written, and I just wanted to speak to that, but with hip-hop,” she says.
Mumu Fresh started writing songs when she was around 7 years old. She started out as a curious young girl, writing down the lyrics of songs she had on cassette. She would stop the tape, run it back, and write down the lyrics. Then she would break them down so she could try to understand them.
“I think, one thing that I miss about older music, soul music, you know, rock music, is just that the subject matter was so vast and so interesting. They were like conversations,” Youseff says. “Like anything that you may talk to your best friend about, or your family at dinner, there was a song that would correspond with that. That’s not the case today, especially in urban music.”
Passing it On-College Teacher Mumu Fresh
When she’s not writing or producing music, Mumu Fresh also teaches songwriting and vocal workshops at Trinity College. As a teacher, she strives to open up the eyes of the next generation. Sometimes, she has her students print out the lyrics of current radio hits.
“And they’ll say like, ‘wow, this is really stupid. I didn’t realize how stupid this was until I read it,’ you know?”
“We are pigeonholed into like three topics, like money, love, the lack of love, and that’s kind of it,” Youseff says. “And partying. Right? So you’ve got like four categories. And it’s so ridiculous because none of us really live like that.”
Broad Spectrum of Inspiration
Her influences are, among many others, Lauryn Hill, Wu Tang Clan, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Erykah Badu. When Erykah first came out, Mumu Fresh remembers seeing her and hearing her music and thinking to herself, I can’t believe they’re letting her do that! Youseff identified with Badu’s style, but had never heard it on mainstream radio.
“At the time, you had groups like Destiny’s Child out; that was kind of more the norm,” Youseff says. “And I’m like, ‘why is she singing like, jazzy?’ I grew up that way, but I looked at us as outcasts of regular society. I didn’t feel like we were part of society. We were like, under the floorboards of America, you know?
“It was amazing to see that you could be accepted,” Youseff says. “It was really, really inspiring to just see that, and the bodaciousness of her. She was genuine and just so authentic in herself, and just like ‘I’m different and I’m good with it. I’m not trying to be you, I’m trying to be me, I’m me.’ That was really influential.”
Courage to Go the Indie Route
As an independent artist, Mumu Fresh says that a lot of people assume artists go independent because they can’t get a deal. However, some choose independent as a route first.
“You don’t get the immediate gratification that you would if you were on a multi-billion dollar label that can pay for your popularity,” Youseff says.
“Strategizing it to really make it work and to be a boss and to have the ball in your corner. That gives you the right to be courageous because these major labels are not courageous, and they’re not about music,” Youseff says. “They’re not driven by musicians, they’re not driven by creativity or how groundbreaking can you be. You know, it’s like, how much money can you make. If you end up being creative and groundbreaking at the same time, cool, but that’s not the objective, that’s not what they go for first.”
“They can pay a dollar amount and change your life. As an independent artist, it’s almost like you’re trading the instant gratification for artistic integrity.
As far as what she’ll do next, Youseff is launching her own record label this year, and releasing an album she did with 9th Wonder and The Soul Council called “Been Here Before.” She has a second mystery project that we have yet to see!
“The whole idea behind the record label is really just about support for extraordinary artists because I feel like the music industry supports mediocrity, and they encourage it,” Youseff says. “And, it’s really hard for artists who are extraordinary to get support because they [the labels] don’t know what to do with them.
“And, so, yeah, that’s what’s next for me is this [my own] record label and supporting the next generation.”
When asked “What is it that makes you feel like, ‘I’ve arrived, I’ve made it’?’’ she says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that. I would say in the end, I want to have a catalog of music that I’m really, really proud of.”
“So I guess that’s the goal for me,” she says, “like a catalog that I want to leave here that I’m proud of for the next ten generations, and a blueprint, a business blueprint for artists who want to be independent.”