As an undergraduate student in 2018, the rapper Mavi helped organize a week-long takeover of Howard University’s main administrative building. During the sit-in sparked by a scandal over the alleged misappropriation of financial aid funds, every so often, the students barricaded inside the building hosted dance parties, step shows and open mics.
“It felt in our instinct to do things that way, just responding to the stress and uncertainty of the situation,” Mavi said in an interview over Zoom last week. “As I continue through life, I started to realize that in all of the high-stress situations that my family goes through, like loss, grief, even poverty, there’s always this extra space left for laughter, for its sake. And joy for its sake, that’s not attached to any kind of earned-ness or accomplishment.”
Mavi’s most recent album, “Laughing so Hard, it Hurts,” is an ode to learning from loss and preserving laughter amidst grief. Originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, Mavi got his start in the rap collective KILLSWITCH, and released his debut album, “Let the Sun In,” in 2019. In the three years since, Mavi has collaborated with Earl Sweatshirt and toured with Jack Harlow. He released “Laughing so Hard, it Hurts” a week after his twenty-third birthday.
On the album, Mavi raps over beats that circle, ebb and flow, like water lapping at a shore. Many tracks feature a tender, lo-fi piano, which creates a supple backdrop for his rapping. His lyrics are at their most effective when they’re vulnerable and painfully specific. “I blush and through my fingers I first peek at you hearing this / The heat of the mirror make my eyes sprinkle like spearmint,” he confesses on “3 Left Feet,” a track about clumsily falling in and out of love.
Mavi cites Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Bra Willie as major inspirations to him as a writer. The album’s opening song, “High John,” is named after the African-American folk hero whose ability to keep laughing under the brutalities of slavery was a call of hope for other slaves. The song references Neale Hurston’s book “High John de Conqueror,” which also inspired the album’s title. “[High John] was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song,” Neale Hurston writes.
“Laughing so Hard, it Hurts” may be less explicitly political than some of his previous work, but on many songs Mavi’s personal and political frustrations bleed together. “Feel like the harder I work, the smaller escape,” he laments on “Chinese Finger Trap.”
Mavi studied neuroscience during his time at Howard and is fascinated by human cognition and how we perceive reality. Reading his lyrics, which blur together childhood memories, myth and personal yearnings, can feel like peering into the underbrush of his consciousness. The album circles themes of death, loss and resurrection, and Mavi weaves in references to the afterlife throughout: he crosses the River Styx, hoovers at heaven’s gates and feels weighed down by angel wings. He describes writing as a means through which he can communicate with the dead and process his own personal grief.
“[The album] is an appeal for my own humanity, less on a yelling and screaming ground, but on a self evident ground, or even whisper ground,” he says, pausing briefly. “But still with the full intention of receiving it.”