It wasn’t the allure of another Grammy nomination or the possibility of teaming up with hip-hop heavyweights Kanye West and Mos Def that brought Mystic back to music. Instead, it was a professor at U.C. Berkeley, where the 39-year-old rapper is working toward finishing up a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. In the middle of a lecture about global poverty and the role of artists in facilitating social change, she broke down in tears and then sought advice from Professor Ananya Roy about what to do next. Roy’s advice: Keep making music.
That’s at least some of the story of how, 13 years after her debut solo album “Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom” spawned the hit “The Life” and earned her a BET award nomination for best female hip-hop artist, she’s on the verge of releasing her second album “Beautiful Resistance.” It’s a journey that’s had detours and pit stops. She met and buried her father, became committed to arts education, appeared in a few films, worked on the business side of a major label and went back to school. Each experience gave her perspective, some of which appears on the new album, which she began as a protest to George Bush’s re-election in 2004. “I wasn’t interested in the music business,” she says of the time between albums. “I wanted to create music freely and on my own.”
I spoke with Mystic by phone about the new album, which will be released digitally through W.A.R. records on August 26.
Tell me about what’s been happening since “Cuts for Luck.”
After “Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom” was released and the original distributing label folded, I went over to DreamWorks. We were going to re-release the album with new tracks on it with people like Mos Def and production from Kanye, Donelle Jones and other folks. Then DreamWorks was absorbed into Interscope, which was disheartening. I actually fought through a legal battle to get released from my contract. When I was finally released from my contract, I wasn’t really interested in taking meetings with other labels that were interested. People were trying to figure out what was wrong with me, but there was nothing wrong with me [laughs]. I just wasn’t interested. It had been heartbreaking watching people lose their jobs.
That was around 2003 or so, and I also decided that I really wanted to go back to school. I had dropped out of high school at the end of 11th grade, got my GED, and began working with children when I was 17. I always dreamt about opening a community arts center and elementary school in Oakland. So I entered into community college in about 2004 and fell into love with anthropology. I was still engaged with art here and there. I did stuff for a couple films, but really I was dedicated to school. I also started to record the “Beautiful Resistance” album around that time. That’s how long ago this album was started, and I know that specifically because the title track was written after Bush stole his second election.
Were you still making music during this time?
While I was in school, I continued to record the album with [producer] Eligh. I’d go over and we’d work on music and I would go home and study. I was kind of balancing it all. I graduated in 2009 with an A.A. in anthropology, with honors. I was also working in the music industry on the business side of Universal Music, which was a fascinating experience. I got to learn about how the business works from the inside and obviously the digital aspects of the music industry, which were really growing.
Tell me about when you decided to finally release the album.
I got to Berkeley and one of my first classes was Global Poverty with Ananya Roy. She’s an amazing professor and researcher, but in one of her later lectures during the semester she started talking about what she called “insurgent architects.”We were talking about them about them in the context of the I.M.F. and United Nations, people who work from within institutions to help facilitate and create change even though those structures may not support the progressive kind of change that they think will be most impactful. She just talked about how insurgent architects could be anywhere, and they could include artists. I cried during the lecture, came home and sent her an e-mail in which, for the first time, I shared that I was an artist. I shared a couple songs and she wrote me back saying, “You gotta keep making music.”
How did you react to that?
It created this shift within myself where I saw that it was possible for me to be a full-time student and pursue tools to be of greater service to children around the world, but also to be an artist and come back and try to use the platform to advocate for children and basic human rights issues. Here we are. I finished my first year at Berkeley. That’s kind of a journey. I wasn’t interested in the music industry, the business. I wanted to create music freely and on my own.
Your music has always centered around activism. It seems like you made this conscious decision to engage in that activism in a way that wasn’t been recorded and shared with fans, which is as important as anything else.
Exactly. I don’t know that it always fits within the music. That’s why I think of the platform that the music provides me. It’s not that I don’t think that people would respond to it or I don’t feel like sharing that part of myself. It would be a little bit more challenging to write lyrics that are about designing curriculum, but I think that whatever the album is after “Beautiful Resistance” — there will be one and it won’t take 13 years — we will begin to see more in my music what I’m learning at Berkeley. I’m able to listen to this album and songs like “Country Road” and know that at the time I was taking an African-American studies class and we were looking at slavery. Then in a song like “Payback,” I can tell that my references to Ancient Rome are because I was taking a Western Civilization course. I think being introduced to wider theoretical frameworks at Berkeley will definitely show up in my music in the future.
What strikes me is that a lot of the album is very California in tone. You have what’s probably one of the more unique Californian experiences in that you’ve literally lived all over the state, including the actual Northern California. How did your experience growing up and living in different places in the state impact your music?
Most of my life has been in the Bay Area and I say I’m from Oakland because it’s where I became a woman and discovered myself. But I was conceived in Berkeley, my mother took me to U.C. Santa Cruz with her when I was in kindergarden. That was in 1980 or so and it was the kind of environment where people believed that children have voices and I got to be around all these awesome students who were critical thinkers.
Then we lived in Visalia where my mom was working for the Legal Aide Society with farmworkers on water pollution issues; that was obviously a different experience. It was a part of California that was racist and my mother was very concerned that I would internalize that racism as a black child. Then we went to San Francisco and lived in the Mission District. I’ve just grown up around diverse people in California. But I think definitely the Bay Area has made me who I am because of the natural resistance and rebellion that exists here.
You open and close the new album with tracks with “mommalove” in the title. Can you talk to me about tapping into that energy? On “Cuts for Luck,” one of the most popular songs was “Fatherless Child,” so that seems like a little but of switch.
The intro “Mommalove” is actually a poem by a young woman who’s also an amazing artist named Emoni Fela. Emoni and I connected via Myspace and she’s become a daughter to me. To journey with her from the time that she was about 15 or 16 to being a young black woman in this country has been beautiful but also challenging. She calls me Mommalove, and I call her Lil’ Mama — and I was calling her that before the artist Lil’ Mama blew up, no disrespect. I asked Emoni if she would write a poem and she wrote one about our relationship, mentoring, sisterhood, and the connection between women and young women. I made this intentional decision to put it first on the album because I was thinking that if nobody knows anything else about me, they will have a look into this beautiful, powerful relationship that I have with this brilliant young woman. The closing track, “Love, Mommalove” is a spoken word piece from me to her.
But describe the shift, because it’s very palpable on this album.
There is a shift on this album. The song “Higher Ground” is a reference to my mother. The only references to my father on this album are in “Clean Paper” which is about me coming to understand that love is not supposed to hurt. I was having these behaviors where I would wait for these men and I was hurting inside. I had to love myself and examine how my father’s absence in my life was impacting my romantic relationships. I think having my father come into my life right around when I was signing my [deal], that’s why it was so present on the first album. I was also in my 20s and still processing that. I’m still on a journey.
But in the time since then, I’ve really grown into my relationship with my mom, who was the primary person who raised me. She showed me what it is to be dedicated to the community; she taught me how to be a black woman. Even though she’s a white woman, she gave me the books, the inspiration to really love my identity. I’ve come back to her and realized that I’ve put her through painful things, so “Higher Ground” is an apology to her.