Mahogany Jones Bridges Cultural Divides by Taking American Hip-Hop Overseas
Mahogany Jones is a hip-hop artist and arts educator who resides in Detroit, Michigan, but that's only when she's not traveling the globe, representing the Free World as a US cultural ambassador for music.
Born in New York City, Mahogany uprooted her life and moved to Detroit 13 years ago as a means of reaching and teaching troubled youth through music. Currently a music curriculum developer for three programs focused on mentoring teens with one positive message and dope beat at a time, Jones works to inspire communities across the globe by creating and leading workshops, performances and festivals for all cultures. But as a woman, Jones focuses on the upbringing of young girls.
“I want young women to have a tool to empower them and encourage them," says Jones, who also serves as the co-founder of Women in Hip-Hop, an organization uniting women in music.
After interacting with artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Punchline and Immortal Technique, she realized, "Man, I wanna do this." And three years later, in 2001, she was making it happen. As the first four-time undefeated BET “Freestyle Friday” champion, Mahogany Jones tells The Boombox how her obsession for words turned into unforgettable ambassadorship, representing her country and her music.
The Boombox: You’re a musician who’s now representing the United States as an American music ambassador. How did you get hooked up with such a gig?
Mahogany Jones: Well, years ago, when jazz was really popular, the United States wanted a way to build cultural bridges with different countries. As a means to kind of export American culture, they sent [Dizzy] Gillespie and a whole bunch of jazz greats to do exactly what we’re doing, which is performing and doing workshops and exchanging culture. A month before applications were due, [my mentor said], "You should totally do this. And oh, by the way, you need to get together a band [together]." And I was like, "What?!" I was really serious about it and whipped up a band...and we got the call back that we would be one of 10 groups going out in the 2012/2013 season and the countries we would be going to Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana and Ethiopia. So that was the beginning.
If the U.S. was focused on "exporting" jazz, how were you able to participate as a hip-hop artist?
I wanna say maybe in the '90s, the more hip-hop gained visibility it opened up [the doors], and American Music Abroad decided that they wanted to highlight all genres of music and exchange them. So now, the floodgates [for hip-hop] have opened. Someone who was my mentor – her name is Toni Blackmond – was the first hip-hop musical cultural ambassador and she’s the one who actually told me about the program.
Do you work with AMA as your day-to-day job, or do you get involved in additional project?
The tour is a special thing that happens, but as a result I’ve worked really closely with the organization that does this, which is American Voices. Another program that I work really closely with is Next Level. That’s a really cool program because they focus specifically on hip-hop and they create a cohort of the elements of hip-hop - so it’s one MC, one dancer, one producer [and] one DJ, and they’ll go to a country and they’ll...set up shop for about three to four weeks, connect with the local artists that are there, give master classes and create new material and new music. But yeah, during the day I moonlight as an artist educator. I teach poetry with two organizations in Detroit – one is called Inside Out and one is called Living Arts – and I did a small tenure with DIME, which is the Detroit Institute of Music Education. In between, I get to do my own thing nationally and get to perform. I just did A3C down in Atlanta for the first time.
As the Trump era begins, how do you think you’ll be received when you go to various countries - especially since you're gearing up for a residency in Pakistan?
We’re gonna be a laughingstock. Most of my ambassadorship has taken place while Barack has been president, and it’s been great. Wherever we go, I say I’m American and they’re like “Obama, Obama” – they’d be excited. But with the election, I was getting messages from my friends in France like, “Oh my God, Trump is president. Run!”
But that's also one of the reasons for the program, right? To bridge cultures, especially in times like this?
I think that’s one of the reasons why I really love this work. Of course, getting to do concerts and ambassadorships are cool...but the part that’s really sweet is doing workshops with people in the community. A lot of the countries they send us to are second or third world, and a lot of times they’re countries that are extremely repressed. To give them a tool to be able to use their voice in a way that they can express what’s going on with themselves and around them [feels great]. And now more than ever, the same tools that I offer people in these different countries I realize I need to pick up my armor and find out how we’re going to make it. Kendrick [Lamar] reminded us “we gonna be alright,” but I’m just like, “Bruh!”
Are you reworking any of your music to reflect the times as you get ready to hit the road again?
It’s really interesting. My album, Sugar Water, just dropped and I tried to make it light. My other albums have been so heavy. Pure (2014) addresses women’s issues. It talks about molestation and recovering from that. It talks about domestic abuse; it talks about sexual assault; it talks about colorism. So I just wanted to make an album where people can just chill and not really think too hard. My [next] album is going to be more focused on relationships. We’re starting to cook in the lab now.
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