Mahalia: “I Know How Painful It Is To See Your Dream In The Distance But Not Know How To Go And Get It”

The 23-year-old, Grammy nominated singer-songwriter talks heartbreak, imposter syndrome and her latest venture in supporting emerging artists

By Isobel Van Dyke

13 April 2022

ast Tuesday evening, Hackney’s infamous Moth Club hosted the first in a new series of regular events - Mahalia Presents, eponymously named after the night’s founder singer-songwriter, Mahalia.

At 23, Mahalia already has a huge following and a multitude of awards and achievements under her belt. A decade after she was first signed aged 13, she now has four million monthly listeners on Spotify, was the winner of Best Female Act and Best R&B/Soul Act at the 2020 MOBO Awards, as well as being a Grammy nominee with her name on the Forbes Under 30 list.

She is quickly becoming a household name in the UK’s music scene, and her latest venture? “To showcase new and upcoming talent. I really want to shine a light on young women. It’s such a difficult industry to come into as a woman and there’s not as much love for us as there is for the men”, she told me when we sat down for a chat earlier today.

RSVP now to join our How To Build Community event happening on Zoom today at 1pm with @jayannlopez_ (who has a built a community of 8000+ Black Girl Gamers).

“Now, my mission feels simple. I want to inspire and to make music that makes people feel like they can tackle the day.”

Supporting others and creating community has always been at the forefront of her work and her personal life - with Mahalia Presents acting as a way of doing just that. The events (that will take place every two months and will continue to be hosted at Moth Club) bring together a collective of emerging talent, with performances from those handpicked by Mahalia herself.

Last week’s event saw Madi Saskia and Ojerime take to the stage, whilst Janelle Wynter closed the night with a DJ set that had the whole room “dancing the night away”, according to Mahalia, who said her highlight was “watching everyone dancing. No one cared who anybody was, we were just dancing. We were all together”.

Being thrown into the music industry at such a young age meant that Mahalia depended on the support of her inner circles and family to keep her motivated. “They believed as much as I did. I believed in myself but my mum and dad being there the whole time meant that I also felt capable of doing it”.

Building and finding her community was a little harder - especially upon moving from her hometown of Leicester to London. “Where I live in London I’ve had to really find that sense of community. My neighbour is a really good friend of mine now; my shopkeeper is literally like my dad; me and the security at Co-op always have a natter when I go to get my groceries. Sometimes it takes a lot to build that, but it’s amazing that you can build a community on your own - and also that you can either lead one, or be a part of one”, she told me.

“Community for me is relatability. I grew up in Leicester where everybody knew everybody, there was this constant sense of family. If something was happening at my neighbour’s house my dad would be there. We weren’t necessarily close friends, but we were family. That’s what I felt on our first Mahalia Presents night. There was no hierarchy, we were all on one level. That’s what community is to me, togetherness.”

“There was no hierarchy, we were all on one level. That’s what community is to me, togetherness.”

Bringing in acts from outside the London-bubble is something important to Mahalia. After struggling to pop the bubble herself and get the city’s attention (at first), she is acutely aware of the struggles of penetrating the industry and - literally - being offered a stage. Though she plans to focus on highlighting young women, particularly young women of colour, that’s not to say there isn’t space at her events for all, “I want to put on a night and make people feel like they have an audience here”, in fact the next event will potentially see two male performers.

Though she is used to pulling in crowds of thousands, Mahalia confessed her nerves about being able to fill Moth Club: “I sometimes struggle with imposter syndrome. For example, my birthday is coming up and I don’t want to do anything for it because I don’t think anyone will turn up, I’ve thought like that since I was a kid. With Mahalia Presents, I was scared I would let the artists down by not being able to pull a crowd in. But it was sold out - which was the first win.”

Through these events, she is creating a network of like minded young people, not only musicians, but producers, writers, performers, DJs and dancers too. She is building the community that she did not have access to growing up and ensuring that it is inplace for the next generation of talent.

Navigating the music industry without a support system like the one she is creating, inevitably, could lead to lessons learnt the hard way - especially when entering the industry at a young age. “I wish I’d known that there would be so many knock-backs. I didn’t realise that signing to a label was where the work started. Everything before that was just me being a kid, I didn’t realise there would be so many nos. I remember how it felt to be told no so many times. I know how painful it is to see your dream in the distance but not know how to go and get it or how to achieve it.”

“I’ve been through more heartbreak than I should have; my heart is so open to falling in love and getting hurt because it’s part of what I do and what I create.”

Despite learning on the job, Mahalia has no regrets about her professional career thus far. “All my mistakes have been learning curves”, she tells me, though she takes a moment to consider the possible regrets in her personal life. Heartbreak is no new feeling to this 23-year-old, and whilst speaking to me, she jumps back and forth between regretting putting her heart on the line… and knowing that it was all worth it.

“As a songwriter and as a singer, the only way to really give myself to people is to write from a personal perspective. Which means there has to be inspiration for me to write. I’ve been through more heartbreak than I should have; my heart is so open to falling in love and getting hurt because it’s part of what I do and what I create. My friends don’t understand how I can be so willing to go through the pain of the heartbreak, but I’m almost able to do that because the idea of writing the story afterwards is a bit like adrenaline.

I sacrificed myself at times to make music - but even that I don’t think I regret. None of this is to say that I only get into relationships to make music! But I was able to sacrifice a little bit of myself in order to experience things and make music.”

“There needs to be a focus on young women - particularly young women of colour - coming from outside of London too”

One of the biggest challenges she has faced in her career so far has been working out exactly what she wants to do with it. As a kid, she was eager and impatient to perform on global stages - she wishes she had learnt to have patience - but today, her dreams and goalposts have grown with her. I asked her how she sees her mission now:

“My mission came when I started doing bigger shows. I started meeting people and talking to fans and understanding what my music was doing for them. At that point I realised that my mission was to go through life and experience and get inspired - and hope that people would relate.

Now, my mission feels simple. I want to inspire, and I want to make music that makes people feel like they can tackle the day.”

Follow @mahaliapresents for the announcement of the next event.

The Short Stack

Mahalia Presents - the new night at Moth Club which aims to showcase emerging talent, hosted by Mahalia

By Isobel Van Dyke

More from Culture