In addition to his regular roles running the multimedia music company Soul Tools Entertainment, hosting KFAI’s Saturday-night show of the same name, writing articles for Insight News, and serving as the department head of the hip-hop program at McNally Smith College of Music, Toki Wright has spent significant time touring the world as an official arts ambassador, a job title bestowed upon him by the U.S. State Department.
Fresh off a tour of Croatia with the State Department’s Next Level program, Toki Wright landed back in the Twin Cities this week just in time to release a new EP, the aptly titled At the Speed of Life 3, which he wrote, recorded, and released in the span of only seven days. The collection spans multiple genres and interests, from hip-hop to Afrobeat, house, soul, and ambient music, and finds Toki in an open and reflective headspace, able to explore the many facets of his creativity in addition to his worries, hopes, and ambitions.
The album also hails a new chapter in his creative identity, as the songs are credited to both Toki Wright and his alter-ego, Mamadu. Mamadu is a name Wright was given while working as an arts ambassador in Sierra Leone in 2013, and his use of the new moniker is another indication that he’s unlocked a new door in his creative process. Toki and I discussed all this and more in advance of his big EP-release show happening this Saturday at the Nomad.
Andrea Swensson: Let’s start by talking about the EP — this is such a fascinating project to me, because not only did you record the songs in seven days, but you wrote, produced and released them in that time frame, too. Where did this idea come from?
Toki Wright: I think a lot of it came from wanting to test and see where I was with my craft, and what it is that I really wanted to say, organically, for myself, and not through the eyes of other people. I’ve been sitting in my basement for the last year and a half, since I put anything out or toured with anyone else, and I really wanted to figure out who I was, and what I wanted to make; what kind of music I believed in, what kind of sound I preferred. To test my skills learning music theory and synthesis, and video production, editing, design. I wanted to find somebody to really pay attention to what my concerns are and really be all the way about what I wanted to create. And it turned out that person was me.
I looked at some examples of people that really create for themselves, whether they’re painters or videographers or jazz musicians. Who makes music that organically comes from themselves, and who makes things that sound really true? And who am I?
It’s interesting to contrast that process with Pangaea, which was such an expansive project with all of these different people. By paring it down, what did you learn about your own instincts and process?
Well, the Pangaea project, we sat down and talked about what we wanted, and we tried to find happy mediums between everyone. In this case, I just sat down with myself and looked at myself in the mirror, and listened to what I was making, and I had to really question where I was with my craft. And then I asked people that I respected to tear me apart. One of the things that I’ve always tried to strive for in the relationships that I have with people in the arts is honesty — real, honest feedback. You can get in some hierarchical relationships with people where they don’t feel like they can tell you what they really want to tell you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or they don’t want to be excluded from something. For me, I need people to tell me honestly, before it gets out to the public, how does it sound to you? How does it feel to you? Is it moving enough? Does it throw you off? Because as much as I’m making music for myself, I’m also making music to be consumed and to be heard, and to be danced to, and to be thought about. And I want to make sure I’m telling those stories and making that music the proper way.
When I was in Croatia, one of the people [I was working with], the video editor, told me, “Sometimes you just have to take a song and put it on the internet, and take it down.” Because a lot of the decisions that you make happen in those last 30 seconds where you’re like, “Oh wait! I see that one thing.” “That vocal is a little too loud,” or “that concept doesn’t make sense.” You think about that last-second, before it goes out in the world. Well, the thing about doing it seven days in a row and putting one song out a day is, I might have to sit with the mistakes that I had the day before, and say, ok, what am I going to do better today? And how might I change the direction to not bore people, or to not bore myself? Or to not pigeonhole myself into a certain sound? And if I’m feeling a certain way today, if I’m happy today, I need to express that. If I’m sad today, I need to express that. If I don’t understand what’s going on, I need to express that. It’s cool to have that varied amount of ideas and concepts. It’s kind of like the emperor realizing that he doesn’t have a robe on, you know, and you just have to deal with it. You go find some clothes.
I like that idea of putting something up and taking it down — it’s like a Snapchat approach to putting music out. What would I do if I knew this was temporary?
Right. You have to question what you do. And maybe a lot of us expect that because we made it, people are going to like it. Or because we made it and it was true to what we felt, that it’s going to be heard or cared about. And that’s not always the case. You have to try things, and you have to see what people are connecting to, and you have to see what feels good for you. So that’s where I’m at with all of my creative processes right now, meeting a lot of different people across the world, hearing a lot of different sounds, hearing a lot of different instruments and rhythms, learning more about how music is made; learning more about the history behind music, studying people that I feel are great. Pushing boundaries; not feeling like I have to be stuck to a certain style or rhythm. Because I have a lot of freedom, you know? I feel really free and open to be whoever I am, now.
One of the things that keeps coming up, and I wanted to address it because it comes up a lot when I travel around, is that people ask me “What’s your status with Rhymesayers?” It’s a big question. And I’ve come to tell people that, one, I’m very appreciative of the relationship that I’ve had with Rhymesayers, but I haven’t put a record out with Rhymesayers in almost six years. And a lot of people still put me under a category of whatever is currently happening over there. But I’ve accomplished a whole lot of things, I’ve done a whole lot of things, I’ve grown a lot in the period since I’ve put anything out over there.
And that’s not saying that the relationship isn’t open; maybe something one day down the line makes sense for both of us. But it was always a partnership, and people may not understand that the way my relationship with them was set up was different than the majority of the other artists over there. I knew, coming into the situation, that I was going to have to do the bulk of the work. So all the videos you saw, we shot. All of the music that we produced, we produced. All of the recording, all of the merchandise, all of that stuff was stuff we did. And it went out through a certain channel and people maybe saw it a certain way. I think a lot of people have this attitude that I hope can change, especially in the Twin Cities, where you’re with them, or you’re with us. You know? It’s like, even people that have relationships with record labels still have to do work. And there is no magic solution for people to be “on,” or to get a big following, or any of that. It takes a hustle and it takes your individual effort, and it also takes having partners that see that vision and want to see where you want to go.
So my thing is focusing on Soul Tools, and how do we do all these things on our own? How do we learn how to shoot better film and music videos? How do we learn how to make better music? How do we learn how to market and promote ourselves better? How do we tell our story in our authentic way; who is our following, and who is our family and fanbase, whatever you want to call it. How do we focus on them? So everything from throwing events to writing for papers or doing side projects, putting movies out — it’s all about having our own individual identity.
And giving TED Talks…
And Giving TED Talks! It’s a lot. But it’s cool. I think the definition of what it means to be an artist has changed. Or even, you know, what it means to be in broadcast journalism. You have to wear a lot of different hats, and if you don’t know how to do a lot of different things, you either end up being at the mercy of people that know more than you, or you end up being left behind. And I just want to know. When I step in the room, I’m like, ok, well what does that do? I haven’t seen that piece of equipment before. What is the result of me learning more about the thing I have to use?
It seems to go back to what you were saying about how every time you put something out, it has to be high quality, and that you can’t take for granted that people are going to listen to it because it’s you. I feel like media is certainly developing that way, too — people don’t just follow a journalist because they like them, they follow them because each story is compelling. It’s kind of high stakes right now. You have to constantly be on your game.
Yeah, and it reminds me of — maybe some of the reason I ever had any kind of success, whatever we call success, is because I come from a culture of the talent show. When you’re on the North Side of Minneapolis and you’re at a talent show, if you’re not good in the first 10 seconds, people are going to let you know. So I had to learn how to make that first 10 seconds really good, and hold people for the rest of the time. So that’s the same for media, you know. I know when somebody hits that button and sees the first couple seconds — you can go back and look at your stats on any kind of social media platform, and you’ll see who only watched it for three seconds, or see who skipped it. And you have to ask yourself why. So I’ve just gone through a big process of why are certain things hitting, and why are certain things not? And whatever isn’t working, I either need to make it better or get rid of it.
I want to ask you about your name. There’s a line on the EP about this that jumped out at me, on “Fault Lines,” where you say, “Change my name to Mamadu like I’m Cassius Clay.” Tell me the story of Mamadu, where this name comes from and its role in your artistic identity.
Sure. Well I always wanted a cool name. And all of my names when I was trying to rap when I was a little kid ended up being horrible. And I ended up just choosing my birth name. I was in Sierra Leone maybe about four years ago, and I was working with a bunch of young artists and kind of helping develop their hip-hop and spoken word community, and foster some relationships between the DJs and the MCs and the poets, I was given this title Mamadu, which means “The Prophet.” And it also, in language out there, loosely translates to Muhammad. And so, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and I’m changing my name to Mamadu like I’m Cassius Clay.
For now, I noticed that your songs are billed as Toki Wright with production by Mamadu. Is there a goal of embracing Mamadu completely as your new identity?
Yeah, I think in the long run it’s gonna get a lot weirder. [laughs] It’s weird enough, but it’s getting weirder. Every day, you know, it’s like, what do I have to lose? Sometimes I like hip-hop, sometimes I like Afrobeat, sometimes I like country. And sometimes I like just straight-up, non-metered avant garde ambient music. And if I want to make any of those things on a given day, why not? Maybe they all end up in the same pot, and they end up being some weird thing, and people love it or they hate it; I hope it just makes them feel something.
You are just getting back now from a tour in Croatia, and I saw a little clip of a video you were making for “In Gods We Trust.” Can you tell us more about your trip and what you were working on there?
Yeah! So out in Croatia, I had a few shows, played with Lord Finesse, and was working with J-Live, an MC from Atlanta by way of New York; Asia One, a legendary breakdancer out of Denver; and Baba Israel, who is a beatboxer and big person in the theater community out in New York. We were working through a program called Next Level. We did maybe eight shows, we connected with young artists and helped them develop their craft, and did a big showcase at the end as part of the Platforma Festival, which is a big street dance festival. And while I was there, I also went to these really beautiful national parks and places where you could drink the water from the river, these beautiful things I had never seen that really blew my mind.
I also connected with a lot of the dance community out there and went to this community called New Zagreb, which was built during socialist times. So you see a lot of really big block buildings that are very reminiscent of the projects in Chicago or New York. We just went to the hoods and we shot videos and we connected with people, with this really loud American rap banging out of the subway and people walking by confused, and some people walking by wanting to know where to put the money in our hat. It was a beautiful experience and I met so many cool people and opened a lot of people’s eyes, and we’ve got a bunch of videos that are coming from that. So “In Gods We Trust,” that video will be out next month, but I have a video for a song called “The Situation” which is really, really trippy, we shot it in a few days a couple weeks before I left, and it’s a piece of work. So I hope people out there, if you get the chance, check out the project, it’s on Bandcamp, and this weekend it’ll be iTunes and all those places that you go to get music and physical copies. And you know, come watch me perform and maybe we can get weird.
Toki Wright, a.k.a. Mamadu celebrates the release of At the Speed of Life 3 this Saturday, May 20, at the Nomad World Pub with mini-sets by special guests the Lioness, Myc Dazzle & Faith Reigns, Asia Divine, Jay Hollywood, Off-10 Publications (G.P. Jacob & Scoundrel Spence), Maolu, P-Soul, Ghostband, and Sonic Rain.