Don’t put Mereba in a box. She’s too multifaceted, equal parts singer, songwriter, rapper, and producer; raised on the sounds of her childhood, from Alabama to Philadelphia, North Carolina to Atlanta to Ethiopia. Her melodic sounds run parallel to her varied upbringing, as hip-hop drums dance with folk-rock strings and traces of R&B in a diasporic embrace.
“Every city’s style got put into the pot that is my music,” she explains by phone. “I’m not throwing anything in there just for the sake of it being thrown in there. It’s something that I grew up listening to, and it’s true to [my] experiences.”
If we must boil things down to simple monikers, however, Mereba considers herself a storyteller. Her latest album, The Jungle Is The Only Way Out, released on February 27, is a vivid soundscape of lived experiences; a tale of love and loss, escape and powerful return. Listen carefully and Mereba becomes more than just a storyteller. She evolves across her journey into a muse and a healer for all those with these universal human ailments.
“I was told a long time ago that a whisper is powerful because people have to lean in to hear it, and I think my music, in the current landscape, is kind of like a whisper,” she says, describing her performance style. “We all could use a little bit of a pause right now and something that takes you to a place where you’re just present and at peace.”
Mereba’s sound, honed in the mid-2010s with tight-knit Atlanta collective Spillage Village, begs second, third, and fourth listens to unpack the various layers of her music. She still counts JID, EarthGang, and 6LACK as close friends and frequent collaborators who allowed her to reach this current point in her career. That point includes a successful major-label debut, opening for a national tour, collaborations with Dreamville and 9th Wonder, and an ocean of possibilities ahead.
None of Mereba’s success, however, would have been possible without the family she chose. “I wish more people could see that,” she says. “We all possess [the ability] to make other people’s lives better.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: What was your entrance into music?
Mereba: Singing. I was in love with singing as a kid.
How did it evolve?
I started writing songs. Like when you had to do stuff in “quiet time” in class, like in elementary school. When I was finished with whatever I had to do, I would write songs in the rest of the time that remained. I would get in trouble for it. I would write in the margins. My mom was like, “What are you doing?” And I was like, “I write these songs.” She was like, “Sing one for me.” And I sang one, and she said, “Another one,” so I sang another one. My mom noticed that [singing] was a real thing that I was getting into, and she started encouraging me. Rapping was one of the last things to come. I always was writing them, but I didn’t have the confidence to rap. It came a little bit later.
What gave you that confidence?
Honestly, getting around my cousins. First, it was my male cousins. A couple of them in particular, they rap, and I rapped for them, and they were like, “That’s wack as fuck.” And then I got mad, and I went and wrote something better, and they were like, “Nah, it’s still not it.” I was listening to them, and I knew that I had something to say, I knew I had bars ‘cause I’d been writing songs for a long time. I didn’t know how to say it in that way. I remember I shared something with one of them and they were like, “That’s hard, cuz,” and I was like, “Okay, cool, [I] can go rap for other people now.”
You moved around a lot as a child. How does show up in your music?
It has a lot to do with the range of styles that I have in my music. I lived in each place long enough to get attached to it. We moved when I was a baby, when I was five, when I was 12, and when I was 17. Each gap was pretty wide, so each city I lived in had a big influence on me and my musical palette, but the country, the folk, the roots-type part of my style developed in North Carolina. That’s where I got the guitar, and I went to high school there. Rap music and folk music are my two favorite genres and I feel like the reason is that I’ve always been into storytelling.
Why is emphasizing a variety of sounds important?
The album is separated into three sort of chapters of a story. The first one is me leaving home and accepting the challenge of going out into the world, finding my tribe, finding my kinfolk. So it’s [“Kinfolk”], “Highway 10,” and “Black Truck.” Those are all about stepping out into the world. The second one was more my relationship to that world that I stepped out into, and the system, and being a Black woman—that’s “Heatwave,” “Get Free,” and “My One.” The last section was about the way that you fall in love in the world—“Planet U” and “Stay Tru” and “Sandstorm.”
I think part of the reason I’m here is to push [music] forward. Black music used to be called Black music, as a genre, and we’re not that far off from that. It’s interesting to see my music being categorized as R&B music solely, when I know it’s not, because I’m like, “I think this might just be because I’m a Black woman.” That’s just what you’re taught to call what Black women make. I’m just challenging that, and I’d like to continue to challenge that.
What held you down throughout your journey making The Jungle Is The Only Way Out?
Perseverance. I think that’s the thread that ties the album together. Like, here’s a woman—even from the title—who’s accepting that she’s been through some things at this point. By the time you hear this [material], the speaker has been through certain trials in life that you’d have to be there to understand. But it’s almost like the project is being told in hindsight. Through all these different chapters, you’ve heard a woman who wasn’t broken by circumstance.
Speaking of perseverance, your dad, I believe, passed away before the album was released.
In the process of making it. He passed on January 3, 2017. It was like a year before releasing my album while I was in the midst of writing stuff.
That must have been hard. My mom died when I was pretty young; I feel that loss. The album has this idea of engaging with the struggle rather than just avoiding it. What led you to that point?
Honestly, I have my dad to thank a lot for that sort of mindset. I get being a storyteller from my dad. He was very much a talker and a storyteller. He was very colorful. People spoke to him and joked, “Oh, his stories are half true, half fake.” But when you’re a kid, that’s magical, to hear that.
It was this weird feeling because, usually, I would go to this person to help me get through whatever I was going through. But what I need to get through right now is that I don’t have him anymore. I almost feel like I became him, and if you’ve lost a parent, you know. People tell you these things to make you feel better, but they do live on through you, and I think he would be proud to see the way that I bossed up in the midst of that.
How did you arrive at now?
That’s a great question. I think it was leaving places behind. Growing up, that was super hard on me. Especially when we moved from Philadelphia to North Carolina, it took me a couple of years to feel like myself again, just because it was at an awkward time for things to change in life, like when you’re in middle school, going into high school. I was forced to learn that lesson. On the opposite side of being forced, I was blessed by that lesson because the people in my life have kept me going. I can’t stress that enough. My family, yes, but also my chosen family, my tribe of friends. I allow myself to experience other people, and I allow them to experience me because I feel like love is the only reason that we’re here.
What advice can you give to those trying to navigate their jungle, whatever their jungle may be?
Be honest with yourself about what it is that you’re trying to accomplish and never lose sight of the “Why?” Be kind to yourself, even though it’s not easy to be kind to yourself sometimes, and there were times for me when I was very unkind to myself. But that kindness will get you far when you need because you might not always have someone else to lean on, so to lean on yourself, you have to be kind.
Let your insides out. If it’s writing, if it’s drawing, if it’s praying, if it’s singing, dancing, cooking, whatever. We spend so much time consuming, especially now, with technology. Make sure you’re doing something that’s letting those things out, too. Find something that makes you happy where you can release, and try to do that as often as possible.