Brooklyn MC maassai is one of the hardest spitting women in rap music. Capable of pulling out a variety of flows, maassai’s lyrical talent consistently demonstrates acrobatic-like feats over an array of jazz, neo-soul, and footwork influenced beats. On her full-length debut With The Shifts, maassai settles into a groove of openness. Her honest and raw confessions that she describes as “motivational mantras” bring us into the world of the soon to be 25 year old artist and allow the listener to understand the everyday process of keeping a positive mindset while navigating the seemingly endless potholes of negativity littered throughout life’s journey.
On the mic, maassai is as articulate as her close friend and GSC favorite AKAI SOLO, and as experimental as Jersey musician JWords, who maassai records with in a duo called H31R that released the dance-rap album ve·loc·i·ty last year. Cut from the cloth as neo-soul artists like D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill, maasaai brings the same sensual feeling these legends exude but presents them in an entirely different fashion. When listening to her rap, or even speak, it is easy to see why throughout her raps she seemingly has a bevy of suitors vying for her attention. The intelligence and articulation in her songs demonstrate an artist that not only obsesses over her craft of rapping, but also enjoys the act of poetry writing.
With The Shifts finds maassai grooving over 9 tracks in 18 minutes in a psychedelic experience filled with chill beats capable of slowing down an anxiety attack. Opening with “Next Chapter”, maassai starkly breaks down her history in exact details that speak directly to the Black experience. Despite the content of her lyrics, maassai sounds relaxed. It’s a tale all Black people have heard about, read about, witnessed first hand, or lived through. When maassai raps, “Grandma marinates my head in oil / Father pours another cup / Bodies laying in the soil / Tryna wake our brothers up / Mothers love is big but that don’t mean / That it could give it all / System doesn’t give a shit,” the universal feeling of the diaspora is at play, bringing us directly into the emotional space she is moving within. In her final verse she proudly states, “Born to break the cycle for whoever’s after me” highlighting her focus on lineage and history.
maassai understands her very existence and creativity is a political and radical act. On the second track “Grace Jones” she pays homage to the legendary model who helped “redefine the model” of what Black beauty is. When maassai spits “We just pose and it’s radical / While they posing as radical / Getting cred without work –on sabbatical basically / We innately magical / And they hate to see it,” it’s obvious who the we and they are.
The Laron produced, R&B-influenced track “To Fly” featuring Kumbaya is a stand out. With silky smooth hook leading the way, we finds maassai offering a vulnerable insight into how romantic relationships can be taxing emotionally and physically while we strive for personal goals. It’s refreshing to hear an honest take that flips the angry Black woman stereotype on its head. maassai is just vibing and is adamant that, “If you playing games don’t fuck up the vibe / Vision so heavy it fuck up your eyes.” maassai knows what her path and purpose are and won’t allow anyone who isn’t moving in harmony with her to fuck with her peace and state of being.
maasaai’s self-assuredness never wavers and seemingly impacts all parts of her life. With a steady drum beat and spacey synth on “Cozy” maassai admits she feels, “Lowkey but they still feel like I’m ode.” Whoever maassai is dealing with needs to “make sure you watch ya mouth.” AKAI pops up on “The Shifts” produced by musician Contour. AKAI is up to his usual wizardry, spitting head twisting truth bombs on the rap game like “Led astray by delusions of being the richest / Taking stabs for relationships that eventually become scabs.” Almost every AKAI verse seems to be looking to push forward noting, “The revolution heaven sent,” revealing an optimist at heart. maassai comes hard on the back end asserting her dominance alongside her male peer. She declares, “For the honor of my name / Enemies will conjure up a flame.” maassai knows she’s got doubters, especially as a Black woman in America and a woman in rap music.
On juke-influenced “Nine Lives” maassai knows she, “Can’t ever lose as long as I keep my head / Vampires tryna see me dead and edible,” but still perseveres “graceful and fine” through the naysayers and doubters. maassai’s core message remains rooted in breaking the cycle of Black trauma in her search for truth, peace, and ultimately freedom. maassai divulges, “We all been enslaved to our traumas / You brave if you honest with yourself / Some niggas can’t take the truth / It’s honor in that”. The ability to keep a level-head through the difficult times is a skill not everyone has developed, especially in the turbulent times of a global pandemic. maassai, however, continues to turn lemons into lemonade rapping, “Stormy, it may seem but blessings raining like its spring.”
Throughout the project maassai’s penchant for melodies is apparent, with background vocals stacked on top of each other, impossibly catchy hooks bookending very long and insightful verses of storytelling. With a dedication to Black liberation, self-confidence, and radical honesty maassai is setting the bar high for all MCs looking to not only create Black art that inspires, but also Black art that builds on our historical plight in our ever present quest for self-determination in an unforgiving and oppressive world.
Check out our interview below where we touch on her early influences, her relationships with close collaborators, womanhood, Blackness, and more!
GSC: Who are you and how do you identify?
maassai: I am maassai. I am a rapper and artist of other disciplines as well. I identify as a Black woman. Creative. Communicator.
GSC: You sound like you’ve been rapping your entire life. Where you from and when did you start rapping and who are your major influences?
maassai: I have been rapping for a very long time. Most of my life, at least on earth, now that I’m 24, about to be 25. I wrote my first rap maybe around ten or eleven. Started writing poetry around nine. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, Brownsville, East New York. I’ve pretty much been writing raps ever since.
I had an epiphany the other day where I had to sit and be like “wow.” Lauryn Hill was definitely a big inspiration of mine as a kid and I feel like she mothered me a little bit in terms of everything that she stood for and the passion she had. It made me so passionate about what I was writing, what I was doing. So I have to give that credit to her. I feel like in these interviews I never even say her name, but she’s a major, major person.
I also grew up listening to, I had a pretty intense Battle rap phase. I was really big on Cassidy at a point in time. All the good dudes from back in the day that everyone knows are great. Wu-tang, Mos Def, there are so many.
GSC: It’s wild that you were into Battle rap. You got crazy bars and I feel like sometimes you sound mad hostile like you wanna fight. What’s your writing process like? Freestyles, written, or a mixture?
maassai: I definitely write, I’m a writer. I play around with freestyling sometimes, but it’s always just like bullshit. Definitely a writer, super intentional about my words, I’ll like switch them around. And I’m okay with saying that too. I edit my stuff a lot and make sure it makes sense to me, that it’s the way I want to communicate something. So definitely a writer.
GSC: You have a really bright spirit and kind heart, but your bars are razor sharp shit talking. How do you keep that balance?
maassai: I feel like that really just is my personality. I think that I’ve always kind of had dual, not even dual but multiple sides of expression and multiple things that I want to tap into and channel. I’m inspired by a lot of different things. I think it’s important to me, specifically as a Black woman, to explore my softness but also explore my hardness and not have to pick or choose a side that I want to be on.
GSC: How does your identity as a woman impact the way you carry yourself as an MC?
maassai: Growing up I definitely had a small phase that I think a lot of people go through and might be embarrassing for some people to say that they went through it, but I definitely had a phase of the kind of respectability politics phase. Like I’m trying to battle the dudes, I’m tryna fit into this arena of male rappers or whatever. But that phase was really crucial and important for me to find where I am now and just realizing that it’s not about gender at all. It’s about expression and I wanna create a lane as a woman for me to just be a human and everyone to be able to relate in a way that isn’t gendered. I feel like my stuff is in some ways, because I’m expressing things about Black womanhood in a lot of my stuff because that’s who I am. But I feel like my intention is for my music to be able to resonate with all people.
GSC: How did With The Shifts come together?
maassai: With The Shifts was a long process of creating basically these motivational mantras. It was reminiscent of my life and all of the changes that I’ve been through, all of the changes I was growing through at the time I was making the music. So it’s kind of an ode to being fluid and being adaptable and adjusting because I feel like that’s been a strength that has carried me this far. So just really intentionally being like I’m gonna make a project about this character trait that I think is necessary for all humans to have to be able to have motivation to get through.
GSC: Your projects always have an eclectic mish mash of different sounds. How do you decide what to rap over and how to sequence your projects? Is there a maasai sound?
maassai: I am definitely always looking for beats that are pushing the mold. I really like deep bass, dirty gritty bass. I like crazy drums. I like melodies that aren’t too predictable. I would say that is a consistent thing for me when it comes to choosing beats. However, I’m not really the type of artist or creative that wants to get boxed in by a specific type of sound. I like to experiment, to go with whatever feels good to me.
GSC: One of my favorite things about the DIY community is the authentic collaborations that never feel forced. How do you decide who you want to work with? Do you turn a lot of requests down?
maassai: A lot of the time it’s been people, not always friends because I think that’s something that a lot of people who are consumers of the musics, or listeners or supporters of the music, sometimes people automatically think everyone who makes music together are friends and we sit and chit chat all the time. It’s not necessarily that. If I fuck with the music and I fuck with the message then that’s kind of how I choose my collaborations. In the same token, a lot of those kind of collaborations have been with friends because my friends are just fucking dope and amazing and talented. In regards to not collaborating with people, it would usually be because I didn’t really fuck with their music or I didn’t fuck with the way they brought it to me. I don’t know, somebody DM’ed me one was and they were like “Yo, how much for a verse?” I’m like, damn you didn’t even say hi. People be wilding, I don’t know.
GSC: “to fly” is one of my favorite tracks off the project. How did that song come together from start to finish?
maassai: So Laron who produced “to fly” and also “next chapter” on With The Shifts is actually my cousin, but the thing about it is we never actually met until we were on a bill together. My dad had kept telling me “You need to tap in with your cousin” but my dad’s music tastes and my music tastes are completely different, like totally different. He’s on his extra, I don’t even know what he’s on. I was taking it kinda lightly, we had spoken a few times but I didn’t get the chance to tap into his music and then we were on the same bill. I was like this is amazing, I don’t know the synergy made so much sense, like with his beats and everything that I was doing. So he sent me a pack and I chose “to fly” as one of the beats. I was like this sounds so smooth, I wanna get kumbaya on this who is a friend of mine and they’re amazing. That’s pretty much how that song came together.
GSC: Grace Jones is a certified icon. How has Grace Jones influenced your art?
maassai: I am very inspired by Grace Jones, very influential to me in terms of the way she’s broken so many boundaries. Not only within the modeling industry but just in general with her being. She’s so authentic in who she is and doesn’t let anyone deter her from being that. The song is definitely an ode to her, but also an ode to that energy of breaking the mold and pushing the culture forward.
GSC: Over here at GSC we are big fans of JWords. Can you talk about your working relationship a little bit? What do you like about working with her? When can we expect more H31R tunes?
maassai: JWords is a good, good friend of mine and we’ve been friends since 2017. We’re working on new shit all the time. We’re definitely gonna take our time with our next project just to really hone in on experimenting with different sounds and stuff. So I don’t know when that will come out but it’s always amazing working with her. She’s constantly growing and getting better and I love seeing her growth, but she also always challenges me as a rapper to also grow. It’s been super helpful also just in my personal work and my solo projects coming out of working with her because the beats are tough to approach in general. But yeah we love JWords.
GSC: We are about halfway through Black History Month, but we both know Black History is Forever. What does Blackness mean to you?
maassai: For one I would say Blackness is infinite and it represents so many different things. I feel like we are the most complex, multidimensional beings on the planet. Not only because we’re just naturally that way but because of everything that we’ve had to go through as a people and the ways that we’ve had to shift and adapt and be adjustable. Like W.E.B. Du Bois talks about the double consciousness of Black people. Us being us but also us having to understand the world around us in a way that is intense. That self-awareness, social awareness. Black people are amazing.
GSC: AKAI is one of my favorite artists. How’d y’all link up and what do you like about working with him?
maassai: AKAI is also amazing, one of my favorite rappers. I’ve known AKAI probably longer than I’ve known any rappers that I am in contact with right now. I’ve known AKAI for years, so it was definitely kind of overdue for us to do a track together in this way. We have tracks, like from before. I’m featured on the Black Sand album. We also have stuff from years ago with a friend of ours. Definitely overdue but mad fun to work with him because when you have another great rapper by your side it pushes you to do your best and get better. The “iron sharpens iron” vibe.
GSC: What do you want people to walk away with after hearing With the Shfits?
maassai: I just want people to feel a motivation to just keep going, that was my biggest intention for it. Hopefully people will resonate with something that I was saying because I think it was also a deeply personal project. It was very much introspective and about myself, but I wanted people to be able to resonate with it.
GSC: How have you been taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
maassai: 2020 was rough. Super rough and I’m not gonna complain because I know it was rough for everyone. That was just the general consensus of the world with 2020. So this year I’ve been taking more actual practical measures to preserve my mental health. Like dancing, getting out of my head and into my body more. When I’m writing it is a release but it’s really heady so sometimes I just need to get the fuck out of there and experience something different. So definitely lots of that and just positive self talk. Surrounding myself with loved ones, people that I care about.
Follow maassai on Twitter, IG, and purchase With The Shifts today for Bandcamp Friday. Bandcamp has continued to put on for artists throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when live shows are neither safe nor feasible and there’s no better ethos than to cut out the middleman and pay artists directly for their work. Article cover photo by Kenyatta Meadows.