Yoshi’s San Francisco was bubbling over with anticipation for Mali Music's sold out show on Sunday, August 10th. Like much of the audience, I’d followed Mali since the release of his successful independent release, The 2econd Coming, in 2009. I was not only excited to see him for the first time, but intrigued to see how he’d evolved since leaving the label “gospel artist” behind and releasing his major label debut, Mali Is..., this year. What I witnessed was a performance that crushed the boundaries between gospel and secular music genres with a frenetic energy and versatile musicality.
The multi-talented performer infused both the power of the gospel and the content of the gospel into everything from hip hop to reggae in a way that was altogether unique. While many contemporary gospel artists incorporate other genres, Mali's approach is to bring the spirit, message and impact of the gospel into other genres in a fluid and elegant way. I thought of it as “applied gospel” as he wove the messaging into stories that affect the lives of every day people.
He used reggae to deliver his message through the socially conscious unity anthem “One,” leading into it with a smooth transition out of the reggae classic “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy. He dealt with mistreatment of women in society and media through the deeply impassioned “Little Lady” with hip hop, R&B and soul. He also cleverly channeled a Nina Simone sample as well as showcased his talent as a lyricist. He drew from a pronounced soul sound to produce his gripping performance of “Walking Shoes” a powerfully inspirational piece about pursuing one’s dreams.
Mali Music has a palpable intensity that emanates from his inner being causing him rarely to be without movement, and fortunately for the audience, it’s infectious. At a seated venue, where even the most enthusiastic crowd support is generally limited to hand claps, much of the audience was on their feet for most of the show, and by the end every seat bottom was vacant.
His positivity and enthusiasm makes it easy for him to connect with the audience. Always in conversation with the crowd, he introduced each song with the exuberance of a kid who wants to show his parents what he made in art class.
Mali was riveting as he poured himself into those moments where he was one with his instruments. He brought in a Bob Marley “No Woman, No Cry” gravity to playing a guitar heavy version the of his pop-R&B single, “Beautiful,” an ode to the fans who stuck by him since the beginning. He connected in such a personal way with the audience that it apparently caused someone at the table behind us to let out a shriek before he could get the first line of lyrics out.
Dividing time between a backing track and keyboard, it was almost as if he went into his own world on “Never Feel Alone” doing part of the song a cappella. On “Ready Aim Fire” he brought us deep into that world as he had the audience yelling out the word “fire” from the song’s chorus. During “Broken Spirit,” from his independent gospel release, he showed his control of the keyboard, seamlessly changing key mid song. “Broken Spirit” not only features his exceptional piano ability but the vocals of his accompanying singer KP (his sister) who engaged in a hyper-melodic vocal exchange with Mali.
While never letting his intensity falter, he often transitioned to a cappella and slowed down his delivery so that the audience could consume the meaning of the words that he was singing. While his performance was exceptionally entertaining, it's not just entertainment, it’s part of his life mission. And, having listened to his album numerous times, hearing it in those moments, the lyrics took on a new dimension, and I better understood the purpose of his music.
Moving through his performance with no setlist created a very organic and spiritual vibe that peaked during “All I Have to Give” and “Avaylable” from his independent gospel album. Even during his performance of “Hold On” it seemed as if he poured himself out to another level, his delivery changing and his range hitting new heights.
While some might say he crossed over, his Yoshi's San Francisco performance stated otherwise. Given that he was in a secular music space, one could argue that his performance was more evangelistic in impact than many of those who carry the label of “gospel artist.” Mali Music made his mission clear, he wants to bring light into an industry full of dark messages and take the shackles and boundaries off of what people have traditionally understood to be gospel music. Based on the impact he had on our audience, which included a young lady who broke out in tears after getting his autograph, the mark he wants his music to make has already started.