Last year, South African musician Nakhane brought an insightful awareness of the less-discussed gay black community in his gospel-record You Will Not Die. It powerfully discussed what it’s like to be homosexual when growing up in a tight Christian community. Oakland, California- based queer musician Mahawam seems to be following in Nakhane’s footsteps by also bravely discussing his sexual orientation and tackling taboo truths around it, but they have their own unique perspective and angle on display in their new EP Is An Island.
One difference is Mahawam is HIV positive, just like compatriot John Grant. Furthermore, like John Grant, Mahawam’s short record approaches the subject of queerness with a mix of humour, irony, controversial lyrics, cultural references and night-club tales. It’s a collection of songs that’s energy is more befitting for a dance-floor environment rather than a bedroom contemplation. Its R&B-Electro-Hiphop fusion also makes it stand apart from the aforementioned Nakhane and John Grant.
The phrase “No Man Is an Island” is originally taken from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne, an English prose about the correlation between sickness, sinfulness and God, which also makes it a wise choice for Mahawam’s EP title due to the subjects discussed within. Note God is mentioned twice on the record including on the religious commentary ‘Livery’. The phrase conceptualises the idea that communities are a stronger means for survival than a hermit lifestyle. From the off, Mahawam’s EP appears to be joining HIV sufferers together.
The first track, the oddly-titled and hard-to-spell-without-googling ‘Michelle Pfeiffer’, contains the lyrics “I’m not really dying but I’m not fine. I don’t really know what to call that line”, which effectively portray the sense of limbo that victims of the illness suffer, as it’s HIV isn’t always a quick killer. Its truth is contrasted well with the repetition of “imminent death, imminent death, imminent death”, which sounds like tabloid headlines sensationalising the HIV sickness. It’s clever but its a slight shame that this is the only track that takes about the HIV tragedy.
The woozy style of it’s hip hop is apt and effective in creating a nauseous dizzy feeling but the cultural references are a bit confusing and pointless, some unnecessary vulgar language is a tad off-putting and the speed of Mahawam’s rapping makes it’s hard to catch some their meaningful lyrics, even though it’s reminiscent of Childish Gambino.
Which is much in the case in the follow-up ‘Hoping No One Notice’, which also begins Mahawam’s engagement into electro R&B. It has a very chart-topping pop gleam to it through it’s autotune-ish vocal polish, but lines such as “I hold my free spirit, you secretly fear it” and “I doubt my commitment/I don’t want to die alone”, really get listeners to understand Mahawam’s battle with death and homophobia, whilst still trying to maintaining his naturally flamboyant personality.
The club-ready ‘Longpotty’ avoids the emotional ambiguity of some of the other tracks by being a straightforward and humorous observation on the culture of hooking-up in clubs. It still sticks with Is an Island’s overall concept of association with it’s listeners by stating these socially awkward, romantically devoid moments – from a horny predator following you into the loo, to the weird person who won’t stop talking nonsense – can be experienced by anybody.
Is An Island is best when Mahawam’s voice is unfiltered to leave their humble lisp tone, when the explicit language is limited and when the electronic music is patient and euphoric – bringing on that pleasant epiphany moment during a festival – and off-kilter (like the bouncing basketball beat in the title track) because this is when Mahawam’s world is most enjoyable and feels most genuine.
Is An Island EP is released on 29th March through Molly House Records.