MC/Singer Maimouna Youssef Might Have Been Too "Ethnic" for American Idol 2, but There's No Stopping Her Roots-Born Sound
"I've never even seen the show," the 17-year-old Youssef says. The well-spoken, statuesque beauty sits draped in her trademark African lapa wrap in the living room of her older sister's Guilford Avenue apartment, which is adorned with Native-American artifacts and artwork reflecting their family's Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek ancestry (her father is Native American and African, and her mother is Native American). It's Nov. 15, two days after Youssef rocked the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at the Baltimore Idol competition and one day after being crowned the Baltimore Idol on Fox 45's Morning Show. But again, the small screen doesn't have a lot of draw in the Youssef home. "We don't really watch a lot of TV in my house," she says.
Within the walls of the modest but cozy crib, it is surprisingly calm, considering that Youssef won a $50,000 prize package and is preparing to go to Los Angeles to audition for American Idol 2. Youssef glances over at her mother, who sits alongside her aunt, younger sister, and cousin. As her older sis tends to an energetic kitchen, they sit patiently waiting for Youssef to finish yet another interview, going over a checklist of things that she needs to get done before her early morning flight to L.A. After dinner, she's off to a photo shoot.
But no one is taking Youssef's shot at reality TV stardom all that seriously; there's more excitement over the Jay-Z concert tickets that were among her prizes. This tight-knit family serves as Youssef's support system and entourage, keeping a watchful eye over the gifted teen. Amid all the publicity and commotion, they're a reminder of who she is. Who she is, however, is precisely why she will not be seen on American Idol 2.
Born Maimouna Kwayera OlaTu-Tu Holoka Hanan Hassan Youssef, the teen has been singing since before she could walk, and toured at a time when other kids were discovering Clearasil. "When I was 12 my mother, my grandmother, and myself were a [vocal] group called 3 Generations," she says. "We did songs preaching world peace and cultural development. We traveled to Georgia, Kentucky, and Arizona. It was cool."
Though raised on jazz and soul music, Youssef discovered hip-hop at an early age. "I used to have to MC so I could play with my older brother and his friends," she says. "They'd sit outside freestyling and beat-boxing, and I wasn't allowed outside because I was younger. I was 8 and he was 11, so I would practice rhyming so I could go outside and sit on the steps with them."
Her basic education was as diverse as her musical one. She was homeschooled by her mother and aunt for most of her life, first in Baltimore and later in Virginia, where her family moved in 1997. She entered Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts two years later to hone her vocals. She graduated last June and spent the summer dabbling in filmmaking at the New York Film Academy, where she directed her first short film and music video.
Most of her time these days is spent working at the family-operated Womb Work Productions, a company that aims to preserve and re-empower families through the arts. Its community-based theater company, Nu World Art Ensemble, stages productions aimed at kids 12 and older that take on issues such as sex and drug abuse.
A phone call brought her out of that routine. Her stepmother called and told Youssef that 92 Q Jams (WERQ, 92.3 FM) was holding a competition at the Meyerhoff with a phat prize package--including a car, gift certificates, and a trip to L.A. Youssef signed up on a whim.
For the Nov. 13 Baltimore Idol competition, contestants performed two songs and were judged on style, voice, engagement with the audience, and originality by a panel of judges that included representatives from the Sony and Def Jam record companies. While some other bubbly teens bastardized '70s soul standards, Youssef mesmerized the audience with Donny Hathaway's "For All We Know," combining the soulful power of Gladys Knight with the sultry grace of Nina Simone. For her second performance, she performed an original song, "Caught Up," which she belted out while playing the piano. Youssef's performance beat out the other 250 hopefuls at the Baltimore competition, and she was crowned the Baltimore Idol Nov. 14.
A few days after her afternoon of interviews, she left for L.A. to attend the Monday auditions at the Rose Bowl with a Fox camera crew in tow. "When I got to there, there was, like, 4,000 people in line," she recalls. "People had been sleeping on the sidewalk for days [to audition]. I got to go ahead since I won the B'more Idol."
Covered in her traditional garb and ready to blow away the competition, she went before one of the show's producers. "She asked me my background and what I do," Youssef says. "I told her I'm Native American and African and that I sing and rap. She asked me if I knew any Native-American songs, and to sing one, then go into a rhyme. I was shocked that she wanted that, but I was like, 'OK.'"
She performed the Native-American spiritual "Mahk Chi" and then let loose lyrics from one of her own rhymes, called "Trend." The producer was impressed and deemed her worthy to move on to the next round a few hours later. If she could make it through that, she'd be an official contestant on the show.
For the next round, she was greeted by an executive producer, "an older British man with grayish hair," she says. "He looked me up and down and asked if I dress like this all the time. I said yes, and he rolled his eyes and was like, 'Oh.'"
Perhaps this round was meant to simulate the confrontational element of the show and see how the hopefuls responded. Youssef says that the producer asked her, "So, you're Indian?" to which she responded, "No, I'm Native American and African." Unconvinced, the judge reportedly said, "Look, you're Indian," and her audition went downhill from there.
"When I started to do my Native-American song, he was like, 'Whoa, whoa. Can you do a song I might know?'" she says. Undaunted, she again sang the routine that dazzled the previous producer, only this time it wasn't so effective. Youssef says the judge told her she was "not what we're looking for," that "we're looking for a very clean, traditional sound," and ended her American Idol experience by stating, according to Youssef, "This is American Idol, not Ethnic Idol. When we do Ethnic Idol, we'll give you a call."
Fox 45 wasn't allowed to tape the L.A. audition, but it did catch her reaction as she left: "I can't believe he said that.²
Friends saw the footage on the Morning Show, Youssef says, and came to her disappointed. "People said, "Why didn't you just tell him that the other judge told you to perform that so he could give you another chance?'² Youssef says. "I'm not begging for another chance and I will never apologize for my heritage.²
The U.K.-based production company behind American Idol, 19 Entertainment, didn't respond to requests for comment on Youssef's version of events. But Fox TV did admit that during auditions, producers often push contenders to get a feel for their onstage personalities under pressure.
Nevertheless, Youssef says, the experience did teach the young performer some valuable lessons about the music industry: Image can trump substance, and if you want to play their game, you may have to play by their rules. "They were looking for something else," she says. "It wasn't me, and I take that as a compliment. I'd rather go through this now and see all the different aspects of the industry and learn from it rather than have it handed to me."
And now, she's free to go full bore after her unique, syncretic sound. That means devoting even more time to her gig as Lunar Eclipse, vocalist/MC in the quintet Cirius B. The band combines the steady, repetitive rhythms of African and Native-American drum patterns with the syncopation of hip-hop. There, Youssef and her partner in rhyme (and cousin) Omari "North Star" Forman-Bey keep heads nodding and thinking at once. As a unit, Cirius B tries to evoke social consciousness as much as it tries to make sure you have a good time, combining the live showmanship of the Roots, the fun sing-along qualities of the Fugees, and the social commentary of Public Enemy.
Youssef also remains an integral part of Womb Work Productions, acting in its plays and preparing a stand-up routine for an upcoming comedy showcase. And she remains as focused on her creative life as ever.
"I would never change who I am for the music business," she says. "As long as you keep counting your blessings and keep putting good karma out there, God is gonna keep sending good things to you. And you take it and keep moving."
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