Mystic surprised the world by walking away from a record deal after her successful debut album. But for her, it was all part of the plan to create and be of service, completely on her own terms. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)
ystic sits in her backyard on the kind of warm, autumn afternoon that makes people remark at how good it is to live in Oakland, California. Dappled light shines through a lush canopy of persimmon, fig and guava trees. Her pet lovebird chirps in the distance, and she’s snacking on almonds between Zoom calls with young musicians she mentors.
This is the veteran hip-hop artist’s little oasis, away from the unruliness of the city, where she ponders the changing seasons of life, love and art.
It’s a good time for reflection. The recent loss of her longtime close friend and Digital Underground collaborator, Shock G, shook her deeply. That, and the grief of living during a global pandemic, prompted her to listen inward and ask herself what would fulfill her soul right now.
“I mean, shouldn’t we be doing what we love? Isn’t it the time now?” she asks in her naturally poetic cadence, lowering her voice into a near-whisper. Then, she starts to get louder and more passionate, as if proclaiming a manifesto: “If we’re artists, and art is part of our healing journey, then we should all be making art right now, right? There should be art flooding our speakers and our museums and our buildings, right? Public art.”
And for Mystic, one of the roles of hip-hop as a public art form is to bring traumas out of darkness and into the light, where they can be examined and processed—maybe even let go—in communion with others. That’s the power of her classic album Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, whose 20th anniversary Mystic is celebrating this year. She recently took ownership of the master recordings and put out a podcast series looking back at its creation. Now, she’s gearing up for a vinyl rerelease in December.
From the outside, it might look like Mystic is recommitting to her art after years of focusing on her other loves: academia and teaching. After Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom was released to great acclaim, she walked away from a record deal and took a different path that brought her to UC Berkeley and, eventually, the University of Oxford for her master’s degree in education. For years, she spent more time in kindergarten classrooms than on stage in front of fans. But to Mystic, these multiple pursuits are all part of one continuous quest to create, express and be of service.
“It takes life to make art,” she texts me after one of our conversations. “There are times of input and times of output. I take my time for input, and that includes healing, living, loving, working with children, school and community. When my art is ready to be born, that is output. That is all 😉.”
t’s easy to see why Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom put Mystic, born Mandolyn Ludlum, on the precipice of major music industry success when it came out in 2001. The vulnerability and candor in her lyrics are magnetic as she zooms from sharp observations to intimate, personal confessions. She navigates a confusing labyrinth of pressures—both from an oppressive social order and within her own community—and carves out space for compassion and love for her people. Twenty years before the #MeToo movement and conversations about mental health became mainstream, Mystic rapped about losing her father to a drug overdose and surviving sexual abuse. She gave voice to struggles shrouded in stigma and shame.
“Part of what I hear back then is this fierce commitment to attempt to live and attempt to heal,” she says of her own recordings. “And so when I listen back to that and I read those lyrics, I just I want to tell her, ‘I love you.’”
With its jazzy undertones and West Coast swing, Cuts for Luck offers life-affirming moments of free-spirited fun and sexuality, too. Mystic’s delivery is smooth yet earnest, and she comes across as a warm, approachable, wise friend. It’s no wonder the album earned comparisons to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—although to equate the work of two politically outspoken Gen X women in hip-hop would be an oversimplification.
With production from Zion I’s Amp Live, Hieroglyphics’ A-Plus, Shock G and several others, Cuts for Luck is the result of a collaborative underground hip-hop scene that strived to push the boundaries of the craft. After living all over the West Coast, Mystic immersed herself in that community when she and her mom settled down in Oakland in 1989, the summer before her sophomore year of high school. (A-Plus was their neighbor across the street.) In her teens and 20s, she honed her skills at cyphers at friends’ houses, where they would rhyme, cook and drink beer.
“We were young and we were free, and it was the end of the decimation of communities from crack cocaine in the ’80s and Reaganomics,” she recalls. “There were still a lot of things going on and a lot of loss. But we were happy, you know. We were creating culture, creating hip-hop.”
In the ’90s, Mystic developed her stage presence at warehouse parties and open mics, where she’d rhyme alongside revered underground acts like Souls of Mischief. As she ascended to bigger stages, she opened for OutKast and Leaders of the New School, Busta Rhymes’ first group. Her lyrical prowess earned her respect, and eventually she became a member of Digital Underground (she first appears on their 1998 album Who Got the Gravy?). Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, her solo debut, is as multifaceted as life in Oakland at the turn of the millennium.
he power, vulnerability and self-awareness Mystic projected on Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom propelled her to great heights. She was nominated for a Grammy and a BET Award, and the music video for the lead single, “The Life,” was on TV.
In the 1990s, major labels signed a number of Bay Area artists, and West Coast hip-hop emerged as a commercial force. But the early-2000s era of illegal downloads caused chaos in the industry. Labels were merging and changing ownership, laying off staff and shelving artists’ work. The rerelease of Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom was one such casualty.
Mystic originally released the album on the independent label Good Vibe, which had a joint venture deal with Jcor. When Jcor went out of business, Mystic and her Good Vibe team signed to DreamWorks. A rerelease was in the pipeline. It was supposed to introduce her to an even bigger audience—the first single, “Breathe (Better Days)” produced by Kanye West and featuring Donell Jones, had been on the radio, and physical copies were sold in Japan. But the U.S. rollout kept getting stalled.
By 2004, Universal Music Group bought DreamWorks and absorbed it into Interscope, and her album was still in limbo. Mystic broke the emergency glass and hired a lawyer to get her out of her contract. And though she continued to create (she recorded the first track from her 2014 album Beautiful Resistance after George Bush was declared winner of the 2004 election), Mystic set out on a new path towards higher education.
“Everybody was trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” she says. “My accountant, my lawyer, the label—everybody is like, ‘What is she doing,’ right? Because everything in front of her right now.”
Mystic knew she had to heed an internal calling. “I just felt like in order to not hate what I love, which is my art, that it was important for me to step back,” she says.
It wasn’t until 2019, after she finished her master’s degree, that Mystic discovered she owned the masters for Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom. And while artists like Taylor Swift, Ashanti and Anita Baker have had to fight to take ownership over their work, when Mystic went to Universal Music Group, it turned out all she had to do was ask.
“DreamWorks took what they owned,” she says. “Good Vibe wanted to keep the songs I had done with other artists on the label. Nobody kept the Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom album. But I didn’t know.”
Would Mystic’s story have unfolded differently if she had known? She doesn’t like to dwell on it. But she still makes sure to tell her mentees, “Contact the label who owns [your masters] or the people you know to own them. They may not own them anymore. I may have just gotten really lucky, right, and the universe did that. I don’t know. But go and ask.”
Mystic poured herself into the songs on Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, and for years listeners have told her that the album has helped them heal from their own life struggles. There’s power in reclaiming something so personally meaningful—to have full control over where the music is licensed and how much she gets paid, and to guarantee the album makes its way onto whatever new streaming platform emerges in the years to come.
“The songs that I wrote about my father, about the trauma that I’ve been through, about trying to navigate who I was as a young Black woman who was on a healing journey—like, that’s mine,” she says. “And I think the benefit of owning that means nobody else gets to sell my trauma. Nobody else gets to sell my healing.”
ystic’s second album, Beautiful Resistance, didn’t come until she was entering her second year at UC Berkeley, in 2014. An “untraditional” student now in her 30s, she was fully focused on getting a degree so she could be of service to children. After studying child development and cultural anthropology at Los Angeles Valley College—and a transformational trip to Haiti, where she learned about child exploitation in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake—she mapped out a new goal of creating an international arts program that would empower children of color across borders.
Music wasn’t top of mind until she attended Ananya Roy’s global poverty class. Roy was one of Cal’s star faculty—a professor with a contagious passion for social justice, whose lectures students would talk about in dining halls and in dorm rooms late at night. (She’s since moved on to become the inaugural director of UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy.) Mystic was moved when she heard Roy’s lecture about “insurgent architects,” people who work from within institutions to create progressive social change. Insurgent architects could even be artists, she remembers Roy telling the class. Even though there were hundreds of other students in the lecture hall, Mystic felt like Roy was speaking directly to her.
Then it hit her: “I can be a scholar and an artist and an educator and an activist.” Taking academia seriously didn’t mean she had to put down music.
After the lecture, Mystic emailed Roy a note and attached a few tracks. The professor liked what she heard and encouraged Mystic to keep making music. As she prepared to enter her second year at Berkeley, Beautiful Resistance was finally out in the world, 10 years after she recorded the first song.
“I released it on a Tuesday and I started a new semester on a Thursday,” Mystic remembers. A deepening of the themes on Cuts for Luck, it features beautifully sung affirmations of Black love and resistance, with vibe-y inflections of jazz and soul.
But as soon as Mystic got Beautiful Resistance out of her system, her mind was back on school. She was on a mission. “I graduated from college with a 4.0, right? I say that not to be like, ‘Oh, pop my collar.’ I say that as a representation of how I worked to internalize the knowledge, to be of service to children and the community.”
hat devotion to helping young people heal and grow through art comes from a profound place within Mystic. When she was a teenager, she dropped out of high school. Her teachers labeled her as gifted and talented, but she felt unchallenged and uninspired at Oakland High School. She longed for a creative outlet: she’d skip school and go to the public library to read books about the music business. Not only that, but she was suffering in silence after surviving a rape. She began to check out mentally—she had a natural love of learning but wasn’t in an environment that encouraged her to thrive.
In her life as an educator, Mystic wants her students to have a different experience than she did, whether she’s teaching in a classroom, an after-school arts program or at San Quentin State Prison. “I don't really care about your math or your English. I mean, I do,” she says. “But like, [I also care about] whether you ate. And whether your heart is broken today and whether you’re losing people in your community, whether there’s abuse in your home, everything that you are having to live through, particularly as a young child.”
Mystic’s studies and travels endowed her with an international perspective on the related struggles of colonized people across the world. (While at Berkeley, she did a semester abroad in South Africa, where she studied post-apartheid education reforms.) After graduating from Berkeley in 2015 with a degree in independent studies, a self-directed major where she wrote a thesis on public policy, education and global poverty, she set off to Oxford to get a master’s degree in comparative and international education.
“My interest in education in an international sense is because the inequalities that exist right here in East Oakland also exist really everywhere else,” she says. “I ended up focusing on how elementary school educators of color are using culturally relevant arts education with students of color. And knowing personally, the arts are transformative. They save lives.”
ystic has spent much of the past decade in the “input” phase of her creative process. But in October 2020, after a summer of racial justice uprisings and just before the 2020 election, she decided to put out new track: “We Are the People (All Around the Word).” She wanted a protest song parents could sing with their children, a song for intergenerational activist spaces. It’s as much an indictment of racist power structures as it is a prayer for a world where the next generation can thrive.
“Children are the most natural advocates for human rights and justice in the world,” she says.
Mystic won’t yet reveal what’s to come, but she’s been fully self-employed since September to focus on creating, cooking (another great love of hers), working with children and mentoring young people.
“We live in a social media age and everything happens in front of the camera,” she says. “I still will always be the artist who’s like, it’s really awesome when nobody knows what you’re doing, and nobody has any expectations and you can just be in your sacred journey.”
So what does this part of the path look like, making hip-hop at 47? Especially in an industry inundated with young, male perspectives? Mystic approaches it with a growth mindset.
“I still play with styles and I’m a master at what I do, but I’m always committed to, ‘How does that continue to develop?’” Mystic says. “And you talk about different things. I have seven godchildren. I have people with health issues that we don’t necessarily talk about, that happen when you get older: sister with fibroids, people with more cancer, people trying to determine, ‘Well, do I get to own a house?’ Our parents are getting older, right. And these are things we all think we know until we get there. And then when you get there, you go, ‘Oh, this is not really what I thought it was going to be.’”
Confronting mortality has always been an element of hip-hop. Since the beginning, its most tremendous artists have come from neighborhoods where people become familiar with death and violence at too young an age. But with the deaths of Gen X hip-hop greats like Shock G, DMX and Gift of Gab over the past year, health issues, aging and life’s precariousness are at the forefront of conversations among artists and fans.
“I was born within a year of the birth of hip-hop,” Mystic says. “What we’re doing right now has never been done before. It will always be youth-driven. But what [does it] look like to be an artist in our 40s or in our 50s?”
She pauses her train of thought to enumerate hip-hop’s many elder statespeople enjoying thriving careers: MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, E-40, Too $hort.
“You get there and you realize it’s a beautiful, full life,” she concludes, “if we’re blessed to have those opportunities. And particularly in our communities—with Black and Brown and Indigenous, economically vulnerable communities—it’s a lot of people who don’t live that long. And so in some ways, we’ve never seen what we’ve seen in hip-hop.”
In 1990, Shock G and Digital Underground famously rapped “Doowutchyalike.” The time has come for Mystic, and all of us, to do what we love.
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