On The Cusp: St. Louis Hip-Hop Artist “Mvstermind” Thoughtfully Addresses Race, Creativity And The Evolution Of Rap

Muhammad Austin might go by “Mvstermind,” but his countenance is quite humble. In person, he’s one of those rare artists with both a chill affect and sincere ardor. That same balance is cultivated in every track of his recently released album, “Cusp,” whether tackling existential questions of space and time, or in a more political vein, the history of police brutality against black men. One sunny Saturday afternoon, we had the chance to sit down with Mvstermind and chat about everything from gangsta rap and desegregation in public schools to what it’s like growing up with a whole bunch of sisters (he has four). After the hour, one thing was clear: this artist is on the cusp of greatness—not only within the robust hip-hop community of St. Louis, but also within the genre at large.

In many of your songs, like “Ain’t no Water in the Water Tower,” you directly reference your St. Louis roots. How did growing up on the North Side affect you?
I actually spent time all over St. Louis—I lived on the state streets near the river on the South Side, then on Russell St., then the North Side, where I spent the majority of my life. My parents bought an LRA house [Land Reutilization Authority], which was in rough condition when they bought it, but my father is a carpenter and turned it into a really nice home for us. In my video “Mali Moolah,” you can see the house, but since we moved out it’s fallen into disrepair.

Your sound often has a confrontational tone distinctive to hip-hop, but it also comes across as more philosophical and openly suspicious of consumer culture. In other words, your persona confirms some expectations of the genre but resists others. Was that a choice?
It’s subconscious, but once I realized it and became conscious of my natural direction, that’s what I wanted to tackle. The album is called “Cusp” because I’m on the cusp of these two realms—me, living in the grid, a “rapping-rapper,” embracing that hip-hop culture, and then the meditative finding-my-purpose-in-a-cornfield Muhammad.

How do you feel about the shift in mainstream hip-hop from “gangsta rap” to “luxury rap”?
Growing up during this shift, did it influence the way you conceived of the genre in terms of your own distinct sound? I grew up in the time of gangsta rap, but my parents would only let me listen to the conscious stuff. My sisters were heavily involved in the music scene— the very conscious black musical movement in hip hop, like Talib Kweli’s “Reflection Eternal,” Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Black on Both Sides.” These conscious artists all played a role in the 2000s, and I was always listening. At the same time, I spent a lot of time with my cousins listening to Southern gangsta rap. At that age I wanted to be cool, I wanted to be hip, but I had to go through the process of becoming me. But just growing up, trying to find my way, I could never totally find myself in that style of gangsta rap. You’ll never catch me singing about shooting folks in my raps. I like to be honest, and that’s not something I could ever stand for.

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In the track “Mali Moolah,” you sing, “I know what I’m worth, don’t need no money.” It feels like a kind of defiant resistance against credos like “all you need is your paper,” a conflation of capital with identity.
It is a defiant resistance to conflating money with identity, but at the same time I also understand why people equate the two. I want people to go get their money, make it happen, but without stripping themselves of what they’re really worth. I’m not about putting down rappers who value money, but rather the question is, “How can we better spend that money? Funnel it back into our communities so that we are not doing whatever it takes to get it?”

You’re from a creative family. How did that enable your trajectory as an artist?
We did a lot of traveling while we were young. We are the dreamers; that’s always been our family: not following societal norms, buying and living in an LRA house without electricity. But the job my Dad had enabled me to stay at the Clayton school where I was. My family’s diligence made that happen.

It also seems like courage to me—to live life in a way that people don’t expect you to, and do it for a greater goal.
I took what they gave me and that’s what I talk about in my music. If you strip down my song “Finesse Bless,” it’s basically saying, “Life is going to be real. It’s gonna hit you and it’s gonna smack you. But no matter what, you’re presented with an opportunity. You can get the good from the bad. Finesse its blessings.” I haven’t really broken down these parts of my story to people yet. My sister, when she was in high school, did her homework by the light of a kerosene heater. It was a digestible moment for me when I was a child, because I was like, “Yo, we’re making it happen.” In my eyes it showed our resilience. I talk a lot about the desegregation program in my music as well, like in the song “Ain’t No Water in the Water Tower.” I talk about being bussed out to the county. Back then the deseg program was new to teachers, and sometimes you could still feel the awkwardness. But at the same time, to me it was a big blessing. Even in Clayton, though, the community was frustrated with the program. At one time I remember my entire school staged a walk out to continue it. Those things completely shaped who I am today. The topic is so dear to me.

As a black person, St. Louis can be a uniquely fraught place to grow up. How did that affect you?
I was aware of that—my family broke it down for us. We were always the Afro-centric ones. I see it now with the Delmar divide. I’ll be walking by myself and see it, and being bussed out to Clayton was a whole new world. My parents experienced a lot of racism. They were turned down for an apartment in Clayton, and my mom decided to change her voice on the phone to see if that would make any difference. Coming from a Muslim family as well, that exposed me to a lot of Middle Eastern culture in the city as well. We grew up as very open-minded individuals, conscious of our own identity, but at the same time we were also very open to newnesss.

Your latest album starts in the clouds with the refrain “High in the sky for so long that you missed the surface,” but at the end of the album, you refer to the sky with the verse “too close to God, too close to heaven,” which has a very different tone—more triumphant. The song seems to be about black pride.
The last song is called “Red Light on the Vending Machine” because the machine is lit when it needs to be changed. Throughout history, even with things being pretty much miserable, we in the black community haven’t been. We’ve always used our creative energy to make change. It goes back to “finessing the blessings.” It goes back to getting the best you can out of a negative experience. Throughout black history, you see us rejoicing; you see us making things happen; you see us in the prime of culture. In the midst of that, you use your creativity. That’s what our ancestors have done from the get-go. The spark of creativity is always a light in the dark.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino

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