Papa Mbye on MANG FI & Minneapolis
Papa Mbye made his album out of borrowed parts. It was his first time recording music. Supportive friends provided pieces of equipment: a real microphone, a spare pair of headphones.
“One of my homies came over to my crib and saw me using my boombox as a speaker,” Papa chuckled. “So he brought me some speakers.”
It was 2020, deep Covid, pre-vaccine days. Papa Mbye is an illustrator, graphic designer, and caricature artist. MANG FI is his debut EP, a striking leap into a new medium.
“What does 'mang fi' mean?” I asked. I was sitting with Papa in the basement of a Minneapolis coffee shop.
Papa explained that the title comes from a phrase in the Senegalese language. “It just means ‘I’m here’ or ‘I’m good.’”
It’s an apt title. “I was learning how to make [music] while also creating a body of work simultaneously . . . . It’s kind of like an introduction. Into music. Not even like an introduction of people [to] me, just an introduction of like, this new art form to me.”
I was surprised to learn about Papa Mbye’s inexperience, mostly because of how good his work already sounds. MANG FI is a high energy album with a haphazard, scattershot range of auditory textures and modes. To classify it in a single genre would be more or less pointless. MANG FI has is its own distinctive sound.
Papa Mbye was born in the Gambia/Senegal and lived there until he was two.
Then his family moved to Memphis. Two years later, they relocated to Crystal, Minnesota. Papa moved to North Minneapolis by the time he was six.
“I feel really blessed by the support of people in Minneapolis. People already knew me as a visual artist, so . . . they had some trust that I would make something good in music too.”
Papa Mbye has always been an artist. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist and an illustrator. And then in high school I started doing caricatures. I became a caricature artist. And then I was like, ‘I don’t want to just do caricatures, I want to be a fine artist.’ And an illustrator. And all these things. So . . . me and my homies would put on art shows.”
Papa described a show he and his friends did at Public Functionary a few years back. Entitled Work in Progress, the intent of the show was to demystify the aura of art galleries, to get away from the polished veneer of end-product and show more of the mess of creating.
“We were in Public Functionary for 48 hours straight making the work, and we livestreamed it.”
Anyone who tuned in could see the Work in Progress team hashing out the details then putting together their artistic vision. It was a way for Papa Mbye to showcase the reality of collaboration, that it involves disagreement, trust, and ego-checks.
For Papa, this is all part of a natural process. “I feel like my whole fucking mission statement is rooted in collaboration,” he chuckled. “I think trust is . . . the thing that makes whatever you’re making the best it can be. Especially when you’re working with people. I personally can’t really work on music with people that I don’t either trust or feel like I could trust. It’s really hard for me, because it’s such a vulnerable thing to do, [to] share your voice with somebody. At least with my friends, a lot of our music is pretty personal. That’s how we express our grievances. That’s how we express what we need. To share that with someone you don’t trust, that’s, like, impossible.”
Papa Mbye has had his art recognized before. He explained that when he was around 19, his art Instagram started attracting more and more followers. The art he posted on Twitter was getting more and more attention.
“I remember I spiraled. I stopped going on it. I could not handle it. I got off Instagram for like a year and a half. I was just done. So now making music and seeing it move fast, I’m starting to get kind of worried, but I’m mostly in a better place. I’ve got good support around me.”
There are people in this city who believe in Papa Mbye. Though he’d always thought about making music, Papa never imagined he could do it. “I just had friends who encouraged me to do it . . . and a lot of free time.”
Papa released a song under his then-account on Spotify, the first one he ever recorded. Then he put out a snippet of a song called "ONLY RIGHT," and it caught the attention of AGAINST GIANTS.
AGAINST GIANTS is a self-described “independent creative company” made up of several cutting-edge artists from the Twin Cities, like musician and actor Dua Saleh.
Papa is friends with Dua. They are signed to the same manager. “He was like, ‘You have more songs?’ and I was like, ‘No.’”
He set to work. This was just before quarantine began. By the midpoint of 2020, Papa Mbye had enough demos to imagine MANG FI.
Papa Mbye’s come a long way from feeding his beats through a boombox speaker. In the year and a half since he started doing music, Papa’s put out several singles, a debut EP, and multiple music videos, and he was the headliner of a sold-out show at 7th Street Entry.
The sonic quality of Papa Mbye’s music is earnest passion bordering on manic energy. In person, Papa is a reserved and attentive listener.
“Where do you feel like words and lyrics come in when it comes to the music?” I asked.
“I’ve always been someone who improvises a lot of lyrics. Most of the EP, or almost all of it, I didn’t really write anything down. I kind of . . . improvised it all,” said Papa. “I feel like I had so much bottled up . . . . I’m pretty insecure about English and writing and literature in general. I’ve always felt like I’m not that great of a writer. So when I started making music, I just tried to approach it from a different lens. I didn’t want to write anything down. I just wanted to say things. When you do that . . . you surprise yourself with what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. When you surrender to your feelings, everything that’s necessary comes out.”
I asked him if his writing process has changed at all since then.
“Now I kind of do a combination of both. Sometimes . . . I’ll improvise and then revise after. But I try my best to revise based on honesty rather than trying to make it sound better for other people . . . . It’s definitely a balance, and it’s a hard line to walk. The last few weeks I’ve been really struggling with writing, so I’ve just been making beats and playing the guitar. Making lyric-less music because I don’t know what the fuck to say.”
“How would you describe Minneapolis, as a city or a scene?”
Papa Mbye said, “I love the Minneapolis scene. I feel like, since we are so small, it’s not really [many] things here that are derivative of each other. Everyone’s doing their own thing because there’s no solid ‘Minneapolis sound.’ At least to me there’s not. I think it’s pretty eclectic.”
Eclectic, indeed. The Twin Cities are host to a sprawling network of artists, performance venues, small press publishers, galleries, bars, and hardcore house shows. These cities have guns, a sadistic police force, deadly quality-of-life disparities. They are a population density point for a massive tract of the northern Midwest. The state of Minnesota has one of the higher proportions of Indigenous peoples within its borders. Minneapolis is rapidly urbanizing. Two years ago, the entire city was rezoned and given the greenlight for vertical development.
And yet, people only want to talk to us about the snow!
“Everyone’s doing really interesting things,” Papa continued. “Versus a city like New York or LA. They’re obviously doing great things, but I feel like there’s such an image that everyone’s trying to follow that it . . . makes the things sound the same. The music coming out of here now, I’ll show it to friends from these states, and they’re like, ‘Whoa! I haven’t heard anything like this.’”
“Minneapolis right now; . . . a culture is germinating.”
“From this, there will be a Minneapolis sound,” Papa Mbye said. “But I think the whole sound isn’t within the sonic, but it’s within freedom. It’s within that fearlessness to cross boundaries and make something new. I feel like the Minneapolis sound will be ever-evolving. I don’t think it will stay stagnant. Or at least I hope it won’t.”
He says he is inspired by all his friends who are artists, whose work he loves. Papa paused and added thoughtfully, “And . . . my little brother influences me a lot. I see how free he is, you know? It just reminds me of when I was a kid. I [had to] get more serious a little faster, just because I’m the oldest son and I had to take care of everyone.
“That’ll teach you to manage yourself like an adult when you’re a child.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to get back to that self. Just watching my little brother, I feel like he’s a mini me. He inspires me a lot.”
Papa Mbye seems most excited by artists who are going in a different direction than the wider pack. As a newcomer to music production, he is tuned in to how music is expected to sound, what the formula to a hit song is supposed to be. His music twists these expectations into a more interesting beast.
“All this fucking weird shit that people are doing, the mainstream tries to take bits of it. It just becomes so sterile when they do. Why don’t you just let this thing do the thing? Why does it have to be what’s taken from?”
I winced, thinking on all the other mainstream arts industries that pilfer from the "less commercial" artists. “That’s the grand commodification model of art,” I said.
“I hate it! I hate it so much,” Papa groaned. “I do get it, ‘cause people need to make money. Being more involved in the music industry, I’m realizing a lot of your favorite artists don’t make as much as you think.”
This is true. Though artists (musicians especially) present an image of opulence and success, their true income comes down to ticket sales and streaming numbers.
“You’d think that something would change by now. I guess things are changing.” Papa Mbye weighed some of the factors. “There are artists with their own labels now, who are trying to do it more ethically. But . . . they don’t hold as much power yet.”
“It takes time to get that level of power. You’re going up against cultural entities inside an empire that doesn’t want you. Everything that an independent scene needs, it has to take.”
To make your music available to people is easier than ever. Paradoxically, it is harder than ever before to make real money off of it. Streaming platforms like Spotify offer access to a digital platform, but the cut they take from each stream is criminal.
“They barely pay anything,” said Papa. “It’s terrible.
“I think people will look back on this era of history and see how blatantly inhumane all the disparities were.
“It’s like increased accessibility because everyone can put music out now, potentially, on streaming. But . . . most people are making chicken scratch.”
I asked Papa Mbye what he hopes for the lives of artists in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
“I just hope there’s more money and resources allocated to artists. I hope they get more from the city. They bring life to the city.”
In Papa’s opinion, many of the grants available to artists impose unnecessary restrictions. “There’s too many guidelines [for] what you have to use the money for. You have to let these people rock.”
These kinds of limitations are typical now, but with enough willpower it could change. “I hope that as more people [from Minneapolis] gain prominence in the music industry . . . I hope they come back and do things for the benefit of upcoming artists who might be in the same position. One thing about Minneapolis, but every other state too, I guess it can get cliquey sometimes . . . . I just feel like everyone needs to come together.”