Mary Otumahana: The old school inspired rapper saving the day for London’s future musicians

Award-winning social entrepreneur. International rap artist. Record label owner.

Mary Otumahana’s resumé would have most people convinced that she possesses superpowers.

For what it is worth, she probably does.

Performing under her rap alias, ‘Wonder Woman’ (spelt ‘WondRWomN’), Mary might not teleport or shape shift, but she has read the minds of countless young people.

Since 2015, the North Londoner has balanced writing her own rhymes with setting up ‘The Record Shop’, a free recording studio and artist development programme in Tottenham for vulnerable 16-25 year olds.

Recent research has found that two thirds of young people are involved in some music-making activity. Yet, the gap between improvised bedroom recording set-ups and creating professional, polished tracks remains to be bridged.

Unsurprisingly, those from underprivileged backgrounds are the most likely to be affected, and inadequate “studio time” can often be the kryptonite for many aspiring artists.

“Music is not something that should be exclusive to certain people with money,” Mary bluntly states.

Through her own rap career, the North Londoner is acutely aware of the caveats and potential pitfalls for young people from low-income backgrounds attempting to break into music.

“There’s just no alternative, people need studio time. They need financial support and guidance. A lot of the young people that I meet nowadays, they aren’t necessarily aware of the entire process behind making music, or how to navigate and approach it.”

The yearning for such a space has been vindicated through the plaudits Mary has finally begun to receive. From being plastered on the front pages of local magazines, to being handpicked as a kit model by the hulking presence of Tottenham Hotspur Football club, she has become an embedded part of a vibrant north London community.

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Mary (second left) with some people who were involved in one of the Record Shop’s artist development programmes. Photograph: Patrick Gunning.

The accolades have also begun flooding in recently, including the Mayor of London’s “Culture Seeds Awards” and the highly esteemed Anjool Malde Memorial Foundation’s “2019 Young Social Entrepreneur Of The Year”. Yet, it is the registration of over 700 young people in the Record Shop’s services that visibly provides Mary the greatest gratification.

“I don’t view it as a challenge,” says an unfazed Mary on the prospect of accommodating the exponential interest.

“I see it as ‘wow’, like to even be in the position to do that means that I can do that – and I’m going to do that.”

There’s a gentle smile as she speaks, but every word is packed with magnetic assurance.

Beyond her self-belief, however, it is also the unwavering faith she has in young people to achieve their dreams that resonates.

“We all have that potential in us, it is just about unlocking it.

“There’s so many barriers that make people feel that they can’t do things that they actually can, be it socially or professionally. Sometimes all it takes is that one thing to drive you and just start unlocking all these other talents and skills that you’ve always had within yourself.”

“For me, it has been through music. That’s why I use the name ‘Wonder Woman’ as well. It started off as ‘Kid Wonder’ when I was fifteen because music would make me feel like I was invincible. Every time I wrote a song or performed I felt free, and as I got older a friend suggested I change it to Wonder Woman, like the comic character.

“I went with it after I realised that she’s among loads of male superheroes, similar to me being in a male dominated genre.”

Originality clearly sits closely to Mary’s belief in community, and even her lyrically dense rap style distinguishes WondRWomN from the auto-tune crooning that dominates most Hip-hop playlists today.

Where did it all begin for this captivating woman, I wonder?

“Generally growing up, I was quite shy and introverted but I found music as a great way to express myself.

“I’ve been writing songs since I was 9 really. At first I would just rewrite the lyrics or hear a melody and write my own version of a song. Then, when I was around 14, I really got into Hip-hop music.

“Rappers that really inspired me early on were like Dr. Dre, Eminem and Tupac. I used to find myself writing in the back of my schoolbooks and through that I became more fascinated with lyrical styles of using metaphors and wordplay.

“I got into battle rap as well around then, because I liked the punch lines and focus on lyricism.

“There used to be one website where people used to battle rap, but it was through text battling, it was like a forum or something”, Mary pauses, giggling sheepishly.

“Although it kind of took the point away from being quick on your feet, it really made you think critically about what you were going to say. People could not see your personality or hear your voice, so it really mattered what you could do with the words.”

“Towards the end of school I started putting my music on SoundCloud and received lots of positive feedback in school. The other kids were so surprised when they found out because I was so quiet, the last thing people would think is that ‘Oh what she can rap?’

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A sound engineer at a Record Shop mentoring session. Photograph: Samuelle Durojaiye.

 

Despite building her self-esteem, it took a meandering journey for Mary to eventually make music a priority. After studying film at Kingston University, and spending a few years job-hopping, from retail to teaching, she started a record label called Prodigies of Nature.

Conceiving the Record Shop, however, is what began to turn a corner. Although her work now stretches across a plethora of avenues that would even make Mister Fantastic proud,  Mary’s ambition was fostered from her upbringing in East Finchley.

“I guess coming from a humble beginning, I was raised by mum and where I grew up it wasn’t always easy,” says the 29-year old.

“Living in council estates and having to look after my younger siblings from when I was small, I think I was subconsciously taking all this information in.

“Even with music, it wasn’t easy for me to even start a music career for so many reasons and you always think that ‘oh one day when there’s a possibility, there are things that I’m going to change because I know what it was like for me growing up.”

The Record Shop proved to be that opportunity.

“I think the transition came when I set up the Rec Shop. Although most people presume it’s a vinyl store, the vision was to be a shop front on a high street where school kids could pop in, record a track and then leave with something that they had just created.

“That was kind of using my passion to create a foundation that is even bigger than just being an artist. It is something that can benefit other artists as well – that has always been important to me.”

The success of the Record Shop has coincided with the blossoming of Mary’s own career. Since 2018, she has performed overseas in Spain and Portugal, even opening up for Andalusian Hip-hop legends SFDK. A burgeoning Mediterranean fanbase slots seamlessly into her myriad accomplishments, and Mary credits her international popularity to the increasingly receptive global rap scene.

“I feel like we’re in a place now, where we’re embracing music from all over the world no matter who or where it’s coming from. There’s no template on how a rapper should look or sound like. I think people are open to listening to things that are unique.”

Yet, as her rap career charters new territory, it was vital for The Record Shop to be planted in familiar roots.  After operating as a pop-up studio around London for a few years, The Record Shop found its home on the bustling Tottenham High Road.

As regeneration strides through the area, reports of gang violence continue to dominate mainstream media’s perception of Tottenham despite it being a production powerhouse of musical talent, with the likes of Skepta and Adele hailing from the N17 postcode.

“If I had set up the Rec Shop anywhere else, it would have been entirely different. I had a few other options, but I just felt this was the right space.”

“Being based in the Enterprise Centre, it’s amazing just seeing the amount of young people and businesses that you’re surrounded by. If you’re coming into a building where everyone is enthusiastic in running their business, it’s very inspiring.”

“For example, my friend Zara runs a textile organisation called ‘A Box of Prints”, and she is also an independent female running a business. It’s always great to be surrounded by someone who is going through a similar journey.”

Unfortunately, being a black female entrepreneur makes Mary even more of an outlier, but like with any other aspect of her life, it just seems to be another opportunity to motivate.

“I have friends that aren’t comfortable saying they’re an entrepreneur, a business owner or in a position of power. It was a challenge for me as well, to realise my potential, what I had achieved, and being proud to talk about my journey because you just feel like your story is not that valuable.”

“But then you realize, how many other stories like my own are not being put out there? Maybe it would be a good thing, being a female from a minority background, just to put myself out there and show others that there is a possibility and that we can do this.

“It’s not about me in the bigger picture, it’s about opening doors for others in the new generation because I know it hasn’t been easy for me to get to where I am now, so one thing is that you always want to make it easier for the next person and generation.”

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Mary, otherwise known as WondRWomN, now has more than 700 young people registered at The Record Shop. Photograph: Keaton Rich.

 

The timing of Mary’s initiative arrived at a heroic hour, with government cuts  shamelessly chopping youth provisions across the UK.

According to the Guardian, English councils have slashed funding on youth services by 40%, in the last three years alone. In London, the figures are even more staggering as more than half of youth centres have closed down since the 2011 riots.

“We need these things, not just youth clubs, but whatever the young people say that they require. The government should invest in these services because at that age, the teenage years, you’re obviously very vulnerable and easily influenced.

“That can be a good and bad thing. If you’re in a positive environment it can spark something in you, which makes you feel hopeful and want to keep pursuing it. Whereas the downside is obviously that you’re impressionable and can get involved in things that maybe aren’t what you want to do, but you feel that you have no other choice.

“That is why we really need to invest in these things as a society, to help the youth because they’re the future and that’s key.”

For the first time in the conversation, Mary becomes animated, shifting to the edge of her seat and oozing passion with each sentence.

“When I was younger and there were youth clubs it was a great part of growing up. It just makes me think that if there’s no youth club for a young person, where else is there really to express yourself and feel comfortable?”

“It’s important to have a space where you can relax and be in a positive environment with people who can mentor and support you, and at the end of the day, they’re just looking for places to hang out.”

Mary recognises how her own social consciousness has developed as she matured with age.

“When I was a bit younger,  I was thinking more about myself and my music. Whereas now that everything I’m doing has expanded, I’m more aware and sometimes I look around and think to myself, ‘wow, this is actually so much bigger than me.’

“Especially when I get emails from young people wanting to contact me, or even when I meet and work with some of them. Seeing that even when I step out of the picture, what it’s doing for them as an individual – it just drives me to want to do more.”

“I feel like if anyone should provide them that platform it should be someone that comes from that type of background, or someone who understands where they’re coming from.”

So what does the future hold for Mary and the Record Shop?

“I think it would be such an achievement if I am able to be at a place where, you know, we set up something like a youth club. The Record Shop is going to get there but maybe even something bigger, where we’re not only doing music. I want the young people to also be involved and lead what’s going on.”

This Wonder Woman might not fly, but with her altruistic drive the sky is truly her limit.

You can find out more about the Record Shop through their website: http://www.therecshop.co.uk/

Keep up with WondRWomN and her amazing ventures through her socials:

Twitter – @KidWondR

Instagram – @kidwondr

 

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