This story was first published by Oakland Voices, a journalism program led by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that trains Oakland residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods.
Mandolyn “Mystic” Ludlum, a longtime Oakland resident and Bay Area native, released her first solo album 20 years ago. In August, she released her third, titled Dreaming In Cursive: The Girl Who Loved Sparklers.
Ludlum’s list of accomplishments is long: The Digital Underground member and veteran hip-hop artist has contributed vocals for the rap group Conscious Daughters, hosted her own podcast, and received a Grammy nomination for the track “W” featuring Planet Asia from her debut album, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom (2001). She’s a governor on the San Francisco Chapter Board of the Recording Academy and an educator with a master’s degree from Oxford University.
The new album was produced by longtime collaborator Walt “Liquor” Taylor and its 38 minutes include not only songs but affirmations and conversations. Each track sets an intention to lead with love.
After a successful fundraising campaign, the album will soon be accompanied by a short film, A Black Love Trilogy, co-directed and co-written by Lan “Yellow” Nguyen, containing three videos from the album Dreaming In Cursive.
The prevailing themes for the album are varying forms of love: romantic love, love for oneself, and love of community. The creative process began in 2018 when Mystic was stretching her educational journey at Oxford University, during a time when it felt as if the political rights of people of color were being stripped away.
The recording artist recently chatted with Oakland Voices about the importance of being intentional about love, and the journey to find her inner child. The conversation has been edited and abridged for clarity.
Let’s start with the album, Dreaming In Cursive: The Girl Who Loved Sparklers. Talk me through the concept.
I smile every time someone says the title. The deepest way to understand the title conceptually is to listen to [the track] “Dreaming Out Loud (Outro).” For me, this started to come together as I started to think about what I had been creating conceptually and started thinking about titles.
Every song on this album is a love song of some kind — a love song for self, a love song for women, for men, for Mother Earth, personal love, romantic love. And I started thinking about how much this music represents where I am in my healing journey, how much I return to the child who I once was, before I started to experience trauma.
The title in some ways is really about reclaiming myself as a Black woman which is also reclaiming myself as that beautiful and traumatized child.
I’m glad you mentioned the reclaiming of the child because in the greetings, the album intro, you can hear children playing. Was that intentional?
This is absolutely intentional and I am really encouraging people to listen to the album as a body of art, at least once in sequence.
Anything that you hear on a body of art that I create is intentional, and I decided that I wanted the sound of children laughing and playing. Children are the most brilliant reminders that the world is still a beautiful place, even with everything else that’s going on. And they’re also so much about love, justice, people, friends, and our connections. I really believe that hearing the sounds of children makes us, somewhere on a subconscious level, feel safe and warm, and good.
Then at the very end of that closing track, the outro—what you end with is not children laughing, but a deep sigh.
I guess you could say a sigh of contentment. It’s also the kind of closure of this particular offering, and after that sigh, then you do just hear children, so I am not the first nor the last thing that we hear on the album.
It was interesting to go through the journey of this album. What I was hearing was a mix of spoken word and affirmation. Was that intentional? From my perspective as a listener, it felt very much affirmational.
I picked the first track in 2018. It was part of a collection of music that Walt Liquor gave me to listen to before I headed off to Oxford. If we think about 2018 and who was president, if we think about what was happening in our streets, if we think about—I don’t want to say resurgence—but the rising profile of white supremacy and white nationalism that was happening… So much of what we are bombarded with—as women, as young people, as men, as people who don’t identify within a gender binary —so much of it is telling us that we’re not worthy, that we’re not beautiful, that individualism is where we should be.
It seems the creative process for this album took a long time, especially at a time when people are pumping out albums so quickly and at random intervals. What was it like to take your time with something over a number of years and really pace yourself?
It’s not foreign to me. “Beautiful Resistance,” the title track to that album [of the same name], was recorded in 2004. That album wasn’t released till 2014. Life continues to happen while you are in the process of creating art or creating albums.
There’s something really beautiful about taking your time. I think that there’s something, maybe, about the state of the world and about being young and also maybe feeling like your life is in danger [because of] a variety of oppressive systems—your “opps,” as they call them—that you constantly produce.
People talk about Tupac Amaru Shakur—those who knew him and loved him—about how he was always creative. It was like he knew he didn’t necessarily have a lot of time here.
Part of the way that Walter and I created was all about making dope art and we would talk about that. That’s why creators create. It was simply about making dope art and then once it’s done, it’s done.
We are all still creatives in some form or fashion and we all have to show up to the work in a way that feels authentic to us. Otherwise, we are producing just to produce.
And I think that’s not sustainable. I imagine you love being a writer. I also love being a writer of poems and songs. It’s who I am. I love it and you love what you do. Like I don’t want to fall out of love. I don’t want to ruin my love of being creative, of being an artist. I feel like then I would block off what can flow through me.
I was thinking about your track, “Unguarded (Still).” You repeat throughout: “I refuse to apologize.” It’s not necessarily a refusal or a rejection. It’s a refusal to be apologetic for loving something. I wanted you to talk me through that one, specifically.
That is a poem that I wrote for the man that “Still (Love)” is about. “Unguarded (Still)” is a real poem that I wrote and that I sent to him. It was written at least a couple of years before I even started picking music for the album.
I am not going to put walls around my heart and I am not going to do any of these things. Why would I apologize for falling in love with you? I didn’t get here on my own. And that’s what we hear in “Still (Love).”
For “Unguarded (Still),” it’s not created to fit into a concept. I wrote that poem in tears and feeling fiercely resilient. As a woman who loves you, I will not apologize for that. I will not destroy myself, but I also will not apologize. I learned deep, deep lessons through the relationship with the man that was written about in “Still (Love).”
You recently crowd-sourced funding for a video project, “A Black Love Trilogy.” What’s the plan and the vision for that?
We—myself, Walter, and Guy [Routte]—started having conversations about how this is going to come out through my label, Beautifull Soundworks.
We picked out [the songs] “Butter (Green Light),” “Still (Love)” and “Always Love (Always)” and I start thinking about connecting these together and telling one cohesive story.
It is three music videos that will serve as standalone music videos for those songs but also be a short film. It explores what I call walking into love, not falling into love. I no longer talk about “falling in love.” I talk about it as walking into love, this intentional journey you decide to take with someone where you don’t fall. You walk and you don’t end up somewhere where you didn’t intend to be.
Where is that project now in terms of a release?
I have an amazing, amazing crew and we are in post-production for all three of the videos. We’re not just going to put three music videos back-to-back together. There are transitions in them. There is a story that’s being told. There are voiceovers.
“A Black Love Trilogy” is also part of my quest to have Dreaming In Cursive: The Girl Who Loved Sparklers be a body of art that connects with all of our senses.
There is a recipe that has been designed for every song on the album. I have a desire for people to have this real lived experience. You can see it, you can smell it, you can taste it, and you can hear it. It moves your heart. And to do that all at the same time, and not limit who I am as a creative spirit.
“Dreaming In Cursive: The Girl Who Loved Sparklers” is available on all streaming platforms. You can keep up with Mystic’s work on Instagram and her website.