Working in music since she was 13, Mahalia shows us the benefits of slow and steady
“Well, you see this business is all about survival of the fittest. If you don’t go viral, you should quit it.” No, Mahalia isn’t singing about a career in new media on her single Proud of Me, her collaboration with London rapper Little Simz, she’s talking about working in the music business. Having been signed to a major record label since she was 13, the now 20-year-old knows all about putting the time in before you release any music at all.
The Birmingham singer’s 2016 debut album, Diary of Me – released when she was 17 – saw a modest teenager spilling out her heart and the scribblings of her own diary, complete with a soulful voice and an observant eye. Even though she made the cut for round-ups of 2018 Ones to Watch in the Guardian, Complex magazine, Glamour magazine and the Fader, she’s had the title of “rising star” for the entirety of her teen years. So now that she’s finally breaking through to the mainstream, she’s poised and set to shine. And that’s why she’s this week’s VBF.
The song that pushed her over from burgeoning talent to rising star is Sober. She did a video performance for the YouTube channel Colors, a place where multitudes of ones to watch – including Kali Uchis, Jorja Smith, Mabel and Not3s – perform with just one microphone, no props, no gimmicks, against a colourful background. With the poise of a veteran R&B singer in her bright red puffa jacket, she coolly runs through the power to be had in resisting a drunk dial. Sage advice lies within that song. She looks to iconic R&B performers such as Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu for inspiration, their strong will resonating in her lyrics while managing to capture the concerns and the whims of being a young woman finding her place in the world.
Whether she’s taking on the mean girls in Silly Girl, pondering past relationships on I Remember or injecting some fun into the art of moving on on I Wish I Missed My Ex, which sees her leaning more to the pop side of things, she uses her songs to give meaning to her mistakes. Just like her peer Jorja Smith, there’s nothing vacuous in her songs. Read like poetry but sung like gospel, she takes the heartaches, challenges and successes of being young and adds layers to them.
While Diary of Me was a series of snapshots of the pressing concerns of being a teenager, on her latest EP, Seasons, she takes a more mature approach to her songwriting, singing style and delivery. Written mostly from her bed, either alone or with company, Seasons plays with the conflict between trying to find independence and being totally besotted with someone. Overwhelmed by desire, she runs through the check list of worries that come along with a new and rocky relationship. Opening with One Night Only, her tone is sultry, but make no mistake, she’s no pushover and won’t be taken advantage of. On the piano ballad No Reason, she knows she has the power to up and leave whenever she likes. Even in the deepest throes of a crush, she asserts that she’s the one in control.
Now that 2018 is coming to a close, the prophecies of the Guardian, Complex and Glamour magazine are proving to be accurate. She has yet to hit the top 10 with her singles but songwriters like her are in it for the long haul. At 20, Mahalia is an old hand in the music business but rather than burning too bright and too quickly, she’ll soon show us the benefits of the slow burn.