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Tucked away in a back corner of a coffee shop in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood, Mankwe Ndosi sits barefoot and cross-legged on an armchair, looking as natural and self-assured as a cat. She has opaque, solemn eyes that make her smiles seem serious, and she speaks freely with an actor's diction about music and community. She's got the sort of centered, grounded energy that gives off a tone that's more Buddhist than hip-hop artist, but Ndosi is as fierce a vocalist as she is an activist, and her debut full-length album, Science and Spirit, is evidence of that.
Produced by Ndosi and Zach "Medium Zach" Bagaason of Big Quarters, Science and Spirit is a gorgeous, slow-burning ember. Songs pulse with smooth beats that Ndosi flies over with vocal coolness. The album brings out a visceral response: Listeners start moving without realizing it. It is soul and rhythm at its richest, carefully assembled into 12 thoughtful tracks.
Contrary to what the polished album might have you believe, hip hop is not Ndosi's life. It's a vehicle for her voice, which happens to suit her fantastically. Then again, she could've chosen opera. Although Science and Spirit is her debut album, Ndosi has spent over a decade in the Twin Cities arts scene doing everything from producing the women's cabaret group Speak Out Sisters, to running a small arts nonprofit, to touring with Atmosphere.
"Science and Spirit is kind of my calling card," explains Ndosi with a grin. "It's a fusion of live, creative improvisational work and vocal exploration and hip hop. It ends up being a mixture, which is where the name comes from, as well as there being a lot of songs about personal transformation and transformation points in relationships, whether out of or into. It's also talking about areas of society which can use some attention."
Ndosi's father is from Tanzania and her mother is from St. Louis; they met while studying at the U of M. Ndosi uses wide, open-handed gestures as she speaks, and she pauses in the middle of sentences so that each word carries a significant weight. She is generous with eye contact and is primarily interested in talking not about her music specifically, but about the importance of her music — and the art of others — as a community bridge.
"I'm a culture weaver," the Harvard University grad says. "I'm definitely a vocalist and a community artist, but it's important to also talk about how creativity is absolutely crucial to our life and expression."
Ndosi has just returned from a jaunt through Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Indiana, where she was performing in and networking with other creative communities, and presents this as one of her current projects.
"We're looking at possibilities for community artists' networks, just getting people connected and coming up with a way and a rhythm in which people can get to know each other," she says. "It's reawakening everyone's creativity and enlivening the creative process to change the ways that people get together and are with each other."
This sort of activism is in line with Ndosi's work at Hope Community in the Phillips neighborhood, where Ndosi curates Intersections with the goal of bringing together multigenerational artists of all ethnicities and disciplines, with the common thread being creative expression.
"I'm always interested in the connection between personal story and society's story, and the institution and the individual, and the institutions inside of society," explains Ndosi, her hands expanding and retracting. "I have always used my educational ideas and my political ideas to inform my creative work. I'm interested in being inspirational, but also in asking a lot of questions."
Ndosi certainly isn't afraid to ask questions — or seek answers, for that matter, which is where Science and Spirit comes in. Her songs may sound like velvet, but lyrically, Ndosi is unapologetically gritty. She uses personal narrative like a poet, and it's not hard to hear songs like the stirring "Henrietta Goes Electric" and "She's Gone" as tragic social eulogies.
"This collaboration with Zach is encouraging and is probably the most straight-ahead that I get. The story and the lyric end up being the most important things. It ends up being very human, something that people can relate to at first, and then I can take them into outer space," Ndosi expounds, before winding down with a private smile. "But we'll start on the ground first."