HOW SINGER-SONGWRITER MARIEME MADE IT AGAINST ALL ODDS
African songstress Marieme details her journey to self-acceptance, the war that left her family with nothing and how her artistry has been fueled by the healing power of music.
African songstress Marieme details her journey to self-acceptance, the war that left her family with nothing and how her artistry has been fueled by the healing power of music.
Photography: Damon Baker
Styling: Nicola Formichetti
Text: Czar Van Gaal
This feature appears in V129, now available to order!
Following a period of introspection in the Jungles of Peru, Singer-songwriter Marieme emerged with a reawakened sense of self. After spending years living in the shadows, afraid to step out into the spotlight her talent could garner—the African songstress boarded a flight to L.A. in the pursuit of superstardom. With only 300 dollars in her pocket and an unmatched flair for churning out inspirational hits, she snagged a record label deal in under two weeks. Some may chalk it up to chance, or beginner's luck but it was written in the stars for Marieme.
In an exclusive interview, the singer details her journey to self-acceptance, the war that left her family with nothing and how her artistry has been fueled by the healing power of music. Read the full conversation below!
V MAGAZINE: Hey Marieme! Where are you in the world right now?
MARIEME: I just got to Vegas, because I’m performing this weekend.
V: Amazing. Where are you performing?
M: At Area 15.
V: Cool. How’s your day going so far?
M: Good so far! We drove from LA to Vegas last night, and we’re just moving into a new place here because I’m doing a residency at Area 15, with this cool band that I’m doing vocals for. They remake all of my songs, and there are original songs of theirs too. So we’re doing a residency, so I’m going to be between Vegas and LA now.
V: When does the residency kick-off?
M: I’m performing this weekend, and then we have a lot more shows in April and May, too. And then, I performed there already, like, two or four weeks ago. So it kind of started already.
V: Okay. That’s exciting.
M: How are you doing?
V: I’m good, I’m super excited to be talking to you. I saw your music video for Love Now, and it’s amazing, to be honest. Such a strong message, Love the song.
M: Thank you! The message is so needed, you know?
V: Definitely, especially right now in the current climate. I know we briefly spoke about your residency in Las Vegas, but before we jump into that, I want to backtrack and get a snapshot of your earlier years. I know you were born in Africa, and lived there for your first few years of life. What was your experience like? The culture? The music? what was that like?
M: I loved it, from what I can remember. My parents left for America when I was two years old, so I didn’t see them for five years, until I moved to America with them. It just seemed normal for me. I mean, in Africa, sometimes, you always have family abroad who’s sending money, working and stuff. So it wasn’t so weird for me. My older sister and I lived in Senegal. But, as soon as I was born there was a [war]. I was born in Mauritania, which is right above Senegal, and there was a [war] between Mauritania and Senegal, and my parents ended up losing everything. I was born and we had to leave, so we were kind of like refugees in some way. That’s what I remember mostly, of Senegal. But it was a beautiful experience. I grew up around my cousins. I grew up around family. And it was very peaceful. I grew up in a very religious environment, and music wasn’t really a thing that was encouraged. I was more encouraged to go learn the Quran.
V: Relating that back to your artistry, how do you think those earlier years in Africa affected you or played a role in your art?
M: It all relates to the story of me, my parents, and the war that broke out, and how it left us with nothing. I saw my parents struggle when we came to America. It was just a different life, because were pretty comfortable in Senegal. When I came here, it was just different. I was teased all the time for my skin color. I was teased about being African. So it was a hard assimilation process. But I learned English through music, and that was one of the most beautiful things for me. Going through all of that...the hate, the hurt of being teased all the time, and not wanting to be here, it made me realize how important love is. It made me realize how we can be better as humans, and how we can treat each other better, accept our differences and just love ourselves. For the longest time, I didn’t love myself. That for me was the key to everything. Self-love is the key to everything.
V: That’s so beautiful and so powerful. Where exactly in New York did you and your family move to?
M: It was the Bronx!
V: Got it. It's surprising that you experienced that but also not surprising in many ways. As much of a melting pot as New York is, growing up here could definitely still be rough. I think your story of feeling like an outcast is something a lot of people can relate to. You said you also learned English through American music. What were some of those earlier influences, musically?
M: Lauryn Hill. Mariah Carey. It was the nineties and listening to their music made me cry all the time. In Senegal, I grew up in a religious household, so I didn’t really have access to music. Just hearing all the different sounds blew my mind. Music was my saving grace, honestly. It really saved my life, because it was a place I could go to when I got lost. I could get lost in the music and just be creative and stuff. Coming to America allowed me to be creative, because if I was in Senegal I would’ve been married with children, probably wearing a hijab or something. I must admit though there was definitely a culture shock. A huge culture shock.
V: Being that you didn’t have that exposure to music, or typical access to music, how did that love for it, that passion for it, manifest? Would you say you were musically inclined at an early age? It not when did that come about?
M: No, I don’t think I was musically inclined. When I came to America, that’s when I realized what I wanted to do. But yeah I got into music when I first came to America, and I was being teased, I used music as an escape. A way to drown out all the noise. It was something that made me happy, and that’s where it really began. I found solace in music. Like, Mariah Carey’s voice. Also Lauryn Hill, and Celine Dion, those were my go-to voices.
V: The icons.
M: Yeah, the icons.
V: I read that you were raised in New York, and I was like yes! My NYC-sister!
M: Where in New York?
V: Brooklyn, to be exact.
M: Okay Brooklyn, I see you! [laughs] I love it!
V: But yeah, with being from New York City, there are so many creative activities that one could get into as a child to hone their craft. Whether it be singing lessons, dancing classes, band, etc. Did you get into any of that as a kid or teenager?
M: For sure. New York definitely has this creative energy to it and a ton of outlets, but no I didn’t get to freely explore that really as a kid. Every weekend, up until I was a teenager, I had to go to Arabic school. So that was my life. When I would try to play music but I wasn’t encouraged to play music. It was like, ‘No, go study for class.’ I wouldn’t say my parents didn’t allow me to play music, but I had to sneak to do it. Just like, I snuck to join choir in middle school. Music and performing wasn’t encouraged at all, so I had to hide most of the time. I wasn’t even really going to pursue it, because I knew my parents weren’t happy with it. Sometimes you come from a culture where it’s all about pleasing your elders, and that’s the kind of culture I come from. So I didn’t really do it for a long time. I went to college, got my degree, and it wasn’t until I ran away to Italy after college—that’s when I started to find my voice. Everyone was like, ‘You sound so amazing, you should go into singing,’ and I was like, ‘No, I don’t really want to.’ I would find myself crying all the time, like, ‘Oh, my parents won’t let me.’ And I had to break out of that. And I used to feel guilty all the time when I sang. It was a whole process. I had to—it was very difficult.
V: How soon after that experience overseas, where people were encouraging you to pursue music, did you decide to make the trip to LA and pursue music?
M: I moved to LA in 2017. I wrote a song two days after I moved to LA that got me a publishing deal with Universal weeks after. Which was pretty amazing, because things like that don’t happen anymore, really.
V: Yeah, no, it takes people years to get to that point.
M: Yeah, I literally only have one song. The song is called “Leave.” That was my first song. I think most of the work had to do with getting over the guilt I felt about doing music, especially from the culture I came from. The disapproval of my parents, that’s what I had to get over the most. So, even when I moved to LA, the song that I wrote, “Leave,” was about that very thing. It was like, “I’ll leave tomorrow, before you wake/ I just need to save me, before my heart breaks/ I still believe in love, and the time that it takes/ but for now, we are better off alone.” Like, it had to do with me leaving behind a situation to really be who I really needed to be. So I moved to LA in 2017 and it just—I became a completely different person.
V: What other factors prompted this newfound power that gave you the agency to take control over your life?
M: Before moving to LA, one thing that was really profound for me [was] going to Peru. I went to Peru, to the jungle, for two weeks in 2016, just to get my life together. I was able to meditate and participate in plant ceremonies. It was the most profound experience I ever had. I came back a completely different person, and I was like ‘I have nothing to fear anymore. I only have one life. I’m going to do this.’ I found the voice to say ‘This is what I’m going to do and I’m sorry if my parents disapprove, but it’s my life.’ And I feel like so many people are held back by things like that, and it’s very unfortunate. Sorry, I feel like I’m going in circles.
V: No, you’re not. I think it helps everyone understand the makings of this mega-star that you’ve become. I’m happy that you’re being so candid. Circling back to that first song, “Leave,” that you wrote after your move to LA, you got the opportunity to sign to a label as a songwriter. Who are some of the artist that you got to collaborate with? What was that experience like?
M: I worked with so many amazing producers. Like Theron Feemster, he was one of the last people Michael Jackson worked with before he passed. I’ve been working with amazing producers but the producer that I did “Leave” with was this guy named Andy Rose. He allowed me to tell my story in a very beautiful way. So, the first time I met him, we just sat in his studio, talked about our lives, and got to know each other a little bit. Then we sat at the piano and went through different melodies and stuff. Once a melody stuck, we just went with it. The words to “Leave” just came out. And I always want to approach music with the idea of bringing out the best in people and I want them to know that it’s going to get better. I always want to make music that is elevating, music that helps people evolve in many ways. So that was the intention. I want to show the other side, I want to tell the whole story of what it takes to heal, what it feels like to actually heal, and to give people a sense of hope, whether it’s a heartbreak song or a song about love. I want people to have hope like I did. So that was mostly my intention behind it.
V: Do you think that those earlier experiences of being in LA and writing these songs for other artist prepared you for a career as a solo artist?
M: Yes. For sure. Because, even when I came to LA, I was still doubting myself. There’s always a little voice that tells you you’re not good enough. So just the practice of being in the studio all the time around music, writing all the time, and seeing people pursue their dreams and succeed just motivated me so much. It really has changed my life. I love to write, and I love to tell stories, and I want to help usher in the age of consciousness.
V: Moving from those earlier experiences as a songwriter, you went on to release your debut self-titled EP. How did that come about? What was the curation process like, and what was the recording process like for you?
M: I was originally just going to release one song, but then we thought maybe it would be a good idea to be introduced to the public with more than one song. The first EP I did, I did featured the song “Leave”, I did this other song called “Be The Change,” which made me very popular in Brazil and went viral in Brazil. I did another song called “Ask For Help,” which is all about the things I went through. I was afraid to ask for help when I really needed it at times. Like when I was running away, I didn’t ask for the help that I needed, and I let my pride get in the way of a lot of things. Which put me in a really bad situation, so I wanted to reflect that in the songs that I was writing. The song was actually featured on Iyanla Vanzant’s [show] Iyanla: Fix My Life, as a promo, which is very fitting.
V: Yeah I’m actually obsessed with the show, and I binge-watch it, which isn’t as healthy as one would think it is. You mention producer Theron Feemster earlier, how did he come into play on this debut project?
M: Working with Theron Feemster, AKA Neff-Uwas such a major moment for me. He’s actually a part of Doja Cat’s “Streets,” he produced that too. He’s an amazing producer. He’s behind a lot of the great stuff you hear. So, when we sat down to write it, we were asking ourselves; what is something you would’ve wanted to hear when you were younger? Immediately I thought just being told that I could ask for help if I needed it, was something I would’ve loved when I was younger. That would’ve led me into way better situations. So he helped bring that song in particular to life.
V: Over the years you’ve developed such a distinctive sound. So I’m curious to know, are you working on a new project, a new EP or album?
M: Yes, yes, yes! I just came out with a song that’s called “Love Now.” You saw the video, right?
V: Yes. It was beautiful. As I mentioned earlier the message comes through so powerfully.
M: Thank you. I came out with “Love Now,” which is such an urgent message. Especially after two mass shootings in a matter of two weeks. Can you believe that? It’s crazy and I don’t think it’s the end of it because there’s an energy going around that’s so hateful. You see it all around, and there’s something brewing, unfortunately. I hope we have learned from past mistakes. But, what I plan on doing [is] continue to use my gift, I’m going to release an EP in less than two months titled Songs For The Revolution. I’ll text you a sneak peek of the EP cover. You’ll love it.
V: Yes please send! Songs For The Revolution? Super strong title, talk me through the conceptualization from start to finish.
M: So, I released a song called “Freedom,” last year, actually and it's kind of where the concept began to form. To promote that single, I did an Instagram Live on Cara Delevingne’s account. With it being released during the pandemic, I was 3D scanned and we used that scan to create an alternate universe for the music video. It’s a very profound video. In the video, I’m a statue and I grow wings and I replace the statue of Robert E Lee. Then I’m covered in gold, but the gold comes from the statues of Breonna Taylor...a gold bust of her, a George Floyd bust, an Ahmaud Arbery bust, and a Sandra Bland bust. So it’s like taking their energies and manifesting it into something greater—“Freedom.” Just that, just freedom.
V: That’s so beautiful. It really is.
M: Yeah, check out the video.
V: I feel like in music there’s always this underlying element of a story, you know? It’s not just like you’re useless, there’s always a meaning to it. An underlying meaning.
M: For sure. And I always—that’s always been my intention. I love pop music in general, but I always felt like a lot of pop was meaningless, so I want to make meaningful music in general. Things that will help elevate people. That’s my real goal. My next single, I think it’s going to be a song called “The Kids Are Not Fine,” which has a post-apocalyptic setting. The words are, “This is the last ship to Mars/ We’ve been left behind to starve/ We’re no longer seen as human.” And then it has a sample of Stevie Wonder and Coolio’s song, “Gangsta’s Paradise”: “Why are we so blind to see/ that the ones we hurt are you and me?” So we have that, which is really cool. But it’s like, what it talks about is that the kids are not fine. One of the lyrics in the chorus is like, “Sealed lips/ sink ships,” a play on ‘loose lips sink ships,’ but in this case it’s like: “If you stay silent, sink ships/ No tip, no drip/ You know we run our money in a capitalist society/ Got no money/ End of line/ The kids, they’re not fine.” So it talks about the kids and how they are the future!
V: I love it! What else can we expect from the EP?
M: I have another song called “Woman,” so it talks about women and what it means to be one today. The EP in its entirety touches on the kids, the [much needed] protection of women, the [needed] protection of the vulnerable, how to be free, and Love yourself. These are the things that we need in order to elevate.
V: And you just took me through all of these beautiful themes that the forthcoming EP explores. How would you say that your sound has evolved or changed or further developed since your first EP?
M: I’m definitely more confident in my voice. That’s one thing. I’m more confident in my message. I’m way more focused. I know exactly what I want to do. I used to just allow other people to direct me. And I still do sometimes, because I don’t think that I know everything. But I have more vision of what I want to do and way more control of my life in general. I understand the business a lot more, too. I’m no longer that naive person that just came to LA like, three hundred dollars in my pocket, staying in hostels the first week, and then getting a publishing deal during the first week of that. My sound has evolved so much more, and I’ve been exposed to so much different music, too. I feel like I’m more conscious. I’m in a better space and I feel so free. And people are going to get to experience that through my new album.
V: It’s definitely something that people can already experience through just listening to the two singles that you already released.
M: Thank you.
V: It definitely comes through.
M: I appreciate it.
V: Aside from your Vegas residency, do you have any performances that you’re planning to roll out in tandem with your EP?
M: Yeah, I’m going to do a livestream in May to help promote the EP.
V: And what is that going to look like? What elements of the EP are you planning to carry through to the stage performance? I feel like the messaging is so strong, so I’m curious to know how you plan to translate that to an on-stage performance.
M: Yeah, it's all going to be simple, but it’s going to be stylized, to really tell the stories that I want to tell. I don’t know how to explain it. But I know for sure the fashion’s going to be on point, because Nicola Formichetti is going to be there to help me.
V: Yes, love that! We love Nicola! He did such an amazing job with your shoot for the print issue so it’s nice to hear you guys have connected beyond that.
M: I’m so grateful. So grateful. The fashion’s going to be on point, which is amazing. I’m just going to try to tell the story in the best way that I can. I’m going to have some surprise guests. I don’t want to reveal yet but it’s going to be good. I’m excited about it. And then after I do the livestream, I’m going to cut every individual performance and post it, first, on my app. Because I have my own app. I’ll send it to you later. It came out last year. In the app, if you subscribe, you get exclusive content, exclusive unreleased music, and every time I’m about to release something you get it the day before. You can listen to my music there. So basically my app is like Spotify, Instagram, everything rolled together.
V: But just for you and your content! I love that!
M: Yeah, just for me. Because what if Instagram goes away tomorrow? What am I going to do? You can easily be hacked, or whatever. I feel like ownership is so important, and I’m so happy to own all of my stuff now. Plus, on my app, I can livestream to people and people can livestream to me. So it’s basically like the Instagram functions, but it has all the music streaming elements.
V: It really is everything wrapped into one—Spotify, Instagram. What has your creative process been like during the pandemic? I feel like artists are in this place where either it’s helped them or held them back creatively.
M: Actually, it’s been quite profound! Do you know how many songs get released on Spotify every day? Forty thousand! It’s so much. It’s hard to get through the noise nowadays. What quarantine did for me was it allowed people to really focus on the things that are important and the messages that are important, so my music was more popular than because of it’s messaging too. Also, what it did was, because of quarantine, I was able to set up a home studio and I work with producers in Sweden, and we were going back and forth. I was working with people from all around the world. This period helped me calm down, because I feel like I was kind of going down the wrong path trying to keep up with social media. I was just like, not really focused on the music as much as I could have been, and it allowed me to slow down and focus on what’s actually important, which is the message. So, that’s what was going on with quarantine. I got into painting too.
V: Oh, I love that. She picked up a hobby. [laughs]
M: Yes I did!
V: Okay, and, to bring this full circle, what’s next for you? What are some things you’re looking forward to for 2021. I know you shared about your EP and performances that you have coming up. What are some other things that you’re looking forward to?
M: I’m actually trying to write a tv series. I want to write this. I want to help people heal and understand what it is to be a human. Because, we didn’t get a manual on how to be a human when we were born.
M: We’re just taking in everything that we’re told. So I feel if people understood what was happening to them, they’d be better able to deal with it. What if they had the tools to deal with what’s happening to them and not just be lost. I call my fans the ‘free people’, so I’m trying to work on this tv series called “The Free People Project.” It’s very interesting. I’m really excited.
V: Would it be scripted?
M: Scripted, yes. Think, Star Wars, or, do you watch Avatar: The Last Airbender?
V: I do. I haven’t in a few years, but yes, I do.
M: That show changed my life, which is crazy because it’s an animated show.
M: But it’s amazing, the story of Aang, and Prince Zuko, their whole character arcs. So I want to do something like that, but more of an adult version. So I have these characters who would kind of be the stormtroopers, and they have clocks on their heads, but the clocks will be going counterclockwise and they’re called ‘TWIs’. A TWI is ‘time without intention’. And those are the things that held us captive, you know? So I kind of want to bring out the things that we don’t really see. There’ll be a character for Truth, one for different things that we just don’t see. When someone’s walking around, you don’t get to see their aura. You don’t get to see how penetrable they are. How susceptible they are to hate and all these things. ‘The Free People’ will be kind of like a detective group, who will interfere. This animated series is what I’m actually really excited to work on.
V: When are you hoping to have this out by? Is this something you’d see in like, 2022?
V: It takes time, definitely, to develop those kinds of things.
M: So much time. But that’s just my goal in life, to help usher in the age of consciousness. I use this quote that I got from someone, what I say is, “Consciousness is the mere rock’n’roll.” Because that’s what it is. It really is. Being hurt, not healing, it’s not cute anymore. People are dying. I’m tired.
M: We need to do better. And lastly, I’m just excited to perform more and hopefully go on tour.
Check out Marieme live in Las Vegas at Area 15 performing with Soul In The Machine!
For all things Marieme download her app here!