When Jackie Mapei Cummings was a teenage gospel singer in Sweden, she never imagined that she and her choir buddy, Li Lykke Timotej Svensson Zachrisson, would one day perform at Radio City Music Hall. But here they are, stage names spelled out in neon across the iconic marquee: MAPEI AND LYKKE LI.
“It’s funny how the universe works,” Mapei says ahead of the October show, the biggest of her career. “It’s pretty surreal.”
She is nervous. But only hours before she is expected at the theater, the 30-year-old Liberian-American-Swede—clad in a t-shirt, skater skirt, and Converse sneakers with knee-high socks, a perfect mess of curls surrounding her gorgeous, round face—exudes cool.
Mapei is soft-spoken, but that should not be mistaken for modesty. When I ask if she anticipated the popularity of “Don’t Wait,” the first single off her newly-released album Hey Hey, she says “yeah, for sure,” without skipping a beat.
“When I heard it I just saw pictures of people dancing to it in my head,” she says. “I love how my voice sounds on it. I like to listen to it. Sometimes I can’t listen to my music, but that song is faultless.”
The single’s pervasiveness is proof that listeners agree. “Don’t Wait,” now a year old, isn’t as much a chart-topper as it is a sleeper hit, a cult favorite, buoyed by the power of online music sharers like SoundCloud, YouTube, Spotify, and others. The simultaneously upbeat and sentimental ode to friendship is equal parts funk, trance, pop, and R&B. It’s the kind of song that begs to be played on loop.
Mapei’s smooth transition between rich vocals and slick rap lyrics earned her comparisons to a young Lauryn Hill. “A friend indeed, come build me up/Come shed your light, it makes me shine,” she sings.
Sixth months after Downtown Records released the song, the singer put out a video that embodied the warmth, comfort, and excitement of young love, late summer afternoons, and house parties. Alongside the music video, which has been viewed over 2 million times, Mapei released an EP of the song featuring an acoustic version and several remixes, including one with Chance the Rapper. “Don’t Wait” was a viral hit.
“Don’t Wait” may have introduced Mapei to the indie mainstream, but her official debut came four years earlier, with the rap EP Cocoa Butter Diaries. The Stockholm-based artist credits her adopted home country’s long, dark winters and lack of L.A. or New York City-like distractions with producing an ever-expanding catalog of Swedish pop stars, from Abba, Ace of Base, and prolific pop songwriter Max Martin to The Knife, Robyn, Icona Pop, and not least of all, Mapei’s old friend Lykke Li.
“There is some sort of innocence and magic in the air there,” Mapei says of Sweden. “In New York, there is a flirty environment, people date more, club-hop, things are always changing. [In Sweden] nothing really changes. There’s not that much to do, it gets dark in the afternoon. So people are just inside working and escaping reality, keeping on top of everything that’s going on in the world so they can make it better.”
Veering from her rap roots, Hey Hey nods to Mapei’s life experiences, from her multicultural upbringing—born in Rhode Island to a Liberian mother and American father, she moved to Stockholm with her mom and Swedish stepfather at age 10—to her more recent travels, including a particularly formative stint in the favelas of Recife, in northern Brazil.
Mapei doesn’t consider herself a political person, but she can’t deny her “die-hard socialist” dad’s impact on her music. She notes that “Change,” is particularly influenced by political rallies she attended as a kid during summers spent with her father in Rhode Island. In the video for Hey Hey’s anthem-like second single, average New Yorkers hold up pieces of cardboard displaying the song’s straight forward lyrics: “We try hard to get by / Try to keep our dreams alive / By any means no hesitation.”
At first listen, Hey Hey is actually a bit of a let down. After playing “Don’t Wait” on repeat for months and months, none of the other songs boast the same immediate infectiousness. Had Mapei’s coronation as future queen of pop soul been made in haste? As I watch the woman who had been so quiet earlier dance freely around the stage at Radio City Music Hall, I know the answer.
Where the seductive simplicity of “Don’t Wait” made it perfect for widespread consumption, Hey Hey is simply not meant to be heard through earbuds or laptop speakers. Neither is Mapei. Her voice, booming and soulful, capturing the attention of every ear in the theater, confirms what she is capable of.