When Mahalia Burkmar set out to pursue a career in music, she was young and malleable, grappling with the level of expectations that come with someone who was raised by a pair of musicians themselves. Having spent years writing, recording and touring well before the age of 18, Mahalia struggled to define success for herself, ultimately coming to face with a disappointment so great, it nearly made her want to quit music all together.
“I was waiting and waiting and waiting, thinking that this big thing was going to happen,” Mahalia explains of the yesteryears she spent forcing a hit song. “The second that something happened, it only happened when I stopped waiting for it. By the time that I had a breakout, I was 18 and I’d moved back to my mum’s house because I had no money. [Laughs]
“I was living with her and just enjoying being an 18-year-old kid and seeing my friends. I was writing music a little bit, but I was just being an actual person and living, which I’d forgotten to do. So when that happened, was when things came together.”
A newly minted 21-year-old, Mahalia credits “Sober,” a breakout single born out of heartache and living in the now, for her renewed sense of artistry.
“I think my confidence changed because I didn’t know what I was doing before. I almost felt like taking that break and then having people come to me like, ‘This is amazing and we want to be on this journey with you’ gave me the confidence to start up again. I thought I was going to quit. I really thought that.”
Ahead of touring with fellow British songstress Ella Mai, Mahalia stopped by BET’s headquarters in Times Square. We talked all things music, growing up part Jamaican and part Irish, wine-induced creative sessions, the racial politics of U.K. radio, her upcoming debut album, heartbreak and what love looks like today.
BET: What was it like growing up in your household?
Mahalia: F**king loud. Crazy, actually. So, I have three brothers. I had two older brothers until I was like 10, and then my baby brother was born. Having boys and two really different, but strong parents was definitely strange. Being the only girl, I had to learn how to be loud pretty quickly. But it was great. Both my parents were singers. My dad was a songwriter, my mum was a songwriter.
BET: Were they successful across the pond?
Mahalia: Kind of. I mean I say that, but I don’t think so. They would say no. I think they’re pretty amazing. When I was a kid, I used to go to their shows and genuinely think that they were the best people.
BET: They were active together?
Mahalia: They were active together. It was great.
BET: Were they a band?
Mahalia: I think before I was born, they were a full band. When I was born, it was just the two of them. So I only saw the two of them and it was special. My eldest brother isn’t as musically inclined, but he was so into music and he’s a dancer and choreographer.
BET: Oh, this is in your blood. There’s no escaping it.
Mahalia: No escaping it.
BET: If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
Mahalia: I don’t know. I think for ages I thought I was going to do something in science, or be an academic. But I couldn't have. I was way too creatively driven.
BET: You dropped a new on Friday (April 26), which is thematically quite the opposite of your breakout single. What does love look like today?
Mahalia: Love today for me looks hopeful. Even just singing my music and then my writing, for a long time I was so let down with love. I felt not betrayed, but I felt like I’d been surprised by a lot of people that I thought were great and that definitely is affecting my music. A lot of people think I hate men. I don’t hate men. I just want to be in control. And so a lot of time, it's about me taking control. With this release, which is called “Grateful,” it’s me saying “I’m still in control, but I just want to say you make me feel like this and it's such a great feeling.” Today, love looks hopeful.
BET: You say that you are intense with your relationships. You sort of give your all, and I hear you. You find yourself in heartbreak because of being this way. In what ways would you say that you’ve maybe learned from those lessons, or matured a little bit?
Mahalia: Before, I think I was just way too trusting. I think a lot of the time in my music and writing, although it seems like I’m blaming somebody else, I am also actually internalizing it and blaming myself. If my mum’s taught me anything—my mum is amazing. She’s the strongest, funniest, but also softest woman I know. With my mom, she always taught me – especially in relationships – to always take 1) control of the situation, but 2) responsibility. With me, I think I was just too trusting. I let people have too much control too quickly. I don’t mind not having all the control. Just giving it away too quickly was my problem. Now, I’ve definitely matured and it's like I’m open but I’m also more closed than I was and I’m actually really happy for it. Because although I think it’s great to let your guard down, you have to hold something back. Otherwise, there’s nothing left to give.
BET: I read somewhere that you use alcohol to help surface your emotions?
Mahalia: I’m such a big drinker. I’m from a place called Lasseter. Anyone who reads their stuff knows that I’m a big drinker.
BET: Is that still something that you use for creative influence? What is your writing process like when you’re in you’re bag.
Mahalia: Honestly, red wine is a massive part of the process. I got into red wine when I was like 18. I always thought red wine was my mum’s drink. My mum might have a glass of red wine, so when I was 18, I was like, “Why am I drinking a bottle of red wine on my own?”
BET: As an undergrad, I was drinking wine out of a glass, while everyone else was getting wasted on some kind of punch. [Laughs]
Mahalia: That is so good. I was the same. I would be out with my friends and they all be doing mostly pints of Lager, and I’d be like, “Can I have a glass of red?” Red wine is a good one because it relaxes me and I feel creatively free when I drink it. I’m not a huge drinker like that. I don’t need to drink to write. I know so many of musical friends who will always drink and write. I can’t always do that. But if I’m on my own and heavy in my feelings, I absolutely have a drink and write a song. The first tune I officially put out [in the U.S.] was my tune “Sober.” When I wrote that, I was drunk. [Laughs]
BET: Your debut album is scheduled to come out later this year. Give us any and all details…
Mahalia: This album honestly is an extension of everything I feel like people have already heard from me, but it just delves further in. I think with this album, I’m excited because I feel like I’ve gone further into places I didn’t think I was going to go. I think for a long time I’ve kind of been that voice that is here purely to encourage you to cheat on men. That's not why I’m here. That’s so not why I’m here. [Laughs]
BET: You don’t have to explain yourself.
Mahalia: With this album, I’m really loving love again. There’s a quote by a poet called Raina Beeti. I love her. She says I love my love. I remember seeing that and that was a massive inspiration for this album. I remember reading it and being like, “You know what? I really actually love my love and I love the love that I have to give, and the love I receive, and what I expect from people.” This album is about that. It’s definitely about being in love, which is new for me.
It’s about being out of love, having my heart broken and also breaking hearts. And it’s also about me as a person. Like all the compromises that I make.
BET: A proper introduction to who you are.
Mahalia: And also how uncompromising I am—yeah, it’s a proper introduction to me.
BET: How old are you, exactly?
Mahalia: I’m 21 next week, I’m really excited.
BET: Happy early birthday. Twenty-one is a big year. What has changed most significantly since your breakout hit?
Mahalia: My confidence. It really smoothed things out. It helped my confidence, definitely.
BET: Really? How so?
Mahalia: Yeah, which is really strange, because I never thought more people listening to my music would change my mindset. I think before my breakout, I’d been writing, recording and touring for almost seven years. A lot of that was my teenage years, which is when you’re most sensitive and most susceptive. I think I really struggled because I was just waiting for something that isn’t supposed to be waited for. You’re just supposed to keep going.
I was waiting and waiting and waiting, thinking that this big thing was going to happen. The second that something happened, it only happened when I stopped waiting for it. By the time that I had a breakout out here, I was 18 and I’d moved back to my mum’s house because I had no money. [Laughs]
I was living with her and just enjoying being an 18-year-old kid, and seeing my friends. I was writing music a little bit, but I was just being an actual person and living, which I’d forgotten to do. So, when that happened was when things came together. I was like “Oh my god.”
BET: Which is how it usually happens.
Mahalia: Right. The second you stop looking for it, it comes. I think my confidence changed because I didn’t know what I was doing before. I almost felt like taking that break and then having people come to me like, “This is amazing and we want to be on this journey with you” gave me the confidence to start up again. I thought I was going to quit. I really thought that.
BET: —And go into science.
Mahalia: [Laughs] Absolutely. I’m not really good at science. I don’t even know where that came from. When I was in middle school, I was really good at science and I went to high school and there was the GSCs. When we’re like 16 to 18, we do exams called the GSCs. They’re like the SATs. When I got to that level, I was like “I can’t do this. This is so hard.”
BET: Totally. Not sure what it’s like over there, but for Black and brown youth in the U.S., these exams are often designed against you.
Mahalia: Ugh. I can’t even talk about that year. It was really horrible. It’s just that whole exam thing, it’s not fair. Especially in the U.K. They changed our whole… It was in my second year and we all got notified that the whole thing had been changed. All of the guidelines. Everything. I was like, “This is definitely set up to make any young person fail.”
The confidence thing changed, but also just the way that I live and the way that I am. I mean that in the simplest sense. Like being able to get to know my friends and do the things I couldn’t do before because I was working all the time and not having any money. I was working to have money and was in this weird place. As cliché as it is, I think a lot of the things that changed for me now are the simple things in life, everyday things. Like being able to buy a freaking coffee.
BET: So, you’re happy?
Mahalia: I’m really happy. I am.
BET: Talk a little bit about your success in the U.K. versus success here in the U.S.
Mahalia: It’s different. What’s really funny is that in the U.K., it felt like it took so much longer. Here, it kind of burst through and then it was snowballing really quickly.
BET: Why do you think that is?
Mahalia: I do wonder. Maybe because out here [the music] is bigger, for one. Being totally honest, I don’t feel like the U.K. knows what to do with a lot of their Black artists and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I really think it’s changing. The radio stations and everything are changing, and they’re trying to get behind something. But, I just feel like different artists and different genres are championed more than others.
R&B, soul, jazz, rap, grime, [and] everything is all on the Xtra Playlist. The thing about the U.K. is we don’t have as many radio stations as [North America]. So we have the big one, which is Radio One, the biggest, and you have Radio One Xtra. You have Capital and Capital Xtra. The fact is that Radio One and Capital, which are the main stations, plays pop music, folk, music and indie music. Basically, Black music gets put onto the Xtra [stations]. The Xtra stations get the listens, just not half as many as the main ones and I think that’s the problem.
BET: As a child of mixed heritage, what was some of the hurdles you experienced growing up?
Mahalia: There were loads. I’m from a little town, basically. For everybody in my town, they kind of felt like I was a bit of an anomaly because nobody from my town does anything. My town is very much you’re born there, you go to school there, you marry there, and you die there. It’s that kind of thing. All of my friends still live there.
Growing up in a predominantly white town and being the only Black girl in my class, I think – for me – it didn’t mess me up. It just stunted me. I feel like I learned and grew a lot slower than my peers. I just didn’t know really what I was doing. Being of dual heritage is quite frustrating, because I got two great parents happily married.
My mum is of Jamaican lineage and my dad is of Irish lineage. So for me, I was always really in tune with both sides and I knew both of my extended families. I was brought up in a world where I could see both sides and I was loved. When I went to school and the white kids didn’t like me, I was like, “What do you mean?” Because my dad and his family [loved me]. It was that kind of confusing thing.
I felt like I was too Black for the white kids and not Black enough for the Black kids, and that was cruel. Actually, I feel it's such a huge part of who I am now. I don’t know.
BET: I hear you, trust.
Mahalia: I’m really grateful for the journey. For me, it wasn’t a struggle. It was just a really slow and big learning curve. I was just like, “I’m going to have to work this out.” I think it’s because my parents are from London, which is loads more culturally mixed than where I was born and grew up. They gave me a certain perspective, because they already understood.
BET: They served as a compass.
Mahalia: Right. My parents were just like, “Babe, you’re amazing.” It was my dad actually who was like, “You need to work twice as hard. You need to do your thing. You need to be better than everybody in your class,” and not in a way that was pushy. Just in a way that this is how it’s going to go. Because the kids in school—it was always that thing like, “You’re okay because you’re mixed” or “You’re okay because you’re not Black.” My dad was always like, “But you are Black. That’s what you are.” My dad is f**king great man.
BET: Your parents sound wonderful. I’m really excited about your album. You are touring with Ella Mai, which is a big deal. How do you feel?
Mahalia: So good. You know, it’s really special to see somebody like her doing so well. It’s really special that I get to share this tiny part of the journey. She’s British and she came out here, and actually looking at her journey, I kind of sometimes feel like, “You did it right.” I really like her. I love her music. I’m just 100 percent excited to see her. I’m also just excited to be around her. I just think she’s cool.
BET: What are some of the tour stops?
Mahalia: We’re doing secondary cities. The first stop on Sunday (April 28) is Columbus, Ohio. God. We’re going to Cincinnati, we’re going to Minneapolis. All the secondary cities, which is also really exciting. With the primary cities, I know them all. With the secondary cities, I was reading the list and was like, “I don’t know half these places.” So I think for me, it’s going to be nice to see that side of the U.S., because I’ve never seen that. I think it’s going to be great.
(Photo by Kacey Greene)