Our "Faces of Flint" series kicks off with the story of hip hop artist Mama Sol, who was born and raised in the city of Flint. She’s using her music to uplift her hometown while it struggles to recover from the water crisis there.
What is life like in a city where tap water is toxic? That’s the question we’re exploring in our "Faces of Flint" series, produced in partnership with Michigan State University journalism students.
Meet hip hop artist, activist, and inspirational speaker Mama Sol. She was born and raised in Flint and says her music is a “voice for the voiceless.” Mama Sol’s quest to bring the community together through hip hop became even more important as the water crisis unfolded.
MSU journalism student Maria Braganini brings us Mama Sol's story.
Video shorts from our "Faces of Flint" series can be seen evenings at WKAR-TV following the PBS Newshour (approx. 6:56pm) Apr. 11-15.
“Faces of Flint” is jointly produced by MSU journalism students studying with MSU Associate Professor Geri Alumit Zeldes and the Current State and WKAR TV staff.
MAMA SOL (rapping): Now we come in peace, with the intent to increase, and restore our hope for the hopeless and love is the focus. I pray, that this message will reach far beyond them clouds God, we need you involved now, your spirit is needed.”
MARIA BRAGANINI: These are the words that Flint hip hop artist, Mama Sol, kept repeating to herself when she heard about the extent of the water crisis in Flint. In the wake of revelations that residents had been drinking lead-tainted water for nearly a year and a half, she did what she always does. She put it into a song.
MS (rapping): Hold up. What, you hope that we wouldn’t notice? But thank you Doctor Mona, respect Virginia Tech for putting Flint on your shoulders and did it with no regret. Man, that water was brown. It reeked like rotten eggs. Our babies can’t bathe, but the bill gotta be paid?”
MB: I meet Mama Sol in the main lobby of the New Jerusalem Gospel Church on a Saturday afternoon.
<Mama Sol greeting young girl>
MB: She walks in with her head held high as her tall, slender body mimics her full head of long dreadlocks. She is wearing jeans and a black t-shirt with the words ‘FLINT LIVES MATTER’ printed in thick white letters across her chest.Mama Sol is here to perform for HipHop-4-Flint, a series of nationwide benefit concerts for the city’s residents. It’s not surprising Mama Sol is here. She grew up in Flint and the people here are quick to tell you how much of a fixture she is in the community. Flint resident Sharae Rosborough.
SHARAE ROSBOROUGH: She’s a big inspiration and a positive reinforcement for our city and also a positive light for the residents of the city of Flint. She gives that extra bit of hope and extra bit of inspiration to each one. She gives us that positivity that we need in this time of crisis for us.
MB: Mama Sol, in turn, is quick to tell you that it was the community that inspired her to write a song about the lead in the water.
MS: You know, so many people of course are asking me, “Oh I know you’re going to write something about the water crisis. I know you got something coming for us.” And when the people start requesting something from me, I know they need it.
MB: Mama Sol counts three albums, two mixtapes and a total of 75 published songs. But she says ‘Hard to Swallow’ was the toughest she’s ever written.
MS: And I cried every single day during that writing process, two, three times. There were several times I just broke down and had to just stop, go do something else, go outside and walk around, get some fresh air and come back to it. You know, so it took some time for me to write it, over a week, which is a long time for me.
MB: Mama Sol was born in the city in the late 1970’s. She was raised by her mother, a Catholic schoolteacher. Mama Sol says she had a wonderful childhood. From an early age, she was encouraged to try everything and become whatever she wanted.
MS: I was a kid that did archery, basketball, whatever it was I tried it. From cake decorating to whatever. So, we had a wonderful childhood. Flint taught us well.
MB: But she also saw the seedier side of Flint. Mama Sol says her dad dealt drugs and was in and out of prison for most of her childhood.
MS: Then I would be at my fathers in the summer and you know, it’s a totally different scene. You know, drugs on the table, and eight-bedroom house, big swimming pool. You know, people have a lot of money, and people would give you money coming and going, and it’s totally different. So, I was able to see both sides. I saw the hustle and I saw the love.
MB: But still, her memories are mostly positive. Like the ones she has of summer nights spent in downtown Flint watching the 4th of July fireworks.
MS: The entire city seemed like it was downtown and there weren’t any problems. Your parents could tell you, “okay, come back here once the fireworks are done. Come back to this spot.” You could go run free and it was fun. Our entire neighborhood would walk downtown to the fireworks together with our parents.
MB: Mama Sol left Flint after high school. But she moved back home in 2009 Mama Sol after giving birth to her son Wasir. Two years later, she volunteered in Kenya to help tribes suffering from drought in the Horn of Africa. She says she remembers people dying of dehydration and feeling privileged that she lived in a country where water was safe and abundant.
MS: And I went to my hotel room one night and I wrote a song called “Thankful.” And the first line of that song I said, “I’m thankful for the fact that I can turn on the tap and have fresh water.” First line of the song! And now I’m in the United States and I feel like I’m in a third world country where I wrote the song. So, making that correlation for me is what gives me the energy to get up every day and help where I can.
MB: When Mama Sol heard the city was switching its water source to the Flint River, she was stunned. She remembers the day the toxic water was finally confirmed. She immediately went to get herself and her son tested. Both had been drinking only filtered water. Mama Sol had no trace of lead in her blood. But Wasir’s blood levels tested positive for the toxic metal, just from breathing and bathing in the water. Mama Sol was devastated, and she was angry at the government officials who let this happen.
MS: And I never though this was a mistake. There was never a moment inside of me, my instinct told me this was intentional.
MB: All around her, Mama Sol saw her friends and family struggle with weight loss and seizures. That’s when she wrote “Hard to Swallow.”
MS: I mean, I had a friend of mine text me after I released it, and he was like “Yo, thank you so much for that, because I had my children tested. My youngest has high lead levels and all my other ones had low lead levels and I’m so glad that song, that song helped me so much.”
MB: Mama Sol sees hip-hop as an opportunity to reach out to the community. She says her voice isn’t just making music, it’s making social change.
MS: If we could only start using hip-hop as a tool to educate and to uplift each other and stop tearing each other down and stop putting these false images of who we really are out into the world, we could change the world through music.
MB: But that change won’t come soon enough for Mama Sol. As she plans for her future, she sees Flint in her rearview mirror. The reason why?
<Mama Sol talking to son>
MB: Mama Sol wants her son Wasir to be able to grab a drink from the faucet. She doesn’t want to have to worry about the air he’s breathing or the water he’s using to brush his teeth. And she’s not sure she can make a living in this cash-strapped city either.
MS: There is not enough currency flowing through Flint to keep me surviving and living through the crisis day to day and still be able to do the work that I do and be able to live the life that I desire to live.
MB: But even if she leaves town, Mama Sol says she’ll always be a light in Flint.
MS: And when the people here need me that know how to get to me, because I know their line is vibrating on the same frequency as me, I’ll appear. It doesn’t matter where I get my mail.
MB: For Current State, I’m Maria Braganini.