Welcome to another installment of Hoops, Rap and Everything Black, a weekly column that zeroes in on the two fundamental components of SLAM—hoops and rap—while threading in other aspects of the vibrant tapestry of Black culture. Let’s get it.
Maria Isabel, 27, is on her way to becoming a superstar, there’s no doubt about it. The singer/songwriter has been singing since she could speak, and began professionally making music about four years ago. If she’s not in the recording studio or gracing a stage, there’s a good chance you’ll see her courtside at The Garden, cheering on her beloved New York Knicks. With a charming voice and presence that can mesmerize any crowd, the Queens native finds a way to captivate any audience she’s surrounded by. Don’t blink, soon enough she’ll probably be headlining her own show at The World’s Most Famous Arena.
I sat down with Maria who spoke with me about her love for basketball, how the game inspires her, her appreciation for hip-hop, what we can expect next from her and more.
CURTIS: Jumping straight into it, you carry New York with you everywhere you go; can you walk me through your upbringing and what being born and raised in Queens means to you? How has that influenced you to get to this point?
MARIA: I was born in Flushing. My parents are both Dominican, so we went back and forth a lot between [New York] and the Dominican Republic. But yeah, Queens is literally my whole world. I feel like it’s affected me in so many ways, just being surrounded by so many people at all times. I mean, it’s the most diverse place in the world. So I feel like from a young age, I was exposed to a lot–a lot of different people and a lot of different sounds. And then within my community itself, I feel like I was really influenced in terms of the kind of music I was listening to and the way I dress. So yeah, I feel like it’s a huge part of who I am.
CURTIS: Being exposed to so many sounds like you say, was there a specific moment growing up for you where you just knew you wanted to build a career through music and remove any plan B or other options?
MARIA: I don’t think there was a specific moment where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love music.’ I just don’t remember not feeling that way. But I think more so I had a moment of like, ‘Oh, this is gonna work.’ It was about two years ago, going on my first headline tour, and especially playing the New York show. I had a few other stops on the tour and they all went well and it was really cool, but something about being home in my community with people I didn’t know, but also people I grew up with, too – being on that stage and seeing how that went was the biggest moment I’ve had so far that made me feel like this is working.
CURTIS: Switching gears a bit – so clearly, we’re at SLAM and I’m familiar with your deep interest in basketball. what was your introduction to the game; where did that stem from? Was it as a kid growing up, was it an interest that developed more recently?
MARIA: I can’t really remember what age, but I want to say late elementary school or early middle school. I have a lot of cousins, and we were all about the same age and grew up together in Queens. Our parents would always be working, so after school we would just kind of pick someone’s house and hang out there all day. One of my cousins, who I was going to school with at the time is a huge basketball fan – lives and breathes the NBA. I would go to his house after school and he would literally make me watch Kobe highlights. We had a hoop in his backyard and after we finished homework, he would literally have me doing drills in the back. I didn’t even have basketball shoes. He was two or three sizes bigger than me and I would double sock and use his. I’d be in the backyard running around with my food sliding around in his shoes. But yeah, I don’t know. I just had so much fun doing that after school. I think that was the first time I really loved something aside from singing, as a kid, specifically.
CURTIS: So, did you play at your middle school?
MARIA: Yeah. But it really wasn’t serious [chuckles]. It was like a few teams within the school and they would just play each other. There was no formal try out or anything like that. It was very much so if you want to be on the team, you’re on the team. But it was all guys. So I showed up one day and I was the only girl, and they were definitely hesitant. But it was really funny having that experience of playing basketball. I wouldn’t say I was great, but I had a great jump shot [laughing]. But I had no handles, like you could take the ball from me in two seconds. At first everyone was weird because I was the only girl, so no one wanted to play defense on me, which was fine by me because I would literally just stand in the corner, get passed the ball and make the shot. It was phenomenal until people realized I was making the shot and then there was like no mercy. After that, it definitely got harder to participate when everyone’s like a foot taller than you. But it was a good time!
CURTIS: What’s your favorite aspect of basketball?
MARIA: There’s just a different energy there. I always say I love my job, but it makes me really sad that I’ll never know what it feels like to win a ring. I don’t know why but watching that happen just feels untouchable, whatever that feeling is at the end of a season.
CURTIS: Are there any parts of basketball that you implement into your craft of singing and performing on the day-to-day basis?
MARIA: Absolutely. Going to the gym and being in that space meeting different athletes, and obviously watching basketball, I get inspired by them just in terms of how they take care of their bodies and prep for seasons and games. Singing is really similar. Being on tour and stuff is no easy feat. My first tour was a 60-minute show and I think people underestimate how much prep there is for that – even in terms of lung capacity. If you aren’t ready, you’re running out of breath up there for sure. Even when you are ready, it’s still hard. So, yeah, I think the more I learn from hoopers, the more I try to take that into my own experience of just staying ready so I don’t have to get ready.
CURTIS: Are there any specific basketball players who come to mind when you think of those that have inspired you?
MARIA: Yeah, I think in terms of love for the craft and commitment to it, I think Kobe’s the biggest one. He was really my introduction to basketball, but also I think everyone, regardless of being a basketball fan, you’ve heard of the Kobe mentality. So I think the same commitment of where it’s like, this is my life and doing whatever it takes to be the best. And then when I think in general, just like icon wise, it’s AI. I mean, he’s just a legend.
CURTIS: Switching gears once more to hip-hop. From what I’ve observed of you, you have a pretty expansive palette of music you listen to. As an R&B singer, can you speak to where hip-hop falls into that?
MARIA: Growing up in Queens, I literally couldn’t open my window without hearing Jay-Z or Nas coming through the window. Sonically, hip-hop is really impactful. Even making R&B, a lot of the sonic elements still get pulled from hip-hop. And obviously, my method of singing over it is softer, but even in the sense of someone like Lauryn Hill, kind of trying to go down that road is super influenced by hip-hop. But also, I think a big part of why I love hip-hop so much is because I feel like it was people like Jay-Z and Nas who were speaking to the experience of growing up in New York. So, I was listening to other artists and always being influenced, but something about that just always felt like home.
CURTIS: Some of your production is definitely hip-hop influenced. Is that intentional going into it when you’re creating, or is it more so a natural progression of making music for you with hip-hop being so embedded in the culture?
MARIA: Yeah, I think it’s a more natural thing where I don’t even realize I’m doing it. We’ll start a song off softer and I’ll just feel like something is missing. There’s like a push missing. And that’s usually where hip-hop comes in. Even writing my last single – I was in the studio with the producer, Illangelo, and we were listening to A Tribe Called Quest and a lot of Q-Tip before even beginning to think about the song. I feel like the song flowed naturally from the influence before I started making it. Rap and hip-hop are truly like poetry.
CURTIS: You referenced your single “I Drove You Crazy,” so I have to ask. Does that mean we can expect a project soon? No pressure [laughing]. I know you probably get this question all the time.
MARIA: Yeah, I’m finishing an album right now, which I’m really excited about. I’ve definitely been writing for the last year and a half or so. And honestly, a lot of that was just like experimenting with new stuff and trying to grow from where I was and meeting new people and trying new things. But yeah, it’s coming together.
CURTIS: As we’re approaching the holiday season and new year, what are some things that you feel are next for you in terms of your growth as a human, as an artist and just where you want to take your career?
MARIA: New music is obviously the biggest thing. I think R&B was my first love when it came to singing. But I’m Dominican, I’m from Queens, like we said. So a lot of Latin and hip-hop influences, and I really want to just keep expanding on all of those things. My music is my most honest representation of myself. So, I really want to make sure that I kind of hit all those touch points as I grow. So, new sounds for sure. And then I really want to go back on tour in the new year, hopefully in the spring, and see more places, see more people.
Hoops: Hoop fans everywhere can rejoice! Bronny James was cleared to return this week, four months after he suffered cardiac arrest at a summer workout. He’s one step closer to returning to game action, which means we’re maybe one step closer to seeing the first father-son duo grace the same court in an NBA game. It’s so easy to root for Bronny; most importantly, I’m just glad he’s healthy.
Rap: Latto is one of my favorite rappers, male or female. She bodied her verse in the all-women cypher that was released this week on XXL. If you haven’t listened yet, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Everything Black: Former five-star recruit Mikey Williams found himself in a world of trouble with the law earlier this year. He was given a second chance this week after his nine felony charges essentially turned into one misdemeanor (given he satisfies a list of requirements). I’m just thankful he’ll have the opportunity to right the ship. Hopefully, we’re able to see him suit up for Memphis before the season is out. More than anything, I hope he’s able to put this behind him, learn from his experiences and move forward to live out his dreams and fulfill his potential.
As always, here’s the official Hoops, Rap and Everything Black playlist. It’ll be updated weekly with each column. Add the playlist to your library to stay in the know, and be sure to follow SLAM on Spotify.