Mankwe Ndosi is no stranger to fans of Twin Cities hip-hop. A onetime back-up vocalist for Atmosphere who has been working closely with Medium Zach of Big Quarters, it seems that Ndosi has been quietly moving closer and closer to center stage in recent years. And given the strength of her full-length debut, Science and Spirit, it’s about time she stormed into the spotlight.
In advance of her album-release show tomorrow night at Juxtaposition Arts in North Minneapolis, I sat down with Ndosi — who goes by just Mankwe on stage — at a neighborhood coffee shop to learn more about her artistic journey, her background in theater and spoken word, and her philosophies on creativity, expression, the current political climate, and more. The more we chatted, the more it became clear that Ndosi has a well thought-out and gracefully stated opinion on just about everything.
Local Current: I know you’ve been active in many areas of the arts community for a long time now. How long have you been pursuing music?
Mankwe Ndosi: I’ve been singing since I was little. After I got out of college I was kind of looking for all different kinds of performance opportunities, and what brought me back to the Twin Cities was thinking I was interested in theater and dance and where they mixed together. And then a friend of mine — I was living in the house of the Ewarts, Douglas and Janis Lane-Ewart; Janis runs KFAI, and Douglas is a performing artist and visual artist and instrument builder between here and Chicago — he heard me sort of experiment with singing and was like, “Hey! Come on!” And he started to bring me to Chicago. This was about 2000. So I’d say it was around that time when I really started to think that music was my best and most enjoyable gift, and that singing was what gave me the most joy.
So you are originally from Minnesota?
Ndosi: Yes. Neither of my parents are. My father is from East Africa, from Tanzania, the northern mountainous part between Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro; and my mother was from St. Louis. They met at the University of Minnesota. Me and my two siblings were born here, born on the West Bank and lived there until I was 7, and then my parents moved us to Golden Valley, so we were out by the Arts High School.
Did you go there?
Ndosi: No, I went to the Breck School. I was kind of a theater baby in high school, so my performance background starts there. Although music has been a huge part of my life since I was young, young. My father brought East African and South African music, and he liked classical music and had taught himself to play the piano when he was in Tanzania. So we had piano music and classical music all the time, and then with the radio and the records that he had from different parts of the world, I’ve had people who were interested in interesting music around me for a long time.
What are your earliest memories of falling in love with a sound or an artist?
Ndosi: There’s a range of things. One of them is just the sounds of the outside. My father was a gardener and I was his weeding companion, so some of it was influenced by imitating the language of the birds and the cats and listening to the wind. Nature has a real profound impact on the way that I think about singing. And then I sort of consider Miriam Makeba, the South African activist and singer, as being one of my first vocal coaches, because she was a person who, listening to her, I had no idea what she was saying, but the way that she used her voice, and the richness of her voice, and the expressiveness of her voice and the different vocal percussion that she used with it really started to instinctually help me think about music and my voice as an instrument, and that there really wasn’t any one way to sing, and to be able to use your voice for all different kinds of expression.
And then I fell in love in high school with the Police, and I’m kind of embarrassed to talk about my Duran Duran days, but they existed along with Michael Jackson, and so I had music from all over the place, really. Joan Armatrading was also a huge love of mine when I was in high school. And then I started to learn about jazz music and jazz vocalists when I was in college, so Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone — who is a huge influence, both in terms of her subject matter and also her voice, and just how much emotion she sang with. She didn’t always try to sound pretty. Which is a big part of how I try to approach singing, is to use the voice to be able to express the full range of human story and human emotion.
I feel like that’s especially challenging for women, to be abrasive and not pretty.
Ndosi: I think I definitely fall into the category of someone who likes to be abrasive — because stories aren’t all sweet and sugary, and if you are sweet and sugary you actually limit your ability as a performer to connect up with the reality of your audience and your own life, and to be able to be honest on stage. It becomes much more about pretense. For me, I do a lot of improvisation, I work a lot with improvisational artists and creative musicians through the AACM [the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians], as well as being influenced and having been involved with hip-hop artists in the Twin Cities, so often you’re not singing with words, and to limit yourself to pretty, beautiful tones kind of limits yourself as an artist, to me.
It’s like only playing one part of the piano.
Ndosi: Exactly. And part of performing has to do with catharsis, and people appreciate you being able to express things that they can’t express themselves creatively. In terms of your story or your music, speaking to things that they were feeling but didn’t have words for. To be able to do that well, to be able to tell a story well, you have to be able to access your entire humanity, your entire range of experience.
Tell me about your background in spoken word.
Ndosi: I was in a spoken word and music group with e.g. bailey, before he and others started the Minnesota Spoken Word Association. There were three musicians, and three sort of poet-theater artists, so we did a mix of things. That was probably the mid- to late-’90s, and we did a combination of repurposing and reinterpreting Black Arts movement poems, working to music, and then our own writing, and sort of mixed those things. That was one of the times when South Minneapolis spoken word and poetry was closer to South Minneapolis hip hop. And that’s how I started to meet folks from the hip-hop community here as well. I had a little bit of hip hop growing up, but my family was so international and it wasn’t on the radio too much, so I didn’t really get into it until later.
How much overlap is there between hip hop and spoken word?
Ndosi: I think now is a time when those two are very well woven again. There was a time when they were together and then they went apart, and now we’re in another period where they’re a lot closer, and people who are MCs in hip hop are recognizing themselves as poets and vice versa.
Tell me about your journey into songwriting. Do you approach it as a poet, a spoken word artist, or a vocalist?
Ndosi: I started writing songs when I was in middle school; nobody would hear them except for me. I have a practice of improvising songs, improvising language as well as the melodic line or harmonic line or rhythmic line. I have written different ways for performance, so in certain ways this is just a different form; I don’t necessarily categorize myself when I’m starting out. I’ve done some writing workshops in different locations and one of the things I like to encourage people to do is to not frame themselves too tightly, to unframe the work that they’re doing and see what comes out. So I think the writing process for me is sort of freewriting, and then chiseling. And on several of the songs Zach [Bagaason, who co-produced the record] and I would go back and forth, and he would fine-tune some things or have some ideas about the way a line was. Each of the songs came together differently. Sometimes he would make a beat out of an improvisation I had done in the studio, and would carve out pieces and extend them and embellish them. Sometimes he would have a beat that I would write to. Sometimes I would write half of it and get stuck, and we would work on it together.
It sounds very collaborative.
Ndosi: Oh yeah, very collaborative. We had worked together on an EP in 2009, so that was our first time really making a product together. On this album, you can feel the deepening of our relationship and musical collaboration, and just more time that we were able to spend on the music. We probably started in earnest in 2010, in the midst of the rest of life of course, since being a full-time musician is very elusive to most. He’s teaching over at McNally Smith as well as doing work with Big Quarters, video work, and all kinds of different things. And I’ve been doing some teaching and community organizing, and I’ve been back and forth from Chicago to Minneapolis quite a bit as well. So we’ve been putting it all together so we can see where this one takes us.
How did you meet Zach?
Ndosi: I had met I Self Divine, a.k.a. Chaka Mkali, I think it was in 2005, when I was working on his first album. And he’s been a mentor to many hip-hop artists and artists and cultural organizers in the Twin Cities. So I think it was my birthday, initially when I met [Zach]. He and Brandon [Bagaason, Zach’s brother and Big Quarters bandmate] were living together at the time. And then I was running a small arts center in South Minneapolis, and I’d gotten Big Quarters’ first album and really loved it a lot, and hired them to perform at a community event for the neighborhood. So that’s when I really became a fan of Big Quarters and that’s when we really started to talk. I knew that he had been teaching, doing the hip-hop group at Hope Community, and we sort of casually started talking about doing some music and started to get in the studio.
And then when I was on tour singing back-up with Atmosphere, I saw that everyone else had merchandise. And I hadn’t necessarily felt the need — because a lot of my orientation has been about the live performance, and using the theatrical work to inform how I present songs as stories on the stage — so, going in there after the first tour, I was like, ok, I really want to put something out. So that really gave us the impetus to make the first EP, to have a project that was finished, and after that it was just really clear that we weren’t done. So we’ve been working together for about four years now, and known each other for about three years before that.
Mankwe Ndosi with Zach Bagaason
What was it like doing back-up vocals for Atmosphere?
Ndosi: It was different than any other experience I had had. Because I’ve been an improviser, there’s ways in which it was different because it wasn’t different every single time, though I could bring a different thing every single time. But what I found and came to appreciate was the depth and the proficiency to which you learn about something. Growing with a song, and feel a great respect for being able to sing a song again and find a different nuance in it. To sing and master a song, and really know it in its core, whereas I think I had gotten to this place where I was just like, “Now is now, and the next day is the next day, and it’s a lot different from the last time!” I had a bit of arrogance about not wanting to do anything twice. But it was a job and an opportunity that I really didn’t want to pass up. I had been doing work in the studio for them for years, and I was exhausted from running a nonprofit and this was really a jewel of an opportunity to just sing. It afforded me the luxury of getting used to performing in front of huge crowds without being the one on the hook. I was also able to appreciate what it takes to be a musician full-time, and the work and the very detailed attention that they give to their work both in the studio and on the stage, and just what a master stage performer Sean is. At that time they had been touring for a little more than 10 years, so he’d been through a lot of different phases with his work, and I could feel it — both with his mastery and his command of the stage, and then also in the way he cares for his audiences on the actual stage. He’s not checked out, at all. So if some randomness is happening in the crowd, he will stop and he will address it, which makes his audience feel real safe, and real cared for. It deepened my appreciation. I had done a lot of other different kinds of performing, but it gave me a great respect for what goes into putting it together, how many people are working on it, and just how much work and rehearsal they put into each piece of the puzzle. It was a joy. And I was the only girl, so they kind of took care of me. It was a beautiful experience. Especially because all I had to do was sing. They just picked me up and took me around the country, to Canada and Europe, and all I had to do was sing.
What can you tell me about the new record?
Ndosi: I see the record as being about transformation, in different ways. Transformative moments, when people make a decision to move from one way of being to another. Some calling up of transformation. Personal transformation, in terms of relationships. And then areas where the world needs some transforming and we need some transforming as a society and a globe — as a race of animals, really. I’m hoping people enjoy that and are able to take that into their own lives and use it as a way to think about their daily lives.
It feels like we’re in a big transition period as a society right now; there is a noticeable shift happening.
Ndosi: I think it’s a time when people are coming out and showing their colors. So there’s lots of ways in which things that had been masked or hidden are starting to come out. And obviously some of it has to do with the deep economic pressure there is on the country, and how many people are even more insecure than our society has made us — Americans were supposed to be the top of everything, but we actually have a society which is relatively insecure. You don’t really know, even if you’re doing all right, how long that “all right” is going to last. And everything costs money. There’s no assumption that we should take care of each other beyond our immediate family — and sometimes not even there.
So I think that when people have a harder time getting income and these cultural ways are in place, all of the fear comes out, all of the animosity comes out, all of the sectarian — like, “Oh, I’m going to just do one for me,” and “those people, those people, those people” kind of starts to happen. It’s a time when people are really showing what’s deep in their instinct-brain, or gut, but it’s also an opportunity to re-examine who we are, who we want to be for the future, and make some radical adjustments, and really look at the root of what we want to make for the future. So for the people who want things to be different, it’s time for us to be seen as well.
Mankwe Ndosi will play a release show for Science and Spirit on Saturday, July 21, at Juxtaposition Arts, with guest appearances by Sean “Twinkie Jiggles” McPherson, Jon Davis, Valandra!, Sarah Greer, Libby Turner-Opanga, and Chicago musicians Jovia Armstrong and Tomeka Reid. More info and tickets are available here.