Grammy-nominated Maimouna Youssef performs at the Gardner Museum
A big fan of NPR, Maimouna Youssef was thrilled to be invited in February 2018 by rapper and actor Common to sing in a “Tiny Desk Concerts” performance. Common was performing as part of the music collective August Greene, which includes Grammy Award-winner Robert Glasper and jazz drummer/hip hop producer Karriem Riggins.
The appearance exposed Youssef and her unique musical blend of soul, hip hop and spoken word to a whole new audience. In July 2018, the Afro-Native singer and songwriter, an independent artist with seven solo and group albums to her credit, was invited back onto the program — this time performing her own curated set with her own band.
Joining her for that session was Black Thought from The Roots and DJ Dummy, who had partnered with her on the 2017 album “Vintage Babies.” For Youssef, it was a big deal to “have my own ‘Tiny Desk,’” as she referred to it in a recent phone conversation with the Banner.
Being invited back onto the program was a way to showcase “not just my talent, but my band, my songwriting, and to highlight the causes that are important to me,” she said. Her set list included the songs “Ink Pata,” “Miracles/Work in Progress” and “Say My Name,” which she wrote as a tribute to Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in 2015.
The show also gave her the opportunity, she said, “to speak my truth and be heard and to be celebrated, and to be able to open bigger doors.”
Youssef, also known as Mumu Fresh, sings about issues close to her heart. With “Work in Progress,” she said, she needed to tell her story about her nephew who had been murdered. It was a way for her to deal with his death in a productive manner. She was also working through her feelings about the passing of her grandmother.
An honors graduate from the prestigious Duke Ellington High School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., the singer wasn’t in a position at that time to attend college. “I decided I was going to be my own school,” she said, and began creating her own music and making mixtapes.
Since then, she has been nominated for a Grammy Award for her vocal contribution to The Roots’ single “Don’t Feel Right” in 2007 and has performed around the globe, sharing the stage with a range of artists and musicians including The Roots, Bobby McFerrin, Sting, Erykah Badu, Femi Kuti, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and more.
Sharing her music with others is not simply about entertaining, said Youssef, who performed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on May 30. It’s also about educating and providing mentorship. In 2017, Youssef became a Musical Ambassador for the United States and traveled to South America, performing her original music and facilitating workshops for youth on addressing domestic violence issues through music. The objective was to get young people to use art as an outlet to tell their own stories, and to discuss their own pain. “A lot of the young people there had never had that conversation,” she noted.
As a musical ambassador she would often begin the conversations by saying, “Let me tell you my story” as a way to connect with the young people and to create a safe space. She felt it was important for her to meet them on equal footing. “That experience reinforced the idea that we have many more similarities than differences,” she said, “and the importance of being able to connect with people from all over the world.”