Mustafa, a Folk Hero for a Weary Generation
“It doesn’t matter how anti-establishment, anti-imperialist I am, change won’t be in my lifetime,” Mustafa said. “So all that I can do is within me. I try to keep people alive. And I try to make sure that we’re protected.”
As a young person, while many of his peers were finding themselves in hip-hop, Mustafa gravitated to folk music and earthy singer-songwriters: Nick Drake, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. “I remember being younger and people were mad, like, ‘This guy’s always emotional,’” he said with a laugh. “But the truth is, I was just exploring a sentimental language, you know what I mean?”
During the making of “When Smoke Rises,” Mustafa was taken by how Sufjan Stevens memorialized his mother on the 2015 album “Carrie & Lowell.” Mustafa pulled out his phone to read a letter he sent to Stevens via an intermediary, part mash note, part confessional. “I dreamed to bridge the worlds of grief and glory,” he wrote, confiding in Stevens about the ghosts hovering over his music. “The deaths were complicated and violent and unfair, but still they are my own. And the way I reflect them can be all that and still beautiful, as you have so brilliantly displayed. Nothing in vain.” (He hasn’t yet heard back.)
Tensions in Regent Park are ongoing; Los Angeles has become a safe retreat for Mustafa, a place where he can explore his creativity. When he was first exploring the studio, as he was struggling to find the proper voice and tone for his stories, he fell into songwriting for others, collaborating on tracks by the Weeknd and Camila Cabello, as well as the Shawn Mendes-Justin Bieber hit “Monster.” But writing about anyone but himself was, in fact, a distraction.
“I wasn’t being daring at all,” he said. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of seeing anything, explaining anything in its full truth.”
Eventually, in 2019, he went to London to work with the producer Simon Hessman on demos he’d been chipping away at for a couple of years. Later, they were joined by Mustafa’s friend Frank Dukes, who has produced for Post Malone, Rihanna and the Weeknd. Dukes had been probing Smithsonian Folkways anthologies of Sudanese and Egyptian music, some samples of which ended up on “When Smoke Rises,” bridging Mustafa’s modern-day tales to the past. Mustafa also includes vocal samples of friends who have died, and of his mother, his way of inscribing them into history.