Mahalia wears coat Aniye. Jewellery model’s own.

i-D’s music class of 2018: mahalia

Signed at just 13 years old, Mahalia has spent her teens releasing music with an emotional depth that extends far beyond her years.

by Ryan White; photos by Ronan McKenzie
16 November 2017, 10:32am

Mahalia wears coat Aniye. Jewellery model’s own.

This article originally appeared in The Sounding Off Issue, no. 350, Winter 2017 as part of our Music Class of 2018 portfolio.

19-year-old Mahalia Rose Burkmar describes her music as “psycho acoustic soul” and has done so since she was 11. Psycho not because of any abnormal or violent qualities to her sound. That couldn’t be further from the truth. But because “it’s a very English, very Leicester” thing to say. Growing up in Leicester with parents in a band, Mahalia spent much of her youth absorbing the sounds of the city. “The music scene in Leicester is quite diverse, it’s very mixed. There’s a massive folk scene there, and my brother and all his mates were in this grime/hip-hop group and used to do crazy shows.”

Moving to Birmingham to attend performing arts school at 13 after getting signed to Atlantic Records, Mahalia has spent her teenage years with her head down, crafting a unique sound that sits comfortably alongside the India.Arie and Erykah Badu songs her parents used to play at home. “I’m Caribbean, so my parents used to play a lot of reggae in the house, a lot of Bob Marley and the Wailers. It’s going to inhabit my sound, in one way or another.” Having already toured with Mabel, releasing two EPs, an album and, more recently, two beautiful singles, Mahalia looks set to graduate to the big time any day now. As part of our Class of 2018 portfolio, we get to know the rising star a little better.

When people ask what you do, what do you say?
That’s funny, I think I say I’m a singer… but it’s always a bit of an odd question. It depends what mood I’m in. If I’m in a talking mood I say I’m a singer and we’ll talk about stuff, or I’ll say I work away and not go into it because people tend to ask kind of weird questions when you say you’re a musician.

You’re from Leicester. What can you tell us about the the city’s music scene?
When I was a little kid loads of my mates in Leicester were in little indie bands and we would go to the tiny little venues and drink pop and jump around when I was like 13. There’s a massive folk scene there. My brother and all his mates were in this grime/hip-hop group and used to do crazy shows. It was amazing. I was kind of a bit of an oddball, just this girl who wanted to do spoken word and sing really soulful and play the guitar. The Leicester music scene’s awesome, but I fell out of it when I was about 14. I guess you have to be there to know what’s going on. I left to go to a performing arts school in Birmingham and I wanted to study acting because I signed pretty young, when I was about 13. And I was a bit like, If I’m going to be a signed artist able to do stuff and do gigs and miss school, I need to be somewhere that facilitates that. So I went to a performing arts college.

What do your parents do?
When I was a kid my dad was like a secret spy because no one ever knew what he was doing, but my parents were musicians when I was a kid and before I was born. My mom does a lot of different things. My dad was on the arts council for years. They were both musicians.

Is that part of what encouraged you to do it yourself?
Totally. I was sat in pubs when I was like four, singing along at the front of the audience to all their songs. So being around it made me think, Oh my God, I need to do this.

Did you ever feel like not being in London was a disadvantage to you?
Yes and no. I think yes because you definitely feel out of it, kind of like, 'I’m here and everyone’s there and there’s a disconnection.' But, no, because I kind of felt — not special, but almost like it’s only me here and I felt like a big fish in a little pond as opposed to feeling like a little fish in a big pond. Which I think when you’re growing is important for your mental state because then I was confident. It definitely helped me.

"I think using your platform to bring about change is great. I think when the moment comes for me to do that, then I will. Right now, while I’m still growing and trying to break out of something and say hello to the world."

Musicians are increasingly using their platform as a place for change and discussing issues like mental health, racism, sexuality, and feminism. How do you intend to use your platform?
All those things are really important to me. I think using your platform to bring about change is great. I think when the moment comes for me to do that, then I will. Right now, while I’m still growing and trying to break out of something and say hello to the world, I don’t want to say too much. I’m still establishing my audience.

You want the music to speak first.
Yeah, and I think sometimes you can say too much. I don’t want to do that before I’ve let my music say anything. You know what I mean?

What song makes you want to start a revolution?
Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

Oh, that’s a good answer. Why?
Well I think my parents used to play it to me and it’s the only song ever that’s made me feel like, This is radical. I think he had such a sick political voice, and actually he is someone who I think, lyrically, I wish I could do that. I wish I could be reborn as him. I think he’s amazing.

Who are you tipping for 2018, music wise?
Jelani Blackman. He’s sick. I saw him the other day. I didn’t realize it was him and then I was looking at him and someone said, "Oh, it’s Jelani Blackman," so I sprinted out the door and ran down the street to find him. I think he’s doing something different. I definitely would tip him.

What do you want to achieve in 2018?
I would like to hopefully have an album ready or be on the way to releasing an album!

ronan mckenzie
Music class of 2018
mahalia burkmar