Georgia Anne Muldrow may be more than 20 albums into her career and the woman who brought the word “woke” to wider consciousness, but she is not one for counting off milestones. “I’m the type of traditionalist that wants to give meaning to life,” she says. “My [concept of] success is directly linked to how Black folks see themselves; it’s not enough for me to be filthy rich or something, owning an island somewhere in the midst of what we live through.”
Since debuting with her EP Worthnothings in 2006, she has become known for her chameleonic ability to master different genres – soul, G-funk, jazz, electronic – under a number of aliases (for instance Jyoti) and collaborative projects. Last week, the 37-year-old vocalist, songwriter and producer released Vweto III, the latest in a series of beat tapes. These are self-produced and mostly instrumental albums full of psychedelic funk and prowling hip-hop (track titles such as Boom Bap Is My Homegirl show where her head is at). Besides solo releases, she has been featured on tracks by artists such as Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), who described her as “like [Roberta] Flack, Nina Simone, Ella [Fitzgerald] – she’s something else”.
She video-calls from her kitchen in Los Angeles, and is so charming that it feels as if I have been physically ushered into her home. She is making a huge batch of homemade muesli, and people come in and out: we are interrupted by her mother and friends, as well as her 12-year-old son, Nokware, who joins midway to dance for us and show his new hairstyle. Muldrow is as cool as you would imagine, her sentences interspersed with “You know what I’m saying?” in a relaxed, smoky cadence, and she drops phrases so winning they stick like lyrics (“I was already happy to be nappy by the age of two,” she quips, referring to natural Black hair).
An absence of vocals can sometimes turn off the average listener, but Vweto III is captivating. Unforgettable features west coast G-funk synths and 70s disco claps, conjuring up images of lowriders on highways in her native sunny LA, while eccentric outliers such as Ghostride 21716 captivate with echoing synths and glitchy, skittering beats. Muldrow made the tape to alleviate the downcast mood brought about by the racial reckoning of the past year and the pandemic; to weather the “traumatic events experienced as a community online and offline”.
“It’s like a symbiosis kind of thing,” she says. “You know how Shaft had theme music, or Black Dynamite? I want to supply my people with some theme music so that they can feel self-confident, self-possessed; something to keep their heads up high. And posting the beats on Instagram and seeing the comments – people saying: ‘Please take my money!’ – helps me to know that somebody’s looking forward to what I share in a time where we can’t play any shows.”
Muldrow grew up in LA. Her father was the jazz guitarist Ronald Muldrow, while her mother, Rickie, sang in the church where the daughter first honed her vocals. She recalls rubbing shoulders with musical greats: the late Leon “Ndugu” Chancler once stopped by her Sunday school to teach her “traditional African drumming and West African rhythms” with a pair of claves and plastic water bottles. She also sat at the feet of civil rights activist and drummer Babatunde Olatunji to hear him play the conga. “It’s been a magical life,” she admits. “I felt seen by people without even expressing any musical talent, in a world where people don’t see little Black girls. It just so happens that those people were world-class musicians.”
The desire to make music professionally hit around age 15, and she began picking up music production skills soon after. Her beatmaking is easily the match of her more famous leftfield male peers Flying Lotus and Danger Mouse, although she doesn’t have their recognition factor. Muldrow agrees that misogyny in the industry tends to obstruct female producers from getting the appreciation they deserve. “Oh heavens – yes! And don’t let anybody tell you differently.” But it’s given her some resilience. “It’s made me fierce. And what better obstacles than those of chauvinism, misogyny and racism to be a catalyst for becoming fierce?”
The theme of social justice runs through her work. By co-writing Erykah Badu’s Master Teacher, with its lyrical hookline “I stay woke”, Muldrow brought the word to the modern lexicon. Muldrow previously said the word meant “being in touch with the struggle that [Black] people have gone through”, but its modern-day meaning has been mangled beyond belief. There has been an uptick in the sarcastic usage of “woke” as a means of criticising “social justice warriors” and people perceived to be oversensitive. Even this week, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said: “I worry that elements of what has been branded woke culture runs contrary to the great liberal traditions of western democracies.”
Muldrow is largely unfazed: “If somebody uses ‘woke’ in a derogative way, I don’t really care for what’s on their mind,” she says. “I can’t worry about what some Republican is worried about; I don’t really care about somebody who don’t even like Black people. If people understand it, I feel blessed by that. But me having a sense of consciousness about my food, water, health and wellbeing is more important.”
She is more concerned with the material welfare of Black people around the globe, and issues such as gentrification. Muldrow spent time in Brixton, south London, during the mid-2000s and is concerned with the rapidly changing social landscape and how Black communities bear the brunt of it all – the “flavour tax”, she calls it. “I’ll never forget Brixton, the quality of the people at that time was amazing. But everything’s changing all over the world. I can’t get my head around it; if everywhere is rising in price, where are Black people gonna go?
“That’s what’s deep about gentrification: people not being able to sustain living somewhere after they gave that place all its appeal. It’s like a penalisation for having flavour.”
Muldrow instead wants to have a mutually giving relationship with her fans, and to invest in the wellbeing of her community.
“First and foremost I make my music for Black folk,” she says. “I definitely want to be more of a community worker and find ways where my music aids the community directly, and partner with organisations. I want it so that when people support my work they’re not just supporting me, they’re supporting the lives of folks who are moving their bodies in aid of others. I want to be a benefactor for our human right to flourish.”
The best tool to use, in her opinion, is the thing that’s aided her all her life – music. “Black music is my superpower. It’s the music of my ancestors. It’s my way of showing love, paying homage, keeping sounds alive that sometimes people think are dead. It’s reviving dead forms of music, and honouring them. That’s the functionality of art.”
• Vweto III is out now.