Oakland-born singer Safia Mafia made it in the big city, and it wasn’t easy


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Safia Mafia recorded her first song at the age of 18 when she was visiting home from college. She doesn’t remember the name of it, wishes it will never be released and hopes it stays under a rock. But this unnamed, mystery song remains the reason she was inspired to drop out of college and pursue a career in music.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Safia overviewed the trajectory of her career, highlighting both the milestones and the setbacks. Down-to-earth and joking, she was candid in discussing how she struggled to reach where she is now.

When Safia Mafia was growing up, her family of musicians would listen to every kind of music out there. Her mother was a “huge jazz head” as Safia described, and her dad played bass and guitar. Her grandmother loved classical music which she played in the car, and her uncle was a country songwriter.

“I didn’t want to be the type of artist that boxed themselves in… If you find a way to marry the ones you like best, then why not?” Safia said. “The type of music I grew up enjoying… I wanted to do it, I wanted to be true to that.”

So if you ask Safia how she would describe her style, she’d tell you that she’s a mix between Lana Del Ray and SZA. The LA-based singer and songwriter has her roots in Oakland, where she was born and raised and where she first started producing music. Growing up, Safia said she was always interested in the arts — she used to put on performances for her mom’s friends at home, at school and at church.

In 2008, Safia really decided to pay some dues and make a strong commitment to her dream of becoming a singer. She began writing more music and networking around the Bay Area to get to know other rappers and building her name.

In Oakland, Safia started working with artist Bedrock, who produced her last EP “Pure” and is collaborating with her once again on her upcoming album, “Love Kills.” According to Safia, Bedrock helped her develop her voice and writing.

“Everyone kind of assumes that a Black girl would just do R&B… I wanted to do R&B but I wanted to do other stuff,” Safia said. “(Bedrock) likes everything just like I do, it’s really easy to think outside the box if your production is doing the same thing.”

Bedrock and Safia both moved to LA at the same time, so they were able to maintain their partnership. The move to LA, however, was far from smooth for Safia, who found herself in a new city without any money or a place to sleep.

“I packed … whatever I could in my Honda Civic. I drove to LA and I got here and realized this isn’t the Bay,” Safia said. “Just because you were working and making music in the Bay, doesn’t mean you’ll make music in LA.”

Once she arrived in LA, she realized it would be harder to make music in this city of musicians in comparison to the Bay Area. Paralyzed by the new atmosphere, Safia also knew she couldn’t move back home, because the house that she bought with her mom was foreclosed during the 2008 recession.

“I was in a really sticky spot where I didn’t know whether I made the right choice. I called my mom crying and I don’t even have money to eat,” Safia said. “She told me, ‘When me and your dad were just starting, there’s time where we had to pick money off the street. If we made it through, you’re going to make it through.’”

Safia said that at the time, her mom’s words of advice felt harsh and unhelpful. But now she knows that it gave her no option but to “grind harder” and pick herself up, setting the tone for the rest of her career.

So Safia started all over again. She had two friends in music, so she started spending more time with them and going to their shows. At these shows, she made sure to introduce herself to everyone.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018, and Safia found herself onstage at the BET Experience, performing her original songs for the first time. The festival was at the Los Angeles Convention Center, complete with three stages and rows of vendors.

For Safia, it felt like the most scary and exhilarating experience of her life. Before she stepped out on the stage, she didn’t know what to expect: Would people resonate with her music or would she see bored eyes looking back at her?

When she stepped on to the stage, she found that the crowd was vibing to her music. In fact, she said there was a specific group of young girls who were really “rocking out” in the back of the crowd.

“I went to go to eat and these girls were like ‘Oh my god Safia!… Please take a picture with us,’” Safia said. “I was floored… As a woman, when little girls look up to you and what you do resonates with them, there’s something special about it. I’m just choking up thinking about it.”

After years of sacrifice and commitment, Safia knows she has made a name for herself in the music industry. As she moves forward, her immediate goals are to start touring and to have her music licensed for television. She wants to continue to grow while keeping herself rooted in Oakland.

“Yeah I’m definitely From Oakland,” Safia said. “Even if every song may not be about Oakland, there are definitely nuances that people from the Bay Area can appreciate about my music.”

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.