All artists are creative. But Papa Mbye, a North Minneapolis rapper, singer, and producer, has a creative appetite that few can match.
Talk to Mbye (pronounced “ehm-bay”) and his collaborators, and it becomes clear the 22-year-old multidisciplinary artist — who, as a teenager, used to caricature passersby in the park as both an outlet and hustle — is prone to compulsive, relentless urges to express himself, whether that’s via drawing, making short films, or, increasingly, creating music.
Producer Ben Farmer has witnessed it: Mbye might roll out of bed, rub the sleep out of his eyes, and immediately practice guitar for the next couple hours. Or, you could go out to eat with him some night, and he’s liable to lean over his phone and start making a beat. Things like that.
“One thing I really enjoy about working with Papa is he’s obviously a very open and creative person,” Farmer says. “He’s always down to explore ideas and see what they sound like, but then he’s also got a pretty good idea of what he wants. And he’s just a fun person to be around.”
Mbye is fairly new to music, citing a 2019 house-show performance as a spark. “It was called Aquarius Fest, my homie’s birthday show,” Mbye says. “It was pretty packed with kids from Como and the U … I thought it would be cool to perform. We went on [to] throw more shows, and I’d keep coming up with songs.”
The sound he’s since developed is eclectic to say the least, drawing on a lifetime of listening that began with Senegalese artists like Youssou N’Dour and N’dongo Lo, then continuing with infatuations of Michael Jackson, Kanye West (particularly the 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, which inspired Mbye to sing), and Twin Cities collective thestand4rd (Corbin, Allan Kingdom, Psymun, and Bobby Raps), whom he discovered while attending Robbinsdale Armstrong High School.
Maybe more formative than any other musical inspiration, though, was when Mbye first heard the generation-defining R&B singer Frank Ocean’s long-gestating but instant classic 2016 album, Blonde. “That really made me want to make music for real,” Mbye says. “I did not want to make music unless it made people feel how that made me feel.”
The title of Mbye’s first EP, out Sept. 3, is Mang Fi. In Wolof, the language most commonly spoken in Senegal, it translates to “I’m here.” Mbye was born in and spent the first two years of his life in Gambia and Senegal before moving to Minneapolis. Although he has no memory of those early years, he did return to the West African region for two weeks when he was eight during winter break from school. “I remember really loving it,” he says of the trip.
Mbye dedicated Mang Fi to loved ones including his late cousin and fellow immigrant Abdoulaye Nene Cisse. The opening track, “WEB(si)+e,” was inspired by mournful, reminiscent visits to Cisse’s Facebook page after his death. “Wide awake on your bedside, wide awake on your website,” Mbye sings. “Talk to me one more time.” His grief shows through the digital processing of his voice.
Managed by the independent company Against Giants (whose clientele also includes Twin Cities artists Dua Saleh, Psymun, and Alec Ness), Mbye worked heavily with the aforementioned Farmer and producer Zak Khan on Mang Fi. Farmer notes that, despite Mbye’s quick traction in the music scene, he isn’t necessarily a “natural.” But Farmer means it in the best way. He praises Mbye’s determination and work ethic, which were apparent from the moment Mbye started asking him questions about the digital audio workstation Ableton. “His drive to get better is really cool to see,” Farmer says.
“Every step [of making Mang Fi] was truly a journey and forced me to be comfortable with my skin, my thoughts and words,” Mbye says, while Khan notes, “We didn’t really plan the project; it kind of just came together.” As electronic-based and effects-heavy as it is, Mang Fi — which precedes Mbye’s opening slot for Minneapolis artist Miloe’s show at 7th St Entry on Sept. 9 — still sounds organic and deeply human. It’s an exciting introduction to a new voice who will undoubtedly find a lot more to say in the future.