R&B singer Mahalia is trying to change the face of the UK music industry for rising women of colour – but is under no allusion as to how hard it is

Stylist sat down to speak to R&B artist Mahalia about a new initiative she’s fronting for young women of colour and why she thinks such a scheme is important for the UK music industry. 

In the world of music, there are shining beacons of light – artists, producers, musicians – that make us happy listeners and effortlessly provide us with inspiration.

One of those UK artists is undoubtedly Mahalia. The singer-songwriter-musician extraordinaire originally hails from Leicester and has been working tirelessly in the music industry since she was 11. It’s a long time to dedicate to one industry, and because of this, it’s opened 23-year-old Mahalia’s eyes up to a host of things that are wrong within it.

It’s something she wants to change for the next wave of women to come after her and is one of the main driving forces for a recent initiative she’s launched with Dr Martens. The Sisters In Sound project has been created with the aim to help young women of colour break barriers in the industry as part of Mahalia’s Tough As You mentorship programme.

When we sit down to chat, Mahalia has just enjoyed a showcase night of exceptional young talent – something that’s left her beaming with pride on our call. The talent was “out of this fucking world”, she admits, which is all the more reason why initiatives such as this are so vital. “You just have to look at these girls to understand why it’s important because there’s all this talent we’re not seeing or being exposed to,” she says. 

Mahalia is the face of Dr Marten's latest initiative to get young women of colour involved in the music industry.

Accepting the offer to mentor these girls was a moment of total imposter syndrome, Mahalia admits. “I think as women we’re really not the best at saying when we’re great at things. When Dr Martens first came to me about the initiative, I didn’t totally know what I was going to be doing. For some reason, I just thought, ‘God, I could never do that.’”

As well as having her mother as a source of inspiration when she was starting out, Mahalia also found a mentor in Natalie Wade, the CEO of Small Green Shoots, someone who Mahalia has been fortunate enough to partner up with for this mentoring scheme.

“I suppose I wanted to be able to do that for somebody; I think I wanted to be able to give somebody what I felt like I didn’t really receive.”

One of the girls Mahalia was keen to work with was Birmingham-based Maddie Saskia. “I just always thought she was amazing. I thought her voice and artistry were amazing but also what she was trying to do for other young artists and her peer group – I thought that was really special,” she explains.

For a lot of women of colour – especially from small areas or cities outside of London – Mahalia explains that there can be a feeling of “being lost”. “How do we fit into this white, male-dominated industry?” she asks, and so, with this initiative, Mahalia not only wants to help aspiring artists but other areas of the industry too. “It isn’t just about artists,” she says. “It’s about girls who want to DJ, girls who want to produce, girls who want to be engineers or go into event management.” 

As well as the disproportionate levels of representation within the music industry, I ask Mahalia why an initiative like this feels pertinent now.

“I just feel like we are always on the back-burner. For centuries, I feel like women of colour have been the last on the list and I find that sad. I think I probably didn’t notice it when I was super young and naïve.

“Then when I came into the industry, I realised just how white it was. And I realised that women of colour were being thought about last – I see that still to this day.”

There’s an undeniable kind of renaissance happening within the UK music industry at the moment with female artists in the R&B, alternative and neo-soul space. It’s great to see, we agree, but I ask Mahalia if it leads to being pigeonholed.

“Definitely. I think back to when I was younger and when I first started. I saw myself as being in the alternative, folk world and I wanted to sing like Lily Allen. Then I remember my first trip to America and everybody was calling me R&B.

“The only way that I started to understand that I was being pigeonholed was getting older and getting more switched on to it. The pigeonholing thing has always been an issue for me and that’s why I think it’s so important to get behind the artists who are pushing those boundaries.” 

Mahalia performing at the O2 Academy Brixton in 2021.

She adds: “Like, one of my favourite artists right now is a girl called Rachel Chinouriri. I love her and I love that she’s this beautiful dark-skinned Black woman who’s producing songs that you totally can’t call R&B.

“She’s definitely in that alternative folk world that I desperately wanted to be in when I first started. But when I first started, there just wasn’t a place for women of colour there. I remember coming up and looking at people like Gabrielle Aplin and Lucy Rose. It was very much that kind of one look, that “English rose” girl who walks out on stage with a guitar. Everybody said to me that I couldn’t be that because it made no sense.

“I definitely think from watching somebody like Rachel come through, we are in a better time. I just want to make sure that the girls who are outside of that genre know that there’s a space for them here.”

The problem of pigeonholing is representative of the industry itself, Mahalia suggests. The US market is different from the UK and it’s something that spurs many artists like her to make the move and be appreciated (by the industry) more.

On the corporate side, her label in the US is the place where she “sees everyone”. “I see all colours, all genders, my team over there is all Black women and I’ve never had that in the UK. I’ve never even seen that here.” 

There’s also the way her music is accepted across the pond. “There are songs that I might take to my UK label and I’ll say, ‘This is amazing,’ and they’ll say they’re not sure. Then I go to the US and they’ll agree that it’s amazing.

“One of my biggest songs is What You Did and I remember when I played it to my UK team, I don’t think they got it at all. And then I took it to the US and they were like ‘This is the best song that you’ve ever written’.

“So it’s frustrating that I feel like the only way to have a good career is to go there because I don’t think that it needs to be the reality.”

Creating these spaces and opening up conversations like this are important to Mahalia, something she admits that she hasn’t always gotten right. She recalls a time a few years ago when conversations around colourism in the music industry were coming up a lot. “I wasn’t even 20 but I remember having those conversations and also being called out a lot on Twitter.

“I remember learning loads and having a lot of conversations with my mum to understand that stuff.

“We have to keep the conversations going so that people are able to at least understand. Yes, you don’t have to be articulate on every subject. But as long as you’re talking about it, and retaining, listening and hearing what other people have got to say, that’s the main thing. I think those conversations have got to keep going.” 

Although she describes herself as not being the “most articulate”, Mahalia has been outspoken on a variety of topics, including Wireless Festival.

When the 2021 line-up was announced on Twitter, Mahalia was one of the most vocal artists to call out the UK festival for its predominantly male line-up. Although Mahalia is on the line-up for this year’s festival – a move she was initially apprehensive to take up but decided to under her mother’s guidance of ‘You have to be the change that you want to see’ – she was so angry about last year’s debacle.

She says: “I was so mad. The online haters would say I was angry because I wasn’t on the line-up but it was not that at all. Forget about me, there were so many girls that could have been on that line-up.”

While it looks like things have changed with that situation for the better, Mahalia’s eyes are set firmly on another major music platform. “I’m on my next venture right now with The Brits and I’m having my moment with them because of the merge of the R&B and pop category.” 

The controversial move has left many artists in uproar and Mahalia admits: “There are some things I can understand, but that? I can’t.”

“It’s a difficult conversation. I actually think that what The Brits are doing – in trying to be more inclusive – they are excluding people. Also, I just think what a shame it is.

“If we’re going to have a fan-voted category that blends pop and R&B, when is an R&B artist ever going to win that fucking category? Because if we’re talking about huge pop artists with millions of stans – not fans – when am I or Jorja (Smith) or Tiana Major9 or Ray BLK going to take that award home? And I think that’s really frustrating and sad – it just doesn’t make any sense.”

But the anger of the situation isn’t for herself, it’s for the young artists that’ll come after Mahalia, she explains.

“Similar with Wireless, I’m less frustrated with me getting that nomination or getting that award. I’m already in a place where I don’t need an award or a nomination to be able to travel the world and sell out shows. I don’t need that.

“But for the girls that are coming after me, they need that space to exist and a space where they’ll be able to win.” 

Mahalia sees herself as “part of the change” currently but also admits that she wishes UK male artists would “create gaps for us to slot into” too. There’s a disconnect in the way male artists are treated versus female artists, she says. “It’s frustrating that when a guy puts his album out, the whole of the industry focuses on getting his album to number one in the first week.”

Mahalia will be part of that driving force but “that energy has got to be there for girls”, she says. When a male artist asks her for a verse in a song, she’ll always meet them with open arms, but when asking men for the same, Mahalia has been refused or outright ignored. “I just think, what’s the point?”

In an ideal world, what would the perfect music industry look like, I ask Mahalia.

“I love seeing fucking greatness. I love seeing exceptional people do exceptionally well in the job. That’s what it is for me,” she says. 

Mahalia sees herself as "part of the change" in the UK music industry.

“For me, it’s diversity. I don’t hate men and I don’t hate them being in great positions in the music industry. If you’re fantastic at your job, then stay in that job. My thing is that I just want to see more. And when I say more, I want to see all genders, I want to see all colours, all classes.

“I find it so difficult going into these places dealing with kids who have either been given a job just purely because of nepotism or have gotten where they are because they have a certain type of life and they’ve met a certain type of person. I find that frustrating.

“These people don’t really like particular artists and it’s like, do you like Black music? And are you able to understand that?”

Mahalia’s recent venture, Mahalia Presents, is an example of trying to create inclusive communities and is a space “where we can focus on women of colour particularly”. It’s paramount to what Mahalia is trying to achieve in the music industry and is a vision we can’t wait to see more of. 

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Image: Dr Martens