When you’ve lived as many places as MBALLA, you can kind of see why she doesn’t want to be defined by anything. Which is probably why she said this of her style, “It’s so weird to me when people refer to me as hip hop cause I don’t think of myself that way at all. And if I’m honest I don’t know if I think of myself as R&B either. I just like to think of myself as making good music.” So we’ll just stick with that, good music it is BUT we have to talk about the fact that she doesn’t just write for the sake of entertaining the world, but with a purpose. That’s the case with her latest single “Illegal” which was on the table, as well as her Cameroonian roots, and a lot more.
Kendra: Your dad was an ambassador who wound up a political prisoner. We were sad to see that he passed away. Did his life’s work inspire you to pursue your passion in music and create art that has a message to it?
MBALLA: Absolutely! My dad taught me something – that as a politician and a person in the spotlight your words and actions will consistently be picked apart – so with that said, it’s doubly important to pick a life and career in which you can be entirely honest and authentic. For me, that life is one as an artist. And then there’s the fact that he was a diplomat. His job called for my family to move around a lot and to interact with people of different cultures. Through those interactions, I found that music was the one thing that connected everyone regardless of nationality, religion, political beliefs etc.
Kendra: Hip hop and R&B are what you do and when it comes to hip hop, that’s been a genre that has always had a social awareness to it. From N.W.A. to Kendrick Lamar. Do you remember the first hip hop track you heard that you were taken aback by the lyrics and thought, hell yeah…preach?!
MBALLA: I can’t deny the way hip hop has GREATLY influenced my style. Although songwriting is the thing I would say I’m best at, what I really pay attention to in music is delivery and emotion. Hip hop has some of the best displays of that. I’d say there are two songs that took me there. Big Pun’s “Punish Me” on Capital Punishment and Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.” I’m so intrigued by the melodies and sounds people use to convey pain.
Kendra: Now your latest single “Illegal” really speaks for the women out there dealing with immigration issues. What made you want to pen a song about that in particular?
MBALLA: Well when I wrote “Illegal” I was exactly that – a woman dealing with immigration issues. It was stressful, to say the least. I felt like I couldn’t do anything.
For a while, I couldn’t leave a job I was miserable at because I knew how hard it would be to get another one without proper immigration status. I couldn’t drive without worrying about the potential consequences of getting pulled over. One day someone side swiped me on the road and I was afraid to call the police cause I didn’t want to get deported. I had to be very careful about who I revealed my status too because you never know what people will do when they’re upset.
It felt like I had very few people I could trust. And then with all the injustices against people of color in the country… I felt like I had to hold my tongue about something that would likely affect me…I’m an Aries. I don’t like to hold my tongue. But yeah honestly, enough became enough I had to stop feeling trapped so I HAD to write this song. I felt like it was my way out of the pain.
Kendra: Stepping away from music for a second. You were born in Paris, raised in the states and are of Cameroon descent. First, did you see a lot of Cameroon growing up and second, how did your family engulf you in your heritage when you were in places like D.C?
MBALLA: I surprisingly saw very little of Cameroon growing up. The irony of being a foreign ambassador’s child is that you live everywhere BUT the country you’re meant to be representing.
Once my parents realized that was a problem, they made a major point of making me go to Cameroon for my summer vacations. Unfortunately, the moment I fell out of my immigration status I couldn’t do that anymore.
Fortunately, my family is very proud of its heritage so we’d watch a lot of Cameroonian skits and movies. The music travels, so I would stay up to date with music over there, and I have lots of extended families that came to visit now and again. They’d travel with the food from back home and bring it over and we’d talk about what’s going on in the country or what not. That made it a little easier. and of course, the Internet is amazing too in terms of staying connected.
Kendra: Living and existing in a lot of places, you grew to love culture. Other than you own, what culture took only seconds for you to fall in love with and why?
MBALLA: Hmm, I went to Japan in 11th grade with my school. It was an international school. That was probably one of my most memorable experiences because of the incredible culture shock. I love knowing just HOW different someone can be for me and Japanese culture was furthest from anything I knew.
Kendra: Lastly, you’ve got “Illegal” out, but what’s next for you in the coming months?
MBALLA: Nina Simone once said an artist should be a reflection of the times. With that being said I think “Illegal” needs to be pushed for a WHILE. I’m not sure when we’ll stop needing that song, but I’m going to push that for a few more months because the message is so relevant.
Then I’ll let go of some of my lighter, more feel good music. I also have my project, a 7 track EP called Never Leave Quietly. The idea is to encourage women to say their piece about the situations that bother them – whether a betrayal of friendship, a political injustice, a heartbreak… WHATEVER…just make sure you don’t leave quietly. Some people think women should be seen and not heard, I think fuck THAT!