“There’s no greater feeling than the feeling of being blessed. Of knowing that you followed through with what was in your heart. And you’re getting rewarded for it.”
Mjeema Pickett is a soul provider.
Her honest approach to loving and living music making her a vessel that nourishes R&B needs and satisfies Soul music desires.
She is Funkadelic’s “ham hock in your corn flakes” and Leela James’ “corn bread, collard greens, and grits” definitions of soul – soul food in fact – embodying what she provides via the playlists she’s been creating nearly her entire life.
A natural inclination, Spotify’s Global Programming Head, R&B and Soul was weaned on music.
A visceral bond unbroken since she was a little bitty girl, music is an extension of her; Mjeema in motion.
Patti Labelle must have sung these words explicitly for her: “Music is the way I live. I’m alive and living now. From the day that I was born, I can feel it, feel it!”
Whether via the slow jam mix tapes she crafted in college, her early career days in radio, the decade plus of cult classic programming for VH1 Soul and VH1, or the global reaching playlists she handpicks for Spotify, her audiences have always felt it too.
For some of us, soulful music is simply art. Like Basquiats and Nina Chanel Abneys, creative expressions we respect and appreciate when we encounter them.
For others, music is the complex science of special effects – thrills and dazzles that turn everyday basics into Technicolor productions. Breathing becomes deep inhalations… in slow motion with your favorite filter heavily applied. Walking is a calf-flaunting power strut. And looking evolves into multiple meaning gazes.
It governs how we make moves and adds new dimension. Consider how it changes the dynamics of Saturday chores and long road trips.
This is how Mjeema sees the world every day.
Music is a language, and every song a syllable. Strung together, they create a framework for being. An instant autobiography. The soundtrack of our lives.
Whether it’s the sound of Philly’s always-and-forever smooth, Motown’s timeless bounce, Muscle Schoals southern-fried-funk, the incense-smolder of Neo, the hard-body hit of Trap or the single-laned genius of Jill, Erykah, and D’Angelo, Mjeema navigates it all.
Her ears, emotional and sophisticated listeners, trained to feel and not fail us.
When reminded of her monumental influence over R&B and Soul music’s reach, she is taken aback and almost uncomfortable.
Her life, professionally and personally, has always been about responding to music’s gravitational pull. Simply put, it’s her foundation. Her contribution to the world merely the result of honoring the heartbeat she and music share.
It’s a commitment that makes her audiences fall in love with music again and again. Mjeema’s widely popular Spotify playlists: Are & Be, Gold Edition, and Soul Coffee, generating over 2 million streams per month, are proof positive.
Despite her humility, Nia Magazine sees Mjeema in all of her fearlessness.
An awesome display of passion and power, her career is a bold announcement that your destiny can come calling early. Don’t be afraid to answer.
Sometimes we’re deterred because it may feel too good to be a professional aspiration. Mjeema is proof that unlearning the notion that we can’t love what we do is long overdue.
I spent a few early morning moments with Mjeema as she headed into joy – I mean work – recently. Apparently, taxi drivers, unyielding security guards, ID swallowing purses, and the call-dropping, electromagnetic fields of elevators don’t faze you at all when your job doesn’t feel like work at all.
Who is Mjeema Pickett?
MJEEMA: I’m me. I love my life, I love my family. I love my friends, my career.
I love music, which has pretty much enabled me to live the life that I live. In a lot of ways, I believe music is my life. If it wasn’t for music, I wouldn’t be here.
I have things that I’m passionate about. I love children, I love old people, I love Pepsi. I love seafood. I think your passion for whatever you’re passionate about… that’s where your purpose lies.
I do believe that I’m living in my purpose. Or at least I’m going the right direction.
I might not be exactly where He wants me to be, but I think I’m on the right path because things open up. And I’m extremely blessed going this way.
It seems like your career in music began long before you were old enough to actually have one. What is your earliest memory of music?
MJEEMA: My earliest one… I remember being in the car with my mom and singing One In A Million by Larry Graham. Singing it like I knew what he was talking about; but it just moved me.
That’s probably the first song I remember singing, and my mother turned around like You better sing that song! I might have been maybe three, four, or five years old. Something like that.
There was always music playing.
My mother was a musician at one point. She loves music; my father loves music. They’re both super passionate. My dad wasn’t a performer, but he was a music guy.
My mother told me when I was younger, when I was maybe even a baby, they were in a two-bedroom apartment and one of the biggest fights they had was because he insisted that my bed be in their room.
Because that second bedroom needed to be a music room.
He wanted to make sure that the stereo, the records, the albums were all set up to make it a theme room. And I could just sleep with them in their room.
That’s interesting. So a love of music…
MJEEMA: I remember one of my favorite gifts for Christmas as a kid.
My mother got me a tape recorder with a little microphone, and I would act like I was in a recording booth singing or rapping. She actually has tapes because I would literally tape myself, and she kept those tapes.
There’s a tape of me acting like I’m a DJ. I would literally set it up where I would play her albums [in the background]…and I would sit in front of the speaker with my tape recorder, and play the record and talk in front of it like I was a DJ on the radio.
Maybe [I thought] I would be an announcer or I was always just inspired by it. I would imitate the DJs I heard on the radio, or I would act like I was a rapper.
There is a tape of me singing the theme to Beat Street.
MJEEMA: Like word for word.
My mom and my family have always been supportive of it. When I was little, staying at an Aunt’s house or at my Grandmother’s, if it wasn’t a school night I could stay up late.
Back then, music videos used to come on network TV. I remember I would always try to stay up to watch them. But if I [fell] asleep, somebody would tape them for me and show them in the morning.
I love New Edition. So if a New Edition video came on and I missed it, [when] I’d wake up in morning my aunt [would be] like, “Guess what? You were asleep when this came one, but look what I got for you.” That kinda stuff.
So I’ve always felt supported in doing it.
Even when I started, I wasn’t making that much money, but for whatever reason I just knew that this is what I was supposed to do.
Or I was supposed to be involved somehow.
Even though I might not be up front because I get stage fright, or I can be shy or awkward in front of a lot of people, I just always knew that this is where I need to be. Or where I’m supposed to be.
You bring up classic videos, TV, and your family being guardians of your R&B/Soul life. You were the guardian of our R&B/Soul lives for over a decade as the director of Music at VH1 Soul and VH1. VH1 Soul is as meaningful to Black culture as Video Soul, Yo! MTV Raps, Video Music Box –
MJEEMA: That’s crazy.
Even though you weren’t an on screen personality, do you see that you are the equivalent of Donnie Simpson, Ralph McDaniels –
Do you feel the legacy is as monumental as it is?
MJEEMA: No, I don’t even think about it that way; I really don’t. For you to say that, that blows my mind.
I think [it’s] literally just me doing what I love. And thinking about who’s watching and if they would enjoy it. Hoping that they would, and hoping the artists that we were playing or supporting at the time would feel that we were. I want artists to know I’m into you. I like your music.
I never thought about it that way. You’re the first person that… no way.
I think more so I’m just…maybe a tastemaker or a supporter.
You’re interactive with music every day. Is there room in your life for favorite songs and artists? Are there any who will never lose their power?
MJEEMA: My favorite of all time is Donny Hathaway.
Then I have my top ones. There’s Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Prince, Mary J. Blige, Jill, Erykah, The Roots.
There [are] a few others that are up there, but after that, no. Current? No, I can’t pick. Out of all of those that I named, I can’t rank them.
Donny Hathaway’s at the top.
That’s quite a group to be in though. That’s an esteemed group, no matter where they fall.
MJEEMA: The classic ones like Stevie and Marvin, Michael, Prince, those are the top. Aretha, Patti, Gladys, Whitney. And then the ones I grew up on are also some of my favorites.
But no, I can’t pick one.
You’ve said before that you once had a hobby of reading album credits. If an album about your life and career debuted today, who would be featured in the credits?
MJEEMA: Wow. Who would be featured in the credits?
Thea Mitchem, who was my first internship supervisor, but she’s like my sister now. She pretty much took me under her wing; literally taught me the software to program music in Radio. She’s just incredibly influential.
She was empowering and that person I could talk to. I think everybody needs that one person who will understand; if you’re frustrated in the office or with whatever advice you might need. She’s my go-to if I need advice or a pep talk or anything. She would definitely be there.
My mom would be there, absolutely.
Doug Ford would be there, who’s my supervisor now at Spotify (Head of Curation); who I think is a super dope kind of guy.
I’ve been fortunate that all [of] the people I’ve worked for and reported to have been super supportive and passionate people that I could learn from. And were willing to share their knowledge.
Miss Holt, who was my music teacher when I was in elementary school and in the glee club. My first time couple of times performing on a stage, I was in the glee club performing with her.
We actually backed up Stevie Wonder at the Kennedy Center Honors. I was eight, and she was a music teacher at my elementary school, but she also ran [a] choir called the D.C. Youth Chorale. It was pretty much children from all over the D.C. area; D.C. public schools, maybe 200 kids ranging from elementary to High School age.
We were picked to be a part of the Kennedy Center Honors tribute that year to honor Ray Charles, and we sang America the Beautiful with Stevie Wonder.
I hadn’t seen it in 30 years, and I was talking to an old coworker of mine and I was telling her about it. She kept asking me all these questions.
For all these years, I’ve been telling people Yeah, I played with Stevie Wonder when I was eight but I can’t find the tape. I don’t know how to locate it. But [she] located it somehow and dropped it in my office when I was at VH1.
I don’t know who she knew, but I do have it now.
Now I look at it and sometimes I trip people out and show it. That’s always funny to see. I’m like, Yeah, I sang with Stevie Wonder. I don’t need to sing no more.
Me and 200 other kids.
There’s an undeniable excitement and passion bubbling under the surface of everything you do related to music. Especially your Spotify playlist. It feels like storytelling. How do you nurture that passion and excitement for music?
MJEEMA: I just feel it. Even me talking to you about that, I remember it like it was yesterday when we sang with him.
I think that might be just the beauty of music, period. That’s what it does for me anyway; it just takes me there. Takes me to a place of joy. I can remember exactly where I was.
Talk about any song, I can give you a story behind it. Where I was when I first heard it, or where I was when it made an impact on me.
I don’t know what it is. It’s just in me so, I don’t know where it comes from. I just am.
Songs like That Girl by Stevie Wonder and Careless Whisper by Wham. And then Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years. Those songs remind me of Marvin Gaye. You know why?
Because those were the songs that played on the radio right after I heard that he died.
I don’t know how to describe it, or how to put it into words. I just feel music.
As a Black woman with powerful positioning in Media, is there extra pressure to deliver quality content? Do you feel any extra pressure because of your Blackness, because of your womanness… or both?
MJEEMA: I don’t know if there’s extra pressure, but I always feel like we have to try harder. That’s just a given.
And this is how I’ve always been, so I’m not sure if it’s necessarily extra effort…or if it’s just what I’m used to.
You gotta make sure that you’re giving the best form of yourself, representing who you are, and remembering all those that look like you that may not have had the opportunities you have.
I feel that with my career. With me getting educated period.
My grandmother didn’t get the chance that I did. My mother didn’t get the opportunity to go to school. My grandmother didn’t. They grew up struggling. So I almost feel like it’s my duty to live my best life.
I feel like I owe it to my great-grandmother. I owe it to my ancestors. I owe it to all of them, to represent them and do my best.
I’m so grateful and excited that more women, especially Black women – young ones like my daughters, mature ones like my mama – will have this opportunity to see you. What do you want to make sure they know about your story?
MJEEMA: I want them to all know that as long as they follow what God put in their heart – for whatever it is they want to set out to do… if that’s what God puts on your heart to do, that’s what you’re meant to do.
Live it out fully that way and everything will fall into place.
And I want them to know that about me. That’s all I did.
Yes, you’ll have your challenges. Yes, you may see some roadblocks. You might have people getting in your way or trying to stand in between you and your goal; but you have to know that you have a goal… and you have to keep your eye on it and work toward that.
Yeah, it gets hard. But in the end you’ll be happy that you did.
There’s no greater feeling than the feeling of being blessed. Of knowing that you followed through with what was in your heart. And you’re getting rewarded for it.
When you’re doing what you love, it’s not work. I would tell them that.
As long as you’re doing what you love and what makes your heart full, you’re good.
We all start out the same. Exposed to music in one of many baby-discovers-the-world moments. Then, some of us are born into social milieus like Mjeema, where music becomes way more interesting.
R&B and Soul music continues to author the story of her.
From the beginning, something magical occurs when Mjeema shares her connection to music.
She’s been test-driving her dream job her entire life. As Spotify’s Global Programming Head, R&B/Soul, she has stood boldly at the helm; musical expertise navigating several evolve-or-die eras of soulful music.
She’s been the guardian of our R&B and Soul lives long before we realized.
Her behind-the scenes game as influential as the on-screen ones of music culture icons Donnie Simpson, Ralph McDaniels, and Fab Five Freddy.
She dared to make room for her joy in every aspect of her life.
Watered the roots and grew. Always being fully present and actively engaged in her life allowed her love of music to lead the way. She took risks and chose a path that hadn’t been traveled before. Didn’t really exist.
Your passion may not be of the cookie-cutter variety. The real thing can be hard to recognize even when it’s all up in your face.
Your truth is as special and unique as your voice. Listen to it. Then, go for it, just like Mjeema Pickett did.
In the words of Yrsa Daley: “Trust the validity of your feeling. It may be abstract, ridiculous, irrational, absurd. There’s a root somewhere.”
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