There’s no need for formalities with someone like Kevin Exil – apologies – Biggs Mula. The Philly-born rapper whose positivity and upbeat spirit engulfs any room he’s in. Or at least, one could imagine on the other side of my zoom window. Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) affects the artist and approximately 100,000 people in the United States. The majority of whom nationally are Black or African American. With many things a performer could be doing, Biggs Mula sits down to talk with me about SCD, music, the future, and creativity through COVID-19 –– all socially distanced of course.
Kiersten Adams: Where did your love for the arts come from?
Biggs Mula (Kevin Exil): My father was actually in a popular band back when he was living in Haiti. He moved to New York and he had a band over there, and then my mom [would] always play any type of music. Pop music, country music, Brittany Spears, Back Street Boys, hip hop. We grew up listening to everything and in my music, you can hear that.
KA: Was there ever a moment where you’d second-guess yourself, maybe had doubts about pursuing this career?
KE: No second-guessing, as soon as I hopped in I stayed there. I don’t know anything else. Out of everything, the thing I’m really good at most is making music.
KA: Were you nervous about telling the world you had a disease? About how fans or peers might see you?
KE: I knew it was rare. I just didn’t know it was that rare. The only artist I knew with it [SCD] was T-Boz from TLC and Prodigy from Mobb Deep. A couple of years ago I was the same way. It’s not like I don’t want to talk about it, it’s more because I don’t want people to like me because of my sickness. But the whole time I was looking at it wrong. Me talking about Sickle Cell actually helps other people.
KA: As a performer, how do you find balance and take care of yourself with such a full plate?
KE: Three, maybe four years ago, I was scattered. I was doing everything. Then when I got with my fiance, she helped me to structure things and that was big for me. I find people with SCD must structure things because it helps your body build a regimen. I was getting sick almost every other month [but] with structure, I’d only get sick maybe twice a year and that’s amazing for me.
KA: What impact has SCD had on your life or how has it at least gotten you to where you are today?
KE: Sickle cell makes you become an entrepreneur. You’ve got to have your own thing going on because jobs won’t hire you. Every school I went to I got kicked out. Not because I was bad, but because I wasn’t there at school. It stops a lot, but my thing is, it’s going to stop you if you let it stop you, so I just never let it stop me.
KA: Do you consider your work activism for the SCD community?
KE: A couple of years ago I was looking at myself as an artist. Then, when the Red Cross started coming to me they started turning my stuff into a brand and it inspired people. So now, I would consider myself more than just an artist. I wasn’t chasing it. It was the universe who said, “you’re doing bigger work than just being an artist.” I just like to inspire my peers, and maybe the universe will throw that on me but I like it better when the people call you what it is.
KA: How are you an advocate for SCD?
KE: I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing with my music. If it gets more acknowledgment, more lives will be saved. I’ve been getting interviews from doctors asking me questions, and all I can say is we really need help. Making sure everybody knows there’s something called Sickle Cell and this shit is real. Same way cancer’s real –– it’s the same thing. And I feel like that’s my job.
My fan base is really universal so I’m just hoping it [my music] touches my peers and more of the kids. Because kids are the future. I want them to know that it’s okay to have sickle cell and still be you. That’s my goal. My message: To Really Be You.
KA: Despite status or wealth, do you feel like a priority in hospitals when seeking care during a crisis?
KE: Honestly, it’s bad. Even with status. First, because we’re black, we get treated [differently]. When you look at us [SCD survivors], you don’t see blood, you know what I mean? No broken arm. So then they think we’re lying about it. And because they think we’re lying about it, they don’t take you seriously, it even trickles down to the nurses. It got so bad one-time last year, I was nearly about to die. At the hospital, I kept telling [the doctor] I’m a hard stick, you know my veins have been gone since I was young. I was telling the doctor, “look, can you guys check my blood before I get discharged? I still don’t feel good”. But they kept denying me. Thinking that I wanted to stay in the hospital. So I was discharged, and I was walking up the steps to my door when I just collapsed. I remember just seeing the sky, [my finance] just holding me and calling my name. My hemoglobin was at 2.3. My heart was beating so fast, that I just passed out. I went through hell. I got a new hip, it was bad. If the doctors had taken me seriously, my falling out would’ve never happened. They don’t take us seriously, a lot of us just be really sick or dying. And if my fiance wasn’t there and really on them, I would’ve died. But God said, “Nah, it ain’t over.”
KA: Do you feel comfortable advocating for yourself, or does preaching about your pain to non-believers take its toll. For people who may be experiencing the same thing, do you think it makes a difference if you have family there or not?
KE: You need someone to be there with you, you have to. I feel like it helps a lot. It shouldn’t be that way, but I feel like in order to save your life and keep you around, you need to have someone with you. Advocating with you.
KA: Why should artists consider collaborating with medical nonprofits and organizations?
KE: I feel like if more artists did this, it would save lives. If people collaborated with the Red Cross, or CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) it would raise awareness and save lives. The bigger it is, the better. More resources and treatments could be offered. My goal is to get my music really big and out there so I can start hitting them with the Sickle Cell stuff. Hopefully, it will catch on and people will take it seriously.
KA: Where did your education on SCD come from and where should others look to be better informed?
KE: I feel like just doing more with the community. [For instance] the sickle cell walks. We should be having more conversations in our neighborhoods — the same way how the Jehovah’s Witness comes to your door [laughter]. The same way! There are just so many ways to get the word out, so if we really want to change the narrative around Sickle Cell, we really got to put the work in. You educate by having fun.
KA: Where can we find you in 2021?
KE: Hopefully more movies, dropping my newest mixtape Charlie II, more music videos. I want to touch more people with the music. To let people know ‘this sickle cell stuff is real’. I thought the whole world knew about it but now that I’m older I realized, a lot of people don’t know what sickle cell is. So my goal for this year is to get more out there.
KA: Lastly, top 3 musical inspirations
KE: Michael Jackson, Drake, Whitney Houston. That’s about it.
Kevin’s candor about fighting SCD and creating in times of chaos and crisis sheds light on the vulnerability of artists living with critical diseases and how much they give to their craft. When facing adversities posed by hospital staff, it’s often an unavoidable and problematic confrontation between nurses, doctors, and their patients, “It’s like, I’m already sick, now I have to be here sick, and fighting with you guys”. These exhausting attitudes can deter folks living with SCD from pursuing their passions. Despite wealth, status, education, or privilege — the universal truth of living with SCD is that your not only fighting for your life, but to be seen, to be heard, and to be respected.
There’s no way for equity to occur if the foundation on which it is set upon is not level. Kevin’s understanding of this truth pushed him to be an advocate in his music which allowed him a national platform for his activism. As creative that acknowledges the intersectionality of art and awareness, Biggs Mula feels responsible to use his stage to inform and educate.
You can follow Biggs Mula on Instagram here.