From Mashpee to UMass: Meet the professor, musician, and author Mwalim
UMass Dartmouth professor Mwalim has found success in almost every category of the arts — and with the publication of his first novel, he can add one more to the list.
Mwalim, also known as “Da Phunkee Professor”, has enjoyed a long career in theater and music — including multiple Grammy nominations with his band The GroovaLottos — along with an academic career spanning decades, with multiple degrees in music, history, film, and creative writing.
As a professor of English and at UMass Dartmouth, he teaches oral traditions and spoken word, playwriting, digital audio and video production, fiction writing, and folklore of First Nations and the African Diaspora.
“I call it ‘Positive Applications of ADD,’” he said jokingly of his myriad interests.
In February, Mwalim published his first novel, Land of the Black Squirrels, a hip-hop jazz folktale centered around the jazz clubs, art galleries, performance spaces, and underground dance clubs that developed over decades in New York City.
“It’s an allegorical folktale of the relationship between jazz and hip hop,” he explained. “It was the experience of growing up as a young musician in the Bronx and being in a community that had an arts environment — I wanted to capture that.”
Much of the story takes place in the Northeast Bronx. “I actually grew up around that area, in Co-op City,” Mwalim said.
The title of the novel comes from his own observations about seeing black squirrels in the Bronx starting around the late 1960s. “By the 80s, there were very few gray or brown squirrels,” he noted. “The proliferation of black squirrels parallels white flight in that part of the Bronx.”
Mwalim’s mother comes from Barbados and his father from the Mashpee Wampanoag, so he spent his childhood bouncing back and forth between the Cape and the Bronx.
“I grew up in both cultures,” he said. “It was a very diverse and rich experience.”
He completed an undergraduate degree in music composition and history at Boston University before continuing his studies in film and screenwriting, eventually moving to New York to work in music and theater in multiple spaces, including the New African Company.
“I think I was the only New York City musician that had theater as a day job,” he joked. “As outlandish as it sounds, it was true!”
Mwalim started his own theater company, Oversoul Theater Collective, on the Cape, and eventually came to teach at UMass Dartmouth in English and Communications, because “the English department was hiring,” he laughed.
After turning regular jam sessions with friends into a soul-funk-blues band, the GroovaLottos, Mwalim wrote, played, and produced music in their first album, “Ask Yo’ Mama.” Released in 2017, it earned the group four Grammy Award nominations.
“It depends on what I'm in the mood to do in the moment, I guess,” he said thoughtfully. “With music, I like performing, but the creative side — the writing and development and production, that’s the side I love.”
“When you think about songwriting, that is storytelling,” he added.
Mwalim previously published a book of short stories, called “A Mixed Medicine Bag: Original Black Wampanoag Folklore,” in 2007.
But he said that this new story will take more time to finish.
“I realized it was actually a series around page 800, when I still had more story to tell,” he laughed. “As I write, the characters start to tell me stories.”
He envisions a trilogy, with satellite novellas, to complete his picture of the Bronx art community, a series he calls “Bronx Bohème.”
“About 90 percent of it is based on a reworking and retelling of real things that happened,” he noted. “The talent shows that used to happen at event halls in the Bronx, underground nightclubs, pop-up nightclubs you could almost call them, in empty warehouse spaces before gentrification — those really happened.”
When asked how he gets it all done, Mwalim laughed. “The main challenge for me is knowing when to stop!”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mwalim will not be going on a book tour this spring as planned. But curious readers can order signed copies of the book from the publisher’s website, thirty-threepages.com, as well as ordering copies on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites.