Meet theMIND, A Powerhouse of Postivity Keeping R&B Real
“I am in every sense of the word a dreamer,” Zarif Wilder says of his outlook on life. “In all things in life, I just believe that anything can happen.” It’s an attitude that is immediately palpable upon meeting Wilder, who goes by Zigg—his upbeat, welcoming energy emanating from a bright, wide smile. That positivity has helped him overcome difficult situations in his life, the after-effects of which he finally deals with on his first solo project as theMIND. The mixtape, Summer Camp, brings the listener along on his journey of self-exploration and self-acceptance, tied up in 11 brilliant, experimental R&B tracks.
“I think that in a lot of ways we suffer from PTSD.”
Wilder grew up in Philadelphia, placed into the foster care system as a toddler along with his two sisters. They spent years being shuffled between group shelters and foster homes, a chaotic upbringing that has had a lasting impact. “I think that in a lot of ways we suffer from PTSD from going through all of that,” he says. “It took me a long time to realize that I had all of these emotions and to work through them and really figure out who I am.” It was that sense of exploration that inspired him to call the mixtape Summer Camp, signifying a period of coming-of-age. Throughout his journey, Wilder is joined by a female voice—the manifestation of his psyche. “Who are you? Who you wanna be?” she asks on the second track, “Pale Rose.” It’s a question he examines from all sides, amidst lush productions that have a unique, dreamlike quality, and effectively envelop the listener in the sonic world of theMIND.
Wilder had always been drawn to performing. He began acting in community theater plays at a young age, which later lead him to writing. “I was writing monologues and poems before I was ever writing raps,” he remembers. “I thought I would be a performer or public speaker.” But as he grew older, he began to turn his attention to music, and turned his poetry into rhymes. In ninth grade, following a failed attempt to run away from his adopted home, Wilder’s former middle school teacher turned mentor, Jeffrey Williams, agreed to take him in for a weekend and help him come up with a plan. The temporary situation turned into a permanent solution, and provided a stable and nurturing environment during his high school years, allowing him to really explore his interest in music.
“If I’m a dreamer, he’s a total realist,” Wilder says of Williams, comparing the two. “When I told him I wanted to be a musician, he asked, ‘What does a musician need?’ and made me write up a list—when I brought it to him he helped get everything and we set up a little studio in my basement.” He spent hours making music, recording his own rhymes over other people’s beats, and when it came time to go to college, Wilder knew he wanted to pursue music, deciding on Columbia College in Chicago.
Upon arriving in Chicago, Wilder felt an immediate connection to the city. “From the minute I landed, I knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” he says of arriving in his adopted city. “The first day of school was crazy, I met all my best friends in the cafeteria that day—Sean, Lon, and Maze—and Sean later introduced us to Michael.” The friends he refers to includes Sean Alexander (who goes by Sean Deaux), Lon Renzell (a.k.a. Lil Boogie), and Michael Anthony. Collectively, the group creates music under the moniker THEMpeople. “Sean came up to me and just said, ‘You look like you rap,’ and then pointed to Lon and told me, ‘He makes beats.’” After their chance encounter, Wilder joined them in Renzell’s room and they began laying down tracks, a collaborative practice they’ve continued ever since.
By his second year, music had completely overtaken his studies, and Wilder dropped out of Columbia. He went back to Philly, and spent time working at an agency that helped find jobs for people with mental disabilities. “That experience taught me a lot about patience,” Wilder notes. After a year he landed a new gig in Chicago, singing in a local cover band. “We sang a lot of Top 40, it was bad,” he laughs. “But it did give me my performance chops, I got comfortable singing on stage.”
At that same time, THEMpeople were renting a house on Chicago and State that they’d turned into a studio. Looking for a place to hang out and smoke, the SaveMoney collective began to come by the house, and after realizing they all made music, began to work together. The makeshift studio became a collaborative space, and their musical family grew to include young Chicago talents from Chance the Rapper and Joey Purp to Vic Mensa and Donnie Trumpet’s band Kids These Days. THEMpeople worked on many of their early projects, establishing the crew as a prominent voice in the Chicago music scene. So when Wilder was ready to step out on his own, there was no question that THEMpeople would be the ones to help him define his sound.
He explored a variety of ideas before getting into a groove, and it was a conversation with his sister that sparked the writing process. “We finally had a really open and honest conversation, and I realized there were a lot of problems that we were both covering up and trying to ignore,” he remembers. He penned “Only the Beginning” as a letter to her, and immediately knew he’d found the direction he wanted to follow: “I was finally able to talk about my feelings and say what I wanted to say.” In the process of developing his own tracks, he also racked up features on songs with Joey Purp, Mick Jenkins, Kirk Knight, and Chance the Rapper, providing valuable opportunities to learn from other artists.
While on tour with Mick Jenkins, Wilder also had the chance to meet people from all different backgrounds, and talking with others allowed him to open up even more and approach his work with an entirely new perspective. “Talking to other people changed everything—it uncovered things that I didn’t even realize I was talking about.” One stop on that tour was particularly special: performing at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. “I was performing ‘Mercury Rising’ and they were singing the words back to me, it was insane,” he remembers. “I stopped mid-song and was just like, ‘How do y’all know the words to this song?!’” That moment had a profound effect—it confirmed that he was making music that resonated with people.
Though Summer Camp explores difficult subjects, it’s laced with Wilder’s innate positivity throughout. It never feels dark, only hopeful. “I realized that I didn’t have to make sad music in order to tell my story and be real,” he says. On “Purple Fox Fur,” one of the album’s brightest tracks, he sings: “I wanna see you dance like there’s no one watching / ‘Til you lose yourself / Make them check a mirror to prove yaself / I know it’s on me / If they off beat I’ll help ‘em find the rhythm.” And that’s exactly what this album, in a much broader sense, actually does. By sharing his own path to self-acceptance, he creates a space for the listener to embark on one of their own. “Nothing we do as artists means anything if you’re not telling your truth,” he says. “I just hope that it encourages anyone who can relate, and let’s them know that possibilities are out there—you just have to take them.”
Stay tuned to Milk for more musicians on the rise.
Lead image courtesy of theMIND.