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Mahalia Talks Friendship with Ella Mai, a Run-In with Kendrick Lamar, and Never Giving Up

Meet the British R&B singer who needs to be on your radar.

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Early into Mahalia’s set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, she presents the crowd with two disclaimers: One, she’s a talker. The British singer would go on to take several breaks throughout the show, sharing the juicy or heartbreaking backstories behind her songs like your gossiping best friend. And two, when she drinks water onstage, she tends to burp. So don’t make a big deal out of it; it’s natural and she’s still a sexy R&B princess, she assures. (The crowd cheers in agreement.)

Born Mahalia (pronounced "ma-hay-lia") Burkmar, the entertainer opens up like she’s at an intimate open mic when in reality, she’s filled up one of Brooklyn’s most popular venues for the second night in a row on her first North American tour. Onstage, she’s real, relatable, fun, and sultry—just as she is in her music. Her connection with her audience is palpable. In Williamsburg, her confessions are met with snaps or agreements of “yaaas” from the audience, but her music resonates far beyond the venue’s walls. To date, she’s collaborated with Nigerian Afro-fusion star Burna Boy and R&B starlet Ella Mai, and received praise from Kehlani, SZA, and a number of her favorite grime stars on social media.

The 21-year-old Leicester, England, native has been writing songs since she was a tween and signed to a major label at 13, but it took years for her to figure out her path in the industry. Last month, she finally released her debut album, Love and Compromise, which details the myriad different phases of modern dating: falling in love, being jealous, getting ghosted, holding grudges after a breakup—all with her signature songwriter-meets-R&B sound. It’s upbeat, smooth, soulful, and undeniably joyful, even when she’s singing about heartbreak.

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Mahalia’s Love and Compromise album cover.
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Mahalia went viral two years ago when she appeared on the YouTube channel COLORS, a hub for A COLORS SHOW, a Berlin-based series favored by music lovers in which rising artists give minimalist performances against colored backdrops. Now, with 35 million views and counting, her video is the fourth most popular upload on the account, following big names like Billie Eilish and Jorja Smith. Cofounders Philipp Starcke and Felix Glasmeyer told Mahalia that her video was just as integral to boosting their channel’s popularity as it was for her own career, she recalls.

“We had this really emotional conversation because Philipp said to me, ‘Your COLORS changed us.’ And I said, ‘But that’s mental because you changed me.’ I think for both of us, it was this moment of people seeing something and taking it really seriously,” she tells BAZAAR.com. Mahalia would go on to experience the biggest highs of her career yet, such as performing for 8,000 people at Glastonbury. (Compare that to the “like, four people” she entertained while playing the festival years back.)

After a long and ongoing journey in the industry, Mahalia understands the importance of being true to herself, both creatively and physically, and she’s inspiring others to do the same. She starred in an empowering, body-positive swimwear campaign for Swim Society and released a self-love anthem dedicated to “regular people” on her album. She closed her Williamsburg show with a few pieces of advice, hoping not to patronize because of her young age. The list starts with “Believe in yourself,” and ends with something along the lines of “Never trust anyone who says you need to wear a bra.”

Here, the British singer talks to BAZAAR.com about her debut album, not giving up, and falling in and out of love.


Mahalia put her album together in about 18 months.

I started writing it last January. When I first started writing, I didn't realize that I was writing an album. I was just writing music. The first song I wrote from the album is "I Wish I Missed my Ex." It was this really weird journey because I'd just broken up with my boyfriend. I was writing loads of music and I wrote that song. And then the year carried out. As I was navigating my way through single life, through falling into and out of dating, I realized I was writing my album just purely because of how much I was going through.

She and Ella Mai collaborated on her track “What You Did,” but they’re also close friends.

Ella's one of those girls that I just really understand. Where I'm from in the U.K., I'm from a regional town called Leicester. I think moving to London at 18 was so weird for me. There's a scene in London, and I found it really hard to penetrate that. Even now, I'm nowhere near it. But the difference now is uncomfortable with that. When I was 18, you know when you're 18 and it's like moving to a new school? And you're trying to find friends, and you're trying to fit in? I was trying to do that so hard that I found it difficult to get in with the other girls that were around me in the city. When I met Ella, I was 20 and I just finally felt like, "I've met my soul sister."

Meeting her was amazing. We met a year ago. She came to see my show in L.A. We chatted a little bit, and then she invited me on tour this year. That was when we really got to know each other. And then doing "What You Did" with her was just so special. The way it came about was really, really unconventional because she approached me about the album, which I think in itself, shows what kind of person she is. She's just really forward-thinking and really selfless. I find her really special, so that was a really important collaboration for me.

She loved that the message of their song was collaboration, not competition.

I was really trying to relate our songs to all the other female collaborations that I loved. I was thinking about Brandy and Monica, and just all the moments where I've lived it. It was nice that we were collaborating in a way where we were both teaming up together to say the same thing about somebody. Because even when I think about "The Boy Is Mine," it's the most amazing collaboration, but it's two women against each other.

Her worst breakup inspired her song “Sober.”

I had this one guy who "Sober" is about. This is actually probably also part of the reason why I was having such a weird year when I was about to quit. I'd known him for a while, and then he told me he was head over heels in love with me. I was really confused, because for me, we were friends. I was like, "Oh, okay. Well, you're a nice, good-looking guy. Really funny, really great." So, I was like, "Let's give it a go." We went on a couple dates, and then it kind of rolled out for like two months. It got really serious. And then one day, he just didn't reply to a text. I got ghosted. Being ghosted is probably one of the worst feelings in the world because you just don't understand it.

Shortly before her COLORS video, Mahalia almost gave up on music.

COLORS was my turning point. It was a really emotional one, because literally weeks before COLORS, I think I was certain that I didn't want to do music anymore. I just was like, "What am I doing?" By that point, I'd been doing music for, like, five years, so I was kind of ready to stop. I was 18, and all my friends were going into university. I just wanted to go and learn as opposed to trying to drive this vehicle that I had no idea how to use. I remember calling my mom and saying, "I'm coming home." I think by that point, I'd put out two EPs and one mixtape.

Her lowest point was during a discouraging live performance.

I did a headline show in London, and the capacity of the venue must've been a hundred people. The label bought 40 tickets. My family and friends bought, like, 20, and then we have 15 other people who didn't know me. It was me on this tiny little stage with my guitar, looking at these people who most of them I knew. I was just a bit gutted. I didn't understand why I wasn't connecting.

You go through your life and your parents say to you, "Good things come to those who wait" and "Patience is key" and "What will be will be." I really thought, growing up, that I was blessed, because I'd had so much amazing stuff come to me. I think at that point, I was just like, "Oh, my God, five long years." It wasn't even me as an adult; it was me as a kid where I felt like I'd lost a lot, given up a lot, and sacrificed a lot. I didn't get to do the stuff that I wanted to do, so I felt like it was a waste.

It was also just living in London. I had no money. I was being invited to events that I couldn't show up to and didn't have clothes for. The juxtaposition between the lifestyle that I was living and the lifestyle that I was actually living was killing me. My dad came to me and said, "You're coming home," because I was going off a bit. I was seeing my friends loads. I was drinking quite a lot. I was doing what 18-year-olds in the U.K. do, and not caring. So, I moved home and then COLORS happened.

Mahalia
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She was most starstruck meeting Kendrick Lamar, but she had to cut it short.

I saw Kendrick Lamar in the studio in London, which absolutely killed me. I think I walked in and he said, "Hey, miss." I was like [her jaw drops and she pauses], "Hi." The story is terrible and everybody hates me for it, but my last bus to catch a train home was at 10:20. I was downstairs about to leave the building at 10:15. I must've saw him at, like, 10:17.

If I didn't get on that last bus, I would have probably had to have walked home, which is an hour-and-a-half walk. We were talking, and I said, "I'm really sorry. I've got go." Everyone I tell that story to is like, "I hate you." But I'm like, "I couldn't have walked … ."

She freaked out when SZA praised her music.

That was the biggest moment of my year. She commented "Cold" on my Instagram. One word, but I felt every single letter. She had commented on one thing before, where she said, "Lovely." I love the one-word things. I'm just like, "Oh, bitch." And then she said, "Cold" about the album, and I was like, "This is sick. She's my dream collaborator. I love her."

She’ll know she’s “made it” once she has kids.

My honest answer would be that I'd be having a baby. I would be successful in earth and at a point where I can take a break. That's where I'd know. I think it would be when I'm pregnant.

Stream Love and Compromise below.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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