Genre-Defying Rapper Mahawam Grapples With an HIV Diagnosis on Their New EP

Mahawam (Guerrilla Davis)

Mahawam's Is an Island EP (out March 29 on Molly House Records) emerged from a period when the artist wanted to disappear.

"I had just received my [HIV] positive diagnosis, and I wasn't really sure how to talk about it with my friends," the rapper and multi-instrumentalist, whose real name is Malik Mays, recalls stoically over coffee on a sunny morning in Oakland. "I started to withdraw into myself. I stopped going to parties. I stopped DJing for a bit. People didn't see me, and nobody really asked."

The stream-of-consciousness lead single from Is an Island, "Michelle Pfeiffer," is a sketch of Mahawam's mental state during that time. Its lyrics bounce between dejected and self-destructive, with a frantic delivery that evokes the disorienting, sped-up drug sequences in Requiem for a Dream. "Gold's been leaking from my lesions lately / It's crazy but, imminent death, imminent death, imminent death," Mahawam fires off in the hook, excavating the highs and lows of a substance-fueled downward spiral.

The "Michelle Pfeiffer" music video, which opens with a questionnaire one might fill out in a psychiatrist's office, shows Mahawam anxiously waiting in an empty room, contemplating their fate while drinking dark liquor and fidgeting with anxiety. (Mahawam uses they/them pronouns.)

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"[Is an Island] was something I had to do in order to escape the process of grieving for myself," Mahawam says, recalling their rage and sadness.

"I definitely feel like I'm on even ground again," they continue. "The record is like a picture of the flash in the fire. It was a short period of time, I don't feel like that anymore. But it was important to feel like that, and know I could get to a place that's so low and bounce back."

Music has always been a constant in Mahawam's life, one that helped them find their way back to normalcy following the diagnosis. They were an orchestra kid in high school in Arizona, and grew up playing violin, cello and orchestral percussion. They studied creative writing with a concentration in poetry at Arizona State University before dropping out and completing a music engineering program.

After moving to the Bay Area in 2013, Mahawam got involved in the local drag scene as a DJ and began making beats behind closed doors. Rapping came when they needed vocals to go with their production, much of which has a club music tempo and a discordant, punk-rap experimentalism, evoking artists as disparate as Death Grips and Robyn. A friend of Mahawam's, Kristina Esfandiari of the doom metal band King Woman, heard their music and became an early champion of their work.

Mahawam.
Mahawam. (Guerrilla Davis)

"I was literally yelling at them like, 'You’re supposed to do music! You need to do it!'" says Esfandiari, who booked Mahawam's first headlining show under the guise of them opening for King Woman. Esfandiari performed one song and gave Mahawam the floor. "I cried the first time I saw Malik perform. I think they’re an absolute genius."

Mahawam quickly found support in Oakland's diverse and interdisciplinary music scene, where artists of different genres and identities mingle at bars, underground spaces and homegrown festivals, leading to unexpected collaborations. One night at Starline Social Club, Esfandiari introduced Mahawam to Michelle Campbell, who manages rising Oakland synth-pop duo vverewolf (one of the supporting acts at Mahawam's EP release show at Amnesia in San Francisco on March 26). Campbell, who now manages Mahawam, connected them with bassist Akiyoshi Ehara from prolific, local neo-soul band the Seshen, and Ehara co-produced and mixed Is an Island.

"There’s so much out there in the music world these days where it feels like people are trying to emulate pop stars rather than create their own sound," Ehara says. "And what I like about Malik’s music is that it feels like their own path that they're forging. That takes a certain level of bravery."

The tracks on Is an Island, with their soaring pop hooks, frenetic, uptempo beats and (sometimes uncomfortably) introspective lyrics, don't fit neatly into a genre, and share a kindred spirit with boundary-pushing rappers like Maryland's nu–metal-dabbling firecracker Rico Nasty.


Mahawam's genre-defying approach is part of their appeal, as evinced by the fact that a doom-metal singer, a bubblegum pop band and a neo-soul bassist are in their corner. "I think it's a sign of the genre-less future we're approaching, where everything is everything, and the lines between cultures even have started to blur—which gets messy at times, but I think, for the most part, it's really cool," Mahawam says.

Mahawam's arrival also comes at a time when the rap world is beginning to open up to more than just male, heterosexual narratives. The mainstream success of Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls—and the rise of Cupcakke, Tierra Whack and BbyMutha on the indie front—proves rap fans crave other perspectives. But challenges persist, especially for someone like Mahawam, who is gender nonbinary. Queer, gender-nonconforming artists still face harassment and homophobia. Meanwhile, others have found an audience in the LGBTQ+ club scene rather than the mainstream rap world.

"I think that dilutes the effectiveness of rap as a genre, rap as a platform, hip-hop as a lifestyle," Mahawam says of segregating acts by gender or sexuality. "That division doesn't need to be there."

Still, despite the challenges, Mahawam has found strength—and a captive audience—by simply speaking their truth and being themself. "Really at the end of the day, I don't worry about where I sit on the gender spectrum because of my music," says the artist. "It's not the focus. I frequently switch genders in my music, and my pronouns even change. ... I think me having that fluidity in my music and presenting the way that I look will inspire some other child who has decided to sit firmly in the middle and write what they want to write."

Mahawam performs at Amnesia on March 26. Details here.

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