Paul Thompson is undefeated at Lake Calhoun.
You don’t hope for this kind of prescience. When talking about The Mustard Seed, a short film set to music from a forthcoming album by the same name, the emerging St. Paul rapper Why Khaliq notes one of the key production challenges: the shoot took place in Nebraska, meaning that a combination of tight shots and carefully chosen locations would have to stand in for Minnesota. But as the horrific violence of this past month reminds us, the images of a Black man pinned against a wall, a policeman’s gun pressed into his spine, could be pulled from cable news feeds on any given afternoon, or could be playing out in real time on any corner from coast to coast.
And yet Why Khaliq is hopeful. Raised in various parts of St. Paul—he warmly recalls the West side of his youth and its heavy Latin influence, citing it as an early mind-opening experience—Khaliq’s life so far has been a study in resolve. “I was primarily known for playing basketball,” he says of his time in school. “I was afraid of telling people I rapped and hearing ‘Dude, you’re good at basketball, why do you wanna rap?’ So I didn’t really get into actually recording until my senior year of high school.”
Speaking of school: Khaliq spent his freshman year at a prestigious private school, one that left him with a bit of culture shock. “I was coming from the inner city,” he says. “I was coming from a different atmosphere. So when I got there I felt like I had to act like somebody I wasn’t. And I wasn’t comfortable with that.” When his aunt died, Khaliq’s mother took in her three children; Khaliq told her she should forego the steep tuition payments and use to money to feed and clothe his cousins. So he switched to a public school in St. Paul, where he starred at both guard positions and coasted on raw talent.
That natural ability buoyed Khaliq during the transition, but fostered some troubling habits (“I would miss practice,” he says, bitterly). A fractured foot caused him to miss the AAU season during his junior year, and as a senior he worried that he might have overestimated his abilities. “It humbled me, but it made me work harder,” he says. “Once I made the transition from being an athlete to being a musician, I said I’m never gonna let someone work harder than me.”
As a musician, Khaliq has developed rapidly. The OtherSide: The Six5 was released in 2015 and was anchored by rough-edged rapper’s rapping; Under the Perspective Tree, which followed less than a year later, rounded out the melodic side of his approach. On The Mustard Seed, Khaliq goes beyond marrying the two styles. Through alchemy or sheer will, his new work is both stylistically daring and remarkably personal, where songs are grounded in life’s gravest details while retaining their shape and formal rigor.
And as for the title: when Khaliq began making the record, he was a new father of a baby girl. He had quit his job waiting tables at the Olive Garden when some coworkers, having attended the Perspective Tree release show in St. Paul, urged him to dedicate more time to music. A second job dispensing pharmaceuticals to rehab patients disappeared when his parenting duties conflicted with a class necessary for the job’s medical certifications. Around the same time, Khaliq’s uncle passed away. “When he died, they found a mustard seed in his back pocket,” he says. “My family had made a post in a Facebook group relating that back to the Bible. I’m not religious or nothing like that, but it was just basically saying that if you have the faith of the mustard seed, you can move mountains.”
A short film encompassing several songs and a broader narrative was part of Khaliq’s plan as far back as the OtherSide days, but he struggled to find a team that could execute it. Tadele Gebremedhin and Brent Scott Maze, who join Khaliq as co-directors, turn parts of the Mustard Seed album into a coherent story that echoes the real-life Khaliq’s journey to the present. The reward isn’t fame or fortune, but the opportunity to explore talent and ambition freely and fearlessly. It’s the sort of challenge Khaliq has relished from the time he fractured that foot: “I’ve done shows with zero people in there just to get the name out there. You have to want it. People can tell when an artist has it.”