To have 3.25 million people listen to your music in a year is something Dubliner Hugh Mulligan never really expected. The 21-year-old is just setting out on his own musical endeavours but has seen an explosion of popularity throughout 2020, giving him very real hope for the coming year. Not having a background in music or even in performing did little to dampen Hugh’s desire to excel and express himself through his lyrics.

Bursting onto the scene in January 2019 under the moniker Malaki with ‘Call Us By Our Names’, the Stillorgan man found his feet in front of a live audience and received rave reviews from punters and pundits alike.

Portrait of Malaki

Photography by Paula Trojner

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From the ashes of a failed relationship rose a friendship with talented producer Matthew Harris, who taught Hugh how to turn his lyrics into music. His lines scratched in a notebook transformed into spoken word lyrics and importantly, gave a voice to the young lad who was ready to wear his heart on his sleeve with pride.

2020 exacted its toll on every single person but few industries suffered the decimation experienced by the entertainment scene, taking the wind from the sails of many upcoming musicians and leaving them wondering what to do next.

While Hugh agrees it was a difficult year in that regard, it inspired him to strive for the things that would come.

“The worst thing about it was not being able to perform but we kept writing and made music and I feel like we made the most of it,” he tells us. “Me and Matthew were getting really into the performance aspect of it, how to act on stage and how to be a real performer. It was magical; we really immersed ourselves into it.

We were really looking forward to performing at festivals over the summer and obviously that didn’t happen, but our time will come – you just have to make the most of it. We have very high hopes for each other; we are never going to underestimate ourselves.”

<< Enjoy a special GoldenPlec performance of 'Cuppa Tea' by Malaki ft. Matthew Harris >>

Plans of venues packed with fans, festival stages and performing paint a positive future for the talented young man but things did not always appear to be so bright for Hugh, who struggled with his mental health and eventually started writing things down. He speaks fondly of a little red book in which he started to write poetry.

“I was just a kid who had a lot to say but didn’t know how to say it,” he recalls. “I was always writing from 15 or 16. I was journaling and writing down my thoughts – it was a kind of therapy for me. I had a red notebook that I’d write lines in all the time, I always had it with me.”

"...our time will come - you just have to make the most of it."

“It was a bleak time really, I had a lot of friends who had problems with alcohol and drugs and I was in a relationship that had problems. All of that just accumulated in my head and it broke me down.”

A chance meeting with Matthew transformed his outlook as he began to put music to his articulate lyrics and found a real meaning for the creativity that had always been crying out from within.

“I didn’t know a lot about music or production or instruments and Matthew really laid all that down,” he says. “We worked through it and he’s really a wizard, he made the lyrics work and made some incredible beats to go with them. I released them to the world after everything was turned upside down after my relationship ended and I didn’t feel like things couldn’t have gotten much worse, but when I released it everything changed for me. I had this creative outlet as Malaki and it really saved me.”

Spoken word and hip hop are genres that were very much niche in Ireland up until recent years but thanks to artists like Rejjie Snow, Jafaris, Denise Chaila and JyellowL making waves here and abroad, upcoming musicians like Malaki are far more accessible to the average listener.

Malaki’s lyrics are clean-cut and expressive, shaped by his upbringing and experiencing Ireland struggling to do right by its young people. What he really does differently, though, is fuse his own expression and experiences with tongue-in-cheek social and political critique and an unwavering desire to let his own feelings be known.

Paper Prophecies, the opening track on ‘Chrysalis’, is a slow grower that progresses from a single piano note to synth-driven swells and a refrain of “19, gave his mind to the Sertraline, chasing dreams in a magazine, it seems he’s just craving that evergreen”, a matter-of- fact voicing of frustrations told in a very nonchalant way. These kinds of deliveries are prevalent throughout the entire body of work, touching on topics like toxic masculinity and outright escapism from dark corners of the human mind.

Cavalier, which features Dublin rapper Jeorge II, starts with a bar fight – long known as the de facto expression of masculinity between quick-tempered men gunning to flex their muscles. From the ecclesiastical opening through the production comes Hugh showing off his rapping skills, effortlessly spitting bars that examine the internal monologue of this man embroiled in a fight.

The soft but strong vocal of Lucy McWilliams acts as a barrier between Hugh and the other man in the story as he unravels the persona he shows to the world compared to who he feels he is inside. This kind of masculinity is examined in depth on Butterfly Boy but the themes run throughout the music, showcasing a man who is not afraid of his own personal feelings.

Hugh admits that while he is very much “a work in progress”, one thing he is happy fully expressing is his close bond with his family and, in particular, his mother. On Gem in the Rough, he talks of this close relationship. “Men cry too, that’s not the issue because you were always by my side with a smile and a tissue.”

And as it transpires, the song itself was penned as a Mother’s Day present and even received a live showing… in his kitchen.

“I actually wrote Gem in the Rough as a song for Mother’s Day,” he laughs. “My brother and sister were so annoyed at me because they’d bought presents but I wrote a song. Me and Matthew actually performed it in the kitchen for her. We set the keyboard up on the ironing board, she loved it.”

"Me and Matthew actually performed it in the kitchen for her. We set the keyboard up on the ironing board, she loved it.”

Looking forward, Malaki is poised to release new music within the next few months that he says is the best he has written to date. While his confidence might appear as braggadocio to some, it is this self-assurance that has helped Malaki to carve his own path within the industry and garner a loyal following in just a short space of time.

“Cocoon to Butterfly Boy was kind of like an evolution and what I’m releasing next is what I think is my best body of work,” he enthuses. It’s being fine-tuned at the minute and we’re working out how we want to release it, the artwork and promotion and that stuff.

It’s another side of me, another side I haven’t shown until now. Some people may be turned off me because of it but that’s not what it’s about for me, it’s about doing what I want to do. I know it’ll bring more people to me too. I want to make the music I want to make, and at the end of the day that’s who you’re doing it for…but I’m excited. I’m hoping it’ll really make me as a musician.”

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