Maina Doe is on the come up
Sydney-based musician, Maina Doe, is making waves with her new single, Unwritten Laws.
Maina Doe sits perched on a windowsill overlooking Newtown’s King Street, her eyes scanning the sidewalks below. She looks back over in my direction, her head tilted as though she’s already waiting for a response, “Beyonce… she creates things, things that have never been done before,” She pauses as if to catch herself and temper her own words, “You look at that, as a black woman, this woman is by far the most talented and dedicated artist in the industry right now. A genuine living legend. When will we give Beyonce the kind of recognition that we gave MJ?”
“Well,” I say, “What do you think it’ll take for us to change that?”
“I think there needs to be a cultural shift first.” She twists her body back inside, through the window frame, as she speaks, “We’ve fought for so long and so hard just to be recognised for what we do, and we’re still not there. If you’re an artist, if you’re in the workplace, damn, if you’re a mechanic… and you’re a woman, you have to fight just to be visible. It gets to a point where you’re like fuck it. We don’t need that recognition.”
From Bandung to Sydney
When did you first start making music?
I’ve always sung since I can remember. My mum is one of those people that wakes up in the morning and just blasts music. I grew up in Bandung, which is west of Bali. Where I lived, it was such a vibrant place — there was music all around! There are buskers on the street every day, magicians, hawkers on the street with their street food, children running around… it was a very colourful, crazy, chaotic place. I can’t really explain it without making it sound like a carnival. At the time I was living with my Grandma. She was quite religious, so I wasn’t necessarily allowed to express my creativity fully, but that just made me more hungry to be a really creative person, to sing and dance all the time.
So, when I came to Australia that’s when I started expressing myself out in the open a little bit more. And the kind of music I was listening to was exactly what my mum listened to. That’s the stuff I was singing first — you know, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye. All of those old school classics.
So, what was that like, moving to live with your mum in Australia?
Well, both sides of my family are Muslim, and they are quite strict religiously as well. But my mum’s a little bit of a black sheep, so she really encouraged me and my brother to express ourselves in whatever way we liked. She allowed my creative side to actually develop because all of a sudden expressing yourself and being a little bit crazy wasn’t a bad thing. She’s a gangster for that [laughs].
Did you grow up listening to a lot of Somali music as well? Do you think that had a big impact on the way you make music?
I listened to so much Somali music as a kid! My mum is such a fan. Check out Somali Sing Songs of the New Era — I listened to that obsessively when I was 18 or 19. It was pretty wild! [laughs] I think Somali music is very Arabic and to some extent Indian in terms of the melody and style of singing. It has definitely influenced some of the inflections in my voice — I think it’s kind of ingrained in my brain. As a musician, you absorb everything you hear, and it really deeply affects everything that comes out. You’re making connections on a subconscious level.
What was the first CD you ever bought?
Hmm… it must have been Missy Elliot’s Under Construction. Yep, that was the first album I ever bought and owned! Missy Elliot’s another one of those ladies on a whole nother planet.
The creative process
What does your method look like for creating music? Is there a method?
Every single day I’m making music. My method is to prioritize music over everything else — over my social life, over lovers, over my job. Last week I stayed in the studio until 4AM one night. We weren't getting fucked up, we were making lots of music.That dedication is the only way I can comprehend making a life for myself in this. The emotional, mental, energetic priority for me has to be creating music. So, that’s what I cram my days with. Music, just anywhere I can. First, and foremost always… everything else is secondary.
When and where are you in that creative zone? Do you see the studio as your sanctuary for artistic creation?
I feel like I’m always trying to stay in that creative zone. I don’t think creativity means that you’re always creating. I think it means always finding inspiration, and allowing yourself to create from that inspiration, naturally. I don’t have to be in the studio, I don’t have to be or do anything to be in a state of creativity.
When I see you perform, there’s often an element of improvisation. It’s so exciting to watch! Does that just come naturally?
Well, practice is everything, but when I get into these circumstances, when we’re just jamming, that’s when I feel alive because I’m on my toes and I have to create on the spot. It’s scary, but the unknown makes it so much more fun and more challenging as well. It makes me grow, humbles me, and helps me learn.
Do you remember the first time you performed in front of an audience? What was that like?
Oh, I was so young. I think I was 16. I was singing John Legend’s Ordinary People at a friend’s piano recital! [laughs] We had rehearsed and everything, but when it came time to perform, I just got so scared! The lights were on me, and there were at least 300 people in the crowd. My friend takes a one beat pause, and that’s my queue to come in — I missed my queue four times, I was so afraid. Once I started though, there was no stopping me. But, as soon as I got off the stage I’m pretty sure I threw up a little… [laughs].
How do you feel when you perform now?
When I perform now it’s just really fun. It feels natural. I think what’s really helped is realising that I’m not here to put on a show, actually, I’m here to share a part of myself. I’m here, you’re here, we’re here together, and I’m going to share. That’s so much nicer. It puts me at ease. What’s funny is that more intimate crowds are the ones that scare me now. I’d prefer the lights, the big crowd, because it feels more anonymous. When it’s a small intimate gathering, it feels like they’re paying attention to everything you do.
What are you trying to bring into the world with your music?
To be honest, I don’t know. I’m just creating and I bring all that I’ve got into everything I do. I know that if I stay real and authentic, whatever I bring will be a fresh perspective. I think that’s important no matter what you do — help people see things from a different point of view. But, I’m not necessarily trying to pollute my creativity with some kind of end goal. My priority is just to show up as my real full self and make good music.
In the long-term, all of my biggest dreams are for my community. I know what that looks like, but it’s important for me to focus on my step right now, and keep following those steps until I reach my end goal. If I tried to focus on those goals today, it will just take me out of the present moment. No, I’m going to stay here in the moment and methodically, authentically, go about my shit.
Higher purpose & the Afro-future
In our conversations we talk a lot about the future of Africa and the future of humanity. What does the term “Afro-futurism” mean to you?
When I think about Afro-futurism, what I imagine is a world where Afro-centricity is free to exist out in the open as part of mainstream culture. Afro-futurism, to me, combines all of the concepts of innovation, progress, and evolution, as well as style, creativity, and black empowerment, all in the same thing. That’s what it is to me. I want to live in a time where technology and art are symbiotic. A time where Africa is a hub for technological, scientific, and artistic development. And also style… did I say style?[Laughs].
It’s also about taking all of those values and belief systems that underpin indigenous cultures and integrating them into our outlook of the future. Our rights and rituals that we’ve practiced for thousands of years, and bringing them into this modern era.
What are you working on next, and is an EP on the horizon?
I’m close… it’s going to happen this year. But, I’m also a huge believer in not rushing these things. My priority right now is creating music of incredible quality, then I’ll prioritise the release plan.
Final question, and it’s a big one! What do you think you were put on this planet to do?
Wow, that is a big question! Well, I think life is pretty meaningless if you live it just for yourself. So for me, I see a life full of genuine human assistance. There are a lot of people that need help. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was going to do in order to help humanity, but I know that ultimately my main purpose is to be of service to humanity and alleviate suffering in whatever way I can find. Growing up in an immigrant family, I just see that there’s so much we can do with our privilege, with our gifts and talents.