Mahalia Talks PUMA 180s, Going to Therapy and the State of British R&B
“I now have this real incredible excitement to create again.”
Mahalia is one of the biggest and best R&B stars that the UK has ever seen. It’s a fact, and bizarrely, not one that she’s particularly aware of. Despite a stream of consistently successful singles, collaborations with artists like JoJo, Burna Boy and Ella Mai, and an inimitable vocal range, the Leicester-born artist is unfathomably humble.
Alongside the release of her highly-anticipated second album, IRL, inspired by her journey into therapy (which also helped to reignite her creative juices in an otherwise painstaking pandemic), Mahalia was recently announced as PUMA‘s new ambassador for its 180 silhouette — a feat that no one was more proud of than her own mom. “I remember, years ago when PUMA did the big collaboration with Rihanna and Fenty, I loved those. My mom must have had five different pairs of those shoes,” she tells Hypebae.
Growing up, the brand had an undeniable presence in Mahalia’s life, and alongside drawing style inspiration from her dad and brothers, PUMA offered a safe space for the artist to experiment and explore her personal style — something she’s since become known for, though she doesn’t quite know why. “When people say to me that they love my style, I’m always like, ‘why?’ But I think it’s because I have always dressed for my body type,” she explains, adding that, “I’ve always naturally been quite curvy, I’ve never been that small. My boobs came in really early. So I’ve always had to be very aware of what bras work with what tops and all that kind of stuff.”
As a result, the artist has always been drawn to the realm of streetwear and sneakers, a part of the fashion industry that’s always been welcoming and encouraging, something she now hopes to bring into the music industry with her Mahalia Presents series. We caught up with the artist to delve a little deeper into her relationship with PUMA, her journey into therapy and what she thinks about the concept of “breaking America.”
Scroll down to read the full interview and head to PUMA’s website to take a closer look at the new 180.
You’ve teamed up with PUMA to support the new 180 silhouette. What do you like about the PUMA 180?
The really funny thing actually, for me, is that I’ve always been really specific with my trainers. I think because I kind of have a certain type of style, I really enjoy a wearing tight-fitted upper half and a really baggy lower half, the shape of a shoe has always been really important to me. The 180s, I can’t lie, have now become an actual staple which is lovely and also kind of crazy because, whenever you go into any sort of partnership like this, you want to love every part of it.
Being totally real, there have been things that I’ve done in the past that maybe I haven’t enjoyed every part of, but this feels nostalgic, and also the shape is perfect. It’s big enough to be able to see it under a baggy jean but then it’s subtle enough to wear with anything. When I say I have every color… I wish I could show you the end of my corridor! I have them all lined up in every color so that I can just kind of mix and match. It’s nice to be able to genuinely say that I f-cking love the shoe.
We love to hear it. What’s your go-to outfit when styling the shoe?
Day to day, I would say I usually pair it with a super oversized jean and then with a racer-back top. I’m a racer girl, it’s very much my style. It’s funny because people always talk to me about my style and for me, it’s just how I’ve always dressed and I’m kind of basic on the top. Then on the bottom, I like to either wear a really great cargo or an oversized parachute pant or really, really oversized denim.
I’ve also been testing stuff out, like when I was doing the PUMA shoot for the 180, the stylist had brought me some oversized skirts and longer denim skirts and cargo skirts. That has always been a style that I’ve only really associated with my female skater friends who are really f-cking cool, but I always thought that I couldn’t pull it off. Even in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been matching it with my denim midi skirt, and I was just in New York, and it was 35 degrees and I was wearing nice dresses with the 180s. So it’s definitely a versatile shoe.
Definitely. So you’ve said people often comment on your style — how do they describe it and how do you describe it?
When people say to me that they love my style, I’m always like, “why?” But I think it’s because I have always dressed for my body type. I’ve always naturally been quite curvy, I’ve never been that small. My boobs came in really early. So I’ve always had to be very aware of what bras work with what tops and all that kind of stuff. I definitely love the balance of masculinity and femininity, I love how they come together and creating that in shape and in clothing. I think that’s why I’ve always naturally been drawn to tight silhouettes on top and baggy silhouettes on the bottom. I think my style comes from all the boys that I grew up with as a kid. I always hated the term tomboy but I definitely was more in that world. I really cared about hair and makeup but with clothing, I was always really relaxed.
It’s funny you say that so effortlessly because actually, how to dress for your body type can be one of the hardest things to learn. It takes a long time to figure out what works for you. In terms of your personal style, then, how would you say that PUMA’s aesthetic as a whole fits into that?
Growing up, PUMA has probably always been in my life. I grew up with three brothers and I think when you’re young, you naturally copy your siblings. I would always copy my brothers and even my dad. My middle brother, Zayn, he was really the fashionable one. He had all of the PUMA Suedes in different colours. So I needed to get all the PUMA Suedes in different colours.
What it is about PUMA as a whole, I think it just feels like they can go anywhere. That’s maybe how I’ve also looked at my style. I can do anything as long as it fits in the realm of me and still feels like me. Maybe that’s why I fell in love with the brand as a teenager because I remember maybe 10 years ago, they brought out new PUMA Suedes in a bunch of different colours and I had the ones that were grey and pink and then like blue and yellow and I think I just really enjoyed being able to have that a pop of colour. But in some way, I think I’ve always been like that. And I really enjoy that it feels limitless. It feels exciting, but it feels subtle.
It feels authentic to you, no matter what, right?
100% and I think I’ve always naturally been more into the streetwear world. I definitely am much more in the streetwear wold than the high fashion world. High fashion is really fun, when you have a team of people around you to do it with. But I think like, day to day me, in festival season and doing shows, I need things to just fit and make sense.
It’s a more welcoming environment, isn’t it? Also love the fact that you’ve cited your dad as your style inspiration.
He really, really was. He just always had the coolest stuff. And it’s funny because I think a lot of it he bought when he was younger. He still does but my mom I think has inspired me more as I’ve gotten older. My mom was actually the most excited about me being with PUMA. I remember, years ago when PUMA did the big collaboration with Rihanna and Fenty, I loved those. My mom must have had five different pairs of those shoes.
Those were like, some of my favourite shoes of all time. I actually never managed to get a pair but I was obsessed with them. Speaking of Rihanna and music… you’ve just released your second album IRL. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the record?
Let’s go back like four years. It’s the pandemic. We’re inside. All my conversations are basically happening in this room. I think I just felt so locked into these four walls and so mentally, I was creating absolutely nothing. I wasn’t singing. I wasn’t playing my guitar. I wasn’t recording. I definitely wasn’t writing. I wasn’t getting inspired, to be honest. What really happened for me was that my ex dumped me. So I was locked in here and going a little bit crazy and I decided to start therapy. It was a huge, huge decision for me. There’s still such a taboo around therapy and the reason why you would need it. I was so against doing it for such a long time. because it made me feel like I had a problem or like I had something to fix.
But I eventually started it and it was just talking. Talking about all the sh-t that had been going down, talking about what I’ve been thinking, what I’ve been feeling, really just having the space to like share stuff, it just completely ignited my like creative brain again. With IRL, parts of it are about things that have happened in the last three years, but honestly, parts of it are just about stories that maybe I felt were too traumatic to like talk about before and then doing therapy allowed me to just release it. The reason why I called it IRL as well was because I remember the first time that my therapist said to me, “do you want to meet IRL or on Zoom?” And I was like, “Well I’d love to do IRL,” so we did IRL and since then, it’s just become one of the most important things to me and it’s been a huge, huge stream of inspiration. When it came down to creating and making [the album], it just made sense to call it that.
I did the exact same thing. It’s been so powerful. Speaking about the album on a wider note, there’s been a bigger conversation in the UK in the last year or two about the state of British RnB and the industry’s lack of recognition. That’s something that you’ve been at the forefront of talking about, and as a part of that response, Mahalia Presents came about. What can you tell me about the process behind starting that? What did you hope to achieve?
It actually came about because I did Mahalia Presents in Leicester when I was 15. I think I did about four shows and I was in school at the time, and it was a lot of work. I did a few in Leicester, and then I just I wanted to have a space where I could experience music again, maybe it was some post lockdown stuff. We missed out on so much live music that I was really ready to see live music again. But also, I felt like, what is the point in the talking about all this stuff and shouting about it, and not physically doing anything, to try and change it or to try and be a be a positive part of the change.
The conversation happened about a year and a half ago in January and then had the first show in March. I didn’t really know at first that it was going to be predominantly R&B, I was just excited to put on artists. But then when I started getting submissions, and like really digging into the British R&B scene outside of London, I realised just how many artists there are. I see my world and I see my peers and the people that are coming up at the same time as me, whereas I was forgetting about all the people that are coming behind and trying to break through. Now we’ve done eight in London, and we’ve done two in New York and there is so much f-cking talent that is coming out. I feel really privileged that I get to witness it and see it and I’m really, really, really proud of what it’s becoming. It’s starting to feel like a community. There are people that have been fans of my music for a while, who know me and see me all the time so I also wanted to create a space where people who support me could come and listen to music that I enjoy and feel like we’re also on the same level because so much of being an artist is being disconnected from everybody. We’re always standing in front of them and have never been able to stand with them.
Yeah, like the bigger you get as an artist, the more barriers that stand between you and them. Where would you like to take Mahalia Presents next?
That is a perfect question because I don’t think I’ve thought about that. I know that there are a lot of cities in America that are asking for it to come and I definitely want to do a Mahalia Presents tour in the UK. But I’ll tell you who I think would love it. Australia. I have been doing a lot of Australian promo in the past few weeks and there is a huge market for Black music period, in Australia. Whether it’s rap, whether it’s grime, whether it’s R&B, I’ve seen a lot of Black British artists go over there and have great success. I also think there’s a huge market for R&B in parts of Asia. You can definitely see it in South Korea, in parts of Japan, definitely in parts of the Philippines. The Philippines has produced some of my favourite R&B music of right now. I think there are a lot of places where we could take it and the conversations are always ongoing.
Definitely. In terms of the US, for British artists, the concept of “Breaking America” is one that seems difficult for a lot of people to do. What’s that been like for you? How would you say that your music has been received there?
America loves us for some reason. Whenever I go there, there is definitely an obsession with the way that Brits talk and the way that we enunciate. I always feel greatly received there. British R&B has a specific sound and it’s so different to American R&B that I think people out there receive it really well. It’s definitely a difficult thing to do, to break America, I think you just have to go there as much as you can and do as much as you can. Meet artists and meet other creatives and just push yourself into the space and hope that people will love what you do and connect with your music. I’m kind of also starting to think it’s not the be all and end all and I think we see a lot of artists do really, really well without ever breaking America. It’s different now because of streaming and social media, too, you can break a territory without even knowing you’ve broken it. Before, I think I had to literally be there, live there and be in amongst it all the time but I’m just trying to prove that we can be here and still have a flourishing career in the States.
You’re definitely proving that! Lastly, as you continue to celebrate the release of IRL and your new partnership with PUMA, what is next for you? What are some of the other goals or plans for the future?
This right now is the golden f-cking question. I have no idea. I’ve been taking a huge exhale over the past two weeks and I think I still need to come back down again. I honestly didn’t think that I was gonna get to the end of this album. So getting to the end of it, and then actually being able to release it and start thinking about what’s next has been a real breathing exercise for me.
There’s a lot I want to do and on a personal level, I am super excited about my partnership with PUMA, I’m excited about them being involved with Mahalia Presents. I’m excited about what we can do to push that forward. For my music, I now have this real incredible excitement to create again, which is nice, because as I said, with the last record, I didn’t have that. It’s nice to be thinking about what’s next. And then I really, really, really want to get to a place where I can start taking my own advice, basically. I think that’s a personal thing that I’m working out in therapy every week. Everything that I say in my music, in my work with brands, in my work with Mahalia Presents — to be able to really live and breathe that.