Maségo – singer, dancer, ‘musical actor’ – is having a breakout year, but will the fame get to his head?
WASHINGTON – Maségo slipped into a silk button-down to go with his vibrant Vivienne Westwood pants and velvet Gucci sandals. It was his second sold-out show of the night at U Street Music Hall. He waited a second, letting his TrapHouseJazz Band take the stage, before sauntering over to play the instantly recognisable saxophone riff from his hit Tadow. The crowd, which began lining up outside before he had finished his sound-check six hours earlier, broke into a roar.
The Jamaican-born artist, whose parents are South African, is in the country and is performing in Joburg at the Flying Fish Flavour Odyssey, today.
Maségo calls himself a “musical actor” and his live show makes that clear. At the mic, he’s a singer, a womaniser, a stand-up comic, a freestyle beat-maker and a dancer – almost all at the same time.
Before performing Wifeable, he inspired an audience-wide swoon as he pondered aloud the possibility of his future wife being at the show. On Sego Hotline, he spelt out why he should be any woman’s No 1 choice – “My text messages ain’t green baby!” – in reference to the long-standing Android vs iPhone debate.
He broke into a smoothly choreographed two-step with his backup dancers while his band played the outro to Queen Tings.
And when he got thirsty in the middle of it all, he stopped to hydrate and then got the audience to sing along to a song he made up on the spot about drinking water.
The multi-instrumentalist (he says he plays 16 instruments at the last count) is having the most successful year of his budding career. His debut album, Lady Lady, came out in September to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
That the 25-year-old has no formal music education – save for “YouTube University,” as he calls it – makes his ascent even more notable. He can’t read music (and has no plans to learn) and recalled being denied a scholarship to Old Dominion because of his dearth of music theory knowledge.
Without a technical education, he’s guided himself by trying to strike a sonic balance between “ignorance and elegance”, a mission inspired by the countless jam sessions he had with shipyard workers and neighbourhood guys growing up in Newport News, Virginia. Those sessions birthed his TrapHouseJazz sound, a concept he describes as a mash-up of two genres – jazz and trap music – that represent Southern black culture but rarely intermingle.
“When I don’t know all the rules, I just break them all,” he said. “And it becomes like a higher level of music because of that.”
His ignorance, or indifference, to the rules, has shaped his career.
He once downloaded a couple of songs from Soulection, a popular music collective, then played saxophone over them and posted them online with the misleading title, Soulection x Masego, in the hope that the public would think it was a collaboration. The track has since been deleted, but soon after it went up, Soulection’s co-founder Joe Kay reached out and booked Maségo to perform in Los Angeles.
He met Sounwave, the Grammy-winning producer behind Kendrick Lamar’s biggest hits, after unknowingly flirting with his girlfriend on Instagram. Sounwave ultimately produced the title track for Lady Lady.
Up until his latest project, Maségo’s freewheeling, whimsical style of creating and performing had come to define him.
“If you put me on a track, you kind of don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “You know there’s going to be saxophone, probably. And I mean, there’s going to be some very like, haunting harmonies. But everything else is just however I’m feeling that day.”
For Lady Lady, he took a step away from his TrapHouseJazz sound toward something more mature, a shift aided by his collaborations with Kojo, a Nigerian producer Maségo met in Los Angeles, who ended up executiveproducing the project.
The album, Maségo said, marked the first time he’d ever taken time to rewrite his verses.
“If I really wanted to, I could just drop something every day,” he said. “But I felt like for this particular project, I wanted to just think every single bit of it through even more, where like for years you could just feel all the layers.
“I’m going to have to perform these songs a million times – I better love it.”
To Maségo, Lady Lady is a “conversation about modern relations” and is inspired by his relationships with women. It explores an inherent contradiction within himself – the desire to find an everlasting love, which he sings about on the ode to his future wedding day, Black Love, and the ego and temptation that come with fame, as detailed on Lavish Lullaby.
“To be able to be at the level that I perform onstage, I have to embody everything I’ve made my music about. Which is me,” he said. “But you’ve got to keep people like my band around me who will bring you back down to earth… There might be women who are like, ‘Oh, my God, I need him’, but then the two ladies on my (tour) bus will definitely joke on me for being ashy,” he said, laughing.
“I just like to balance it out,” he said. “That keeps you a normal human being.”