(Unlike the majority of interviews which were conducted via e-mail, this interview was conducted via voice memos, so below is a transcription of our more conversational approach to this interview).
1. What is your name and your profession(s)? My name is Axel Ibrahim Mansoor. I am a musician – I’m a singer, songwriter, composer, producer and budding visual artist.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I am a US citizen; my ethnic background is ¼ Austrian, ¼ Indian, ¼ Chinese, ¼ mystery North African.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? No, neither. My dad is an economist and doesn’t really listen to music; I’ve never really seen my dad put music on… I may have seen him do it once! My mom sings at home and is a music lover, but she was never a performer.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. At least where I grew up (Bethesda, Maryland), it was a really white neighborhood; I spent five years there, from 9 years old to 13 years old. In America, I’ve faced a lot of racism for being brown. I went to a Jewish school for a couple years, and because I was the darkest person who went there--there were no black kids there--they called me "the black kid". Race was a big part of it, I definitely felt shitty for being brown. I was always left out and ostracized--I was always on the outside looking in. I didn’t get the same social advantages as the white kids, even though I wanted to be just like them. I just wanted to fit in, but being brown made that impossible.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? Growing up, I actively wanted to disconnect from it. I would go to bed wishing I would wake up white--I wanted to be a white kid. I still sound like a white person; I made a very active effort to disconnect from my heritage and culture growing up. It's only as an adult, as I learned to love myself, that I started to feel proud of my heritage and that I started to wanted to connect with my cultures. It's been fairly recent... only in the last five years, I'm 28 years old now. It's even started to find its way into the music I listen and the music that I make. I used to make fun of Indian culture because I thought it would make me more white. It's very different now, I really actually want to be a part of it and really appreciate it. I see it's really beautiful, and see diversity as this really beautiful thing, but I saw monoculture as the only way at first.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? I got into music really through my older brother, Misha Mansoor--you might know him. He was really the one who got me into music. I wanted to be a graphic artist as a kid. I was drawing a lot and doing stick figure animations, but I got really discouraged at one point. I took an art class and all the other kids were so much better than I was, so I just gave up on it. My brother around that same time said, "Hey, you should learn to play guitar; it'll make girls like you". I wanted to do whatever my brother did and anything he told me I thought was the coolest thing ever. That's how I got into playing music. He also gave me all the music I listened to growing up--I was listening to a lot of progressive metal, hardcore, punk, and rock... a lot of Misha's influences.
I applied to the Pop Music program at USC twice and got rejected both times; I went originally as a Psych Major and ended up finishing as a Psych Major... but I took two years off.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? Going into my sophomore year at USC, I had an acid trip during which I realized that everything I knew about myself and my life and why I was doing wht I was doing was BS and that the real meaning of life is participating in the cycle of love, which is giving, creating and receiving love in all of its different forms. I knew then that the best way for me to participate in this cycle was doing music. I decided from then on that I had to be a musician--I had to be an artist. So, I told my parents I had to drop out since I couldn't do music at school. They were super, super unhappy. They said that if I pursued music I'd be own my own (they were financially supporting me at the time, I was very lucky). I said, "I don't care, I'm going to do it anyways", so I took a leave of absence and they were not happy. My mom and I would fight every time we got on the phone for probably about a year. She was so upset I was doing music.
Yeah, my parents support my career now... because I started making money. Good things happened (in my career) and they saw that there was growth. They didn't believe in me as a musician though. Even when I got the New York Times article--it just happened--I asked my dad "Did you ever think this would happen?" and he was like "nope" (laughs). So, it's not like they saw something in me that they wanted to nurture or ever really had that perspective.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects?
Getting nominated for a daytime Emmy was pretty cool--it was a total accident, so I don't know if I'm necessarily proud of that song, but it's cool to be able to say.
I'm proud of how I did on Songland and how I presented myself on Songland.
I'm proud of this EP I have coming out [listen to it here, it's out now!]... I'm super proud of that because it's the most honest thing I've ever created. It is the result of me letting go of thinking "Is this great?", and instead asking myself the question "Is this honest?"--that's my favorite place to create from now.
Of course, I'm incredibly proud of Lullaby Club and creating it in a way of allowing other people to be supported and raised up and making it not about me. It was clear from the beginning that if I made Lullaby Club the Axel Mansoor show, it would never grow. The fact that it has become what it is is a testament my understanding that doing it selfishly would've limited its ability to have a positive impact on other people's lives. I'm really proud of it and proud that it's not about me. Ironically, it's sort of become about me, but I always sort of try to push it off. I really don't want it to be about me, because then it can't grow... it's much bigger than me.
I'm also really proud of the ads that I've made because it's not something that anybody taught me how to do or given to me. I earned all the placements that I gotten ... including my placements with McDonalds, Facebook, KitKat, and all these other brands. I'm just following my instincts and have started to be able to support myself through those projects. So, I'm really proud of that.
Actually, I produced a track featuring a rapper for an ad agency that asked me to produce a track for their ad dealing with depression and it won an award, a Radio Mercury award--and that just happened! I'm proud of all that stuff... I've gotten to do a lot of cool stuff in a lot of different areas.
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.
I don't endorse any brands, but I would really like to! My buddy Kent has this company called NeuroGum which I fucking love. I keep telling him to endorse me and then he keeps sending me stuff for free (laughs).
8. Describe to me your dream project. Dream project #1: reviving old Shabbat songs and showing the Jewish world you can take these beautiful old melodies and refresh them into something modern and meaningful... so doing a Shabbat album is a dream project of mine.
Dream project #2: doing lullaby versions of dope, dope, dope albums from history... so recreating a Pink Floyd album, or a Bowie album, or Radiohead, or Tame Impala--doing them all Lullaby style and doing the entire album, and getting a bunch of collaborators to do the different songs. So a big Lullaby Club project.
Someday, I'd love to score a movie or TV show and write theme songs... I want to do an Apple commercial. I want to work with really innovative, forward-thinking creators, whether they're on the brand side or the personal side. I want to work on video games. I want to push the envelope and bring music and technology together in ways that people have never seen before--I want to do experiential music projects. My dream is just to do dope shit with dope people, that's basically it.
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? An obstacle is that there's not a lot of idols for us. I have this sense that as a brown person, at least maybe until recently, like Gen Z... cause I feel like Gen Z really celebrates diversity (vs. Millennials growing up)... it was really hard being a brown musician. You do not have a lot of role models; there's not a lot of people who have created or carved the path for you, so you have to do a lot more work as a brown musician to be given the same consideration as a white musician or white artist. You're not necessarily automatically as cool or have as much social influence or clout, because people don't relate to you as much. Not having models, not having people pioneered, and having to be a pioneer yourself--which is exciting too and there's a lot of opportunity with that, but you just have to work a lot harder.
What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? I don't know at this point, because I feel like a lot of the same obstacles I had as a kid probably are still present--bullying, people having "IN group" "out group" mentalities and that kind of stuff... it definitely still happens, I think I learned a lot as a kid early on, so those things don't really bum me out or affect me as much as it used to. Then, there's racism, racism is always prevalent; can't get rid unfortunately... well, maybe you can, but we haven't.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? Oh, (laughs), so here' we go--there's not a lot of role models for brown pop musicians... there's Sameer Gadhia, the dude from Young the Giant. That's basically it. There's not many I can think of... maybe Jai Paul, but he's super mysterious. My inspiration has more come from brown comedians like Aziz Ansari (Parks and Rec) and Hasan Minhaj. In music specifically, now there's more coming up like Anik Khan and Humble the Poet, but those are contemporaries... I don't know if growing up if there were many who really inspired me musically. Oh! I guess my brother (Misha) was a big one!
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? I want to see more AAPI artists winning. I want to see a mix, both of AAPI musicians who are integrating AAPI culture into what they do--so whatever culture they're from will become cool and modern... but I don't want it to be this thing, "Oh they're cool because they're all exotic". I want AAPI artists to not to have to do that. I don't want it to become cliche or some kind of trick to get people to pay attention. I also want to see more AAPI artists who are making whatever kind of music they make and it doesn't have to be about whatever culture they're from. I just want to see more AAPIs in the industry in general, so people can look at us and say "There's someone who looks like me who's doing well in the industry. That's cool"... and also, they can inspire us.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? I'd say read the book Steal Like an Artist; I'd also tell me to read the book and do the exercises in The Artist's Way. I'd tell him, "You got to do this, this will help you immeasurably". I'd really try to impress upon me the importance of having boundaries. I'd also say, "You don't need to please everybody, and the more you can focus on making yourself happy, the happier everyone in your life will be. You are so radiant that when you're happy and you're excited and you're fulfilled by something, everyone else will rally around that because of how deeply you feel things, and they will feel it too. Focus on that as your superpower. Really dedicate yourself to a life where you are making sure you're stoked. If you're not absolutely stoked, don't fucking do it, it's not worth it. On top of that, work on learning how to love yourself". Getting started on that earlier could have saved me some time. I'd say, "You are worthy of love, there's nothing you need to do or to become to prove to anybody that you're awesome and you deserve to be here. You've earned your right on this planet"; if I could teach younger me self-love, that would be awesome.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? I kind of talked about this already, but I am super excited about my EP that's coming out [it's out now - here]. It drops May 7th (again--it's out already!). It's the most honest, vulnerable thing I've created. If people want to get to know me and who I am as an artist and the depths to which I'm willing to go (laughs), that EP is a really beautiful way to get to know Axel Mansoor. It also serves as a foundation for a lot. All I want to show with it is that as an artist, I'm willing to talk about pain, because pain can be a really beautiful thing. My life hasn't been easy, but no one has been able to take my willingness to share and learn and grow from me. This EP is a step in that journey.
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. I am passionate about meditation, mental health awareness--I like to call it mental wealth (I like that term)... and really understanding why are we so focused on success and happiness when success is a byproduct of things and happiness is an emotional byproduct and it's not something you can strive to have all the time. I'm big into mental wealth which involves things like meditation and journaling and the thoughtful use of psychedelics (as a result of mental health). They're anecdotally, and more recently, scientifically proven to be incredibly helpful in personal breakthroughs we need to have to be self-actualized.
Other passions of mine are nerdy things--I love technology, I love new gadgets, I love anime, and manga, and just Japanese culture in general.
I LOVE food. Oh, and another thing I'm really passionate about is video games... I haven't had a lot of time for them, but I want to make more time. I love video games. I love surfing too! I love a lot of thing as it turns out (laughs). I love surfing. You know how I know I love it? I love it despite not being good at it. In fact, not being good at it is very exciting to me, because it means that I can grow and I'm excited to grow in doing it, but I also don't mind being bad it because the core experience is so fun and so rewarding and fulfilling.
14. Any final thoughts? AAPI is such a broad term and involves so many different cultures from so many different places, that it's almost hard to relate to the term AAPI because it is so broad. Within the AAPI community, there are a lot of different cultures. I think it's important to point out that there's a huge range of cultures, and even within those cultures there's a lot of fighting--unfortunately we don't all necessarily get a long or all think the same. I think that's important to acknowledge that there's a huge amount of diversity and that the term maybe doesn't do the best job of creating that context.
I also want to see more diversity in the music industry--I want to see more diverse people who like me and people who don't look like me doing really well. I'm not saying doing well because they look like me or because of the culture they bring in, I don't want that to be a thing...that's the whole thing about anti-racism--I want it [race] to not be a part of the equation. I hope one day that it will no longer be and that we will have evolved to be a better society.
Spotify: Axel Mansoor
Facebook: Axel Mansoor
YouTube: Axel Mansoor