Opera Singer and Emcee Join Forces for Genre-Defying Music

Lowell Davis and Jennifer Muhawi of Mission Eyes. (Courtesy of Mission Eyes)

Fusion music projects are a dime a dozen in San Francisco, but two local musicians have taken the art of mixing genres to a whole new level with Mission Eyes, a musical collaboration that blends hip-hop with opera.

Founded last year by Jennifer Muhawi, a classically trained opera singer, and Lowell Davis, an emcee who performs under the alias Leader1, Mission Eyes has released three songs over the past few months, with a fourth track, “Rayos del Sol,” dropping today.

If you’re trying to imagine what hip-hop mixed with opera sounds like, you won’t find much in the way of a pre-existing genre. There is something called “hip-hopera,” but that mostly refers to works like R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, a sprawling burst of ridiculousness. There's also the 2001 remake of Carmen, which replaced the original arias with lyrics sung by Beyoncé and Mos Def.

“When you go and search for it, there’s not a lot of other artists doing what we’re trying to do,” Muhawi says.

Jennifer Muhawi and Lowell Davis of Mission Eyes. (Courtesy of Mission Eyes)
Jennifer Muhawi and Lowell Davis of Mission Eyes. (Courtesy of Mission Eyes)

The goal of Muhawi and Davis’ collaboration is simple yet ambitious: to create unique music that challenges their audience’s preconceptions. The title of their group, Mission Eyes, is a reference to the Mission District, an inspiration for the duo with its multitude of cultures, languages and music. (The phonetics also make it sound a little like “Missionize,” but according to Muhawi, there's no evangelical dimension to their music).

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“We hope to open people’s eyes beyond what might be considered the ‘norm’ or ‘possible,’” says Muhawi, “and to unite people from all walks of life.”

Openness to music is how Muhawi and Davis first became friends back in 2008, when they met at the San Francisco MusicTech Summit. Although the conference was disappointing -- too many apps and not enough musicians -- they discovered they shared a deep affinity for crossover work.

Davis had performed with a jazz-funk-hip-hop fusion group called Musical Mutiny, and Muhawi would go on to participate in several projects with jazz and pop singers while founding City Opera SF. They parted ways after the conference, but the seeds for Mission Eyes were planted.

Last year, without much fanfare, they launched their collaboration and started working on an album, which mostly involved layering together samples of each other’s work. But they quickly found it was difficult to create a cohesive sound, and there were scant -- if any -- examples of successful rap-opera songs they could use as models.

“It’s hard when you say, okay, we’re going to put rap and hip-hop with opera, but there’s a completely blank slate,” Muhawi says. “How are we going to do that? What exactly is that going to sound like? We had to have some kind of focus for all the limitless ideas that could possibly take place.”

They eventually turned to Juan-Manuel Caipo, a producer for Rockolito Music, who helped them structure their songs to create a smoother harmony between the disparate styles. “Having that third person come in and give us a little more direction, give us some feedback, was pretty instrumental for us,” Davis says.

With Caipo’s assistance, the pair released their first three songs, “Free,” “Rever” and “Heart Strings.” Although the songs share unifying themes -- both Davis and Muhawi lean toward upbeat positivity in their music -- they were deliberately crafted to explore a wide range of styles. In “Free,” the two sing an ode to social justice and the spirit of San Francisco; Muhawi raps in “Rever,” a pop-dance track, and “Heart Strings” gives its love themes some West Coast slap. Their fourth song, “Rayos del Sol,” is a hip-hop track about opening your heart, punctuated by a Spanish-language operatic hook.

Listen to "Rayos del Sol," released today in honor of Cinco de Mayo:

Muhawi and Davis both consider Mission Eyes to be their most “far out” musical collaboration, but also one of the most fruitful, expanding their audience base and creating new opportunities.

“Working totally outside my box has opened up a lot of other collaborations I’ve been working on,” Muhawi says. “I feel like I’m coming into my own as an artist in a whole other way now.”

And sure, some hip-hop and opera purists might be aghast at the idea of mixing La Traviata with a 16-bar verse. But Muhawi and Davis are convinced that if those critics gave it a chance, they would change their minds.

“If everything stayed the same forever, we would never grow,” Davis says. “I would just challenge those people to give it a listen, to open their minds, to understand that collaborations aren’t always what’s expected.”

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