Mustafa, a People Hero for a Weary Era

“It doesn’t matter how anti-establishment, anti-imperialist I am, change won’t be in my life,” Mustafa said. “All I can do is inside of me. I try to keep people alive. And I try to make sure we’re protected. “

As a young person, while many of his colleagues were into hip-hop, Mustafa was passionate about folk music and earthy singer-songwriters: Nick Drake, Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. “I remember when I was younger and people were crazy like, ‘This guy is always emotional,'” he said with a laugh. “But the truth is, I was just exploring sentimental language, you know what I mean?”

While filming When Smoke Rises, Mustafa was struck by the way Sufjan Stevens remembered his mother on the 2015 album “Carrie & Lowell”. Mustafa took out his cell phone to read a letter he’d sent to Stevens through an intermediary, part porridge, part confessional. “I dreamed of bridging the worlds of grief and fame,” he wrote, entrusting Stevens with the ghosts that hovered over his music. “The deaths were complicated and violent and unfair, but they are still my own. And the way I reflect on it can be all of that and still be beautiful, as you have shown so brilliantly. Nothing for free. “(He has not heard of it yet.)

Tensions in Regent Park persist. Los Angeles has become a safe haven for Mustafa, a place where he can discover his creativity. When he first explored the studio and struggled to find the right voice and tone for his stories, he began writing songs for others, working on tracks by Weeknd and Camila Cabello, as well as the hit song by Shawn Mendes- Justin Bieber with “Monster.” But writing about anyone but yourself was indeed a distraction.

“I wasn’t daring at all,” he said. “I just couldn’t bear to see anything and explain something in its full truth.”

Finally, he went to London in 2019 to work with producer Simon Hessman on demos he had been trying out for a few years. Mustafa’s friend Frank Dukes, who has produced for Post Malone, Rihanna and the Weeknd, joined them later. Dukes had examined Smithsonian Folkways anthologies of Sudanese and Egyptian music, some of which landed on When Smoke Rises, bridging Mustafa’s modern stories into the past. Mustafa also contains voice samples from deceased friends and his mother as he inscribes them in history.