When Ella Mai — the British-born singer behind the hit “Boo’d Up” — was going to high school in Queens, Times Square was her…
When Ella Mai — the British-born singer behind the hit “Boo’d Up” — was going to high school in Queens, Times Square was her after-school hangout. “Me and my friends used to just walk around and window-shop so we wouldn’t be at home bored,” recalls Mai, 23. “We spent a lot of time in Cold Stone [Creamery]” — the 42nd Street branch of the ice-cream chain — “when we probably should have been doing our homework.”
But with the success of “Boo’d Up,” Mai has blown up. Ten years after those ice-cream runs, YouTube Music splashed her across 11 screens in Times Square last month. “I was at a loss for words,” says Mai of her larger-than-life moment. “Honestly, it was really surreal to see my face so big and so bold in Times Square.”
Mai’s definitely hit the big time, with one of the undisputed songs of the summer, a Top-5 hit on both the pop and R&B charts. While still working on her debut album — after releasing three EPs — she’ll bring her Boo’d Up Tour to the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Monday.
Born in London to a Jamaican mother and an Irish father who named her after Ella Fitzgerald, Mai grew up on the Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige songs her mom would play. At 12, she made the move across the pond when her mom accepted a teaching position that took them to Jamaica, Queens. “That was a bit of a culture shock,” says Mai. “Like, I had an accent. No one spoke like me.”
She also lacked what she needed to make it into the high schools she wanted to attend, which were the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. “I didn’t know the American national anthem, and that was a requirement,” says Mai. “I went to Frank Sinatra to try out on my 13th birthday, and they sent me home.”
Instead, she went to the Queens High School of Teaching before returning to London in 2012. Three years later, producer DJ Mustard heard her singing 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” in one of her 15-second Instagram covers. While DJ Mustard is behind the beat on “Boo’d Up,” the heart of the song is Mai’s feelings for the boo — as in significant other — she was writing about.
It certainly helped that Mai is bi-slangual: “You definitely don’t hear it as much in England,” she says about boo. “Me living in New York has given me the best of both worlds, so I’m aware of all the different slang in both places.”
Although she and her inspiration are no longer together, the song has been embraced by many a couple. “I’ve actually seen videos of people at their weddings singing and dancing to it,” she says, “which really hit home to me ’cause I’m like, ‘Wow, that song’s gonna be a part of their life forever.’”