Mak Nova, the stage persona of 31-year-old Makana Curtiss, will be honored as Santa Cruz’s Musician of the Year on Friday at the NEXTies. “I don’t want to leave any rock unturned,” she says of her path forward. “So that’s gonna get weird sometimes, for sure.”
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She is Mak Nova, an inventive, often defiant rapper and performance artist who emerged only in the past year, fronting her band The Kings, whose visual style and presentation is every bit as distinctive and provocative as her sound.
But she is also Makana Curtiss, a self-described introvert who grew up in a tiny town in Sonoma County and whose childhood was almost entirely music-free. She first arrived in Santa Cruz more than a decade ago as an aspiring young dancer who honed her performance chops as a member of the outré local burlesque troupe the Do-Rights.
She is also the newly declared Musician of the Year, one of 20 awards to be bestowed at the NEXTies, taking place Friday at Woodhouse Blending & Brewing.
In giving its recognition, the NEXTies — co-presented by Event Santa Cruz and Lookout Santa Cruz — is oriented to the future. It acknowledges an artist or entrepreneur’s big year just past, but also recognizes that person’s potential to be a major shaper in Santa Cruz County’s cultural or business environment for years to come. In that respect, Mak Nova is something of an ideal example of what the NEXTies is all about, because, by her own reckoning, at 31, she’s just getting started.
“I definitely identify with the late-bloomer archetype in many ways,” she said.
On her website, Mak Nova has released a number of singles, including the richly textured and dreamy “Love Me” and the sensual R&B anthem “Don’t Rush It.” Her latest piece, the new single “E-Motions,” is now available on all major music platforms. When she’s not recording with her collaborator and musical partner, the Congolese-born guitarist Elie Mabanza, she’s performing live in various venues around the county with her versatile band, The Kings. (Mak Nova & The Kings are set to perform live at the NEXTies on Friday.)
“I am definitely still in exploration with that,” said Curtiss of her on-stage Mak Nova persona. “It’s a persona, but it’s also me. But it’s the version of me who gives zero f—s.”
Annie Stafford plays saxophone in The Kings. She’s been in a prime position to see Mak Nova emerge as an artist. Nova represents, said Stafford, “a beautiful fusion of hip-hop and world music with a little dance music in there too, and reggae, all of those musics combined. And one of the things that Makana and I and everyone in the band connects with is that all of those musics go so well together, because they’re all ultimately from Africa.”
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Curtiss/Mak Nova has found performing through a persona to be an act of liberation, allowing her to project a spirit of pure creativity without an inner critic getting in the way.
Her persona might “say things I would never say. I might think some of the things that she says, but I would never say them publicly.”
Curtiss is the product of Duncans Mills, a small hamlet on the Russian River between Guerneville and the coast. “There was one streetlight on my road,” she said. “It would take you 2 seconds to drive through town.”
She said that her mother had what is known as synesthesia, a perceptual condition where one sensual experience — hearing, say — may manifest itself in another sensual experience, such as colors or shapes. “She couldn’t really listen to music in the house,” Curtiss said. “And, especially, certain kinds of music were just a big no-no, because the colors and the patterns were so uncomfortable for her. Like rap music, she couldn’t do it all.”
Still, young Makana developed an intense interest in rap, and in fact aspired to be a rapper, back in the age when Eminem and 50 Cent were big influences. But her creativity led her into a different direction, and by the time she reached adulthood, she was a theater nerd and self-described hippie. When it came time to leave the nest, she moved in with a sister who was living in Santa Cruz in the early 2010s. “It was definitely the big city for me,” she said of her first impressions of Santa Cruz.
She was a dancer in those early years in Santa Cruz, a town big enough to allow her to follow some of her spiritual impulses. But, she said, the great majority of her relationships, acquaintances and interactions in Santa Cruz were with white people.
“I felt uncomfortable a lot of times, and I never quite felt like I belonged, and that I was never quite accepted or seen,” Curtiss said. “There was no malice at all toward any of the people I connected with, I just felt like I could never really be my true self in that space.”
In 2020, the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis galvanized Black people around the country, and Santa Cruz was no exception. Curtiss noticed a pronounced shift toward a more solid sense of community among Black people living in Santa Cruz. Curtiss noticed that she was more often meeting and interacting with other people of color, and a community was coalescing. Even before the Floyd murder, she participated in an art show called “The Unapologetically Black Art Show,” where she performed under her first name, Makana.
A couple of years later, Mak Nova was born, which not only represented a fresh reset for Curtiss musically, but also in terms of her self-image. Part of the Mak Nova package is her visual style, striking outfits and hairstyles that make sense in a musical environment primed by Lady Gaga and Janelle Monáe.
“I think I’m still figuring it out, to be honest,” she said of her visual presentation, which was partly inspired by her experience at Burning Man. “Part of me just never wants to be pigeonholed. I want to be able to do whatever feels good for the moment, for the show. Even though it’s a lot of hard work, it’s great fun, too. It’s like being a grown-up playing dress-up, and then getting in front of people and playing out that fantasy.”
But Mak Nova’s guiding light in the performance realms is the great Queen Bey herself.
“I love Beyoncé,” she said. “I mean, she is just an apex performer. I watched a full show live. And I don’t think she missed a single note the whole time. And she was dancing and running around and on pitch every time. I mean, you realize the craft of that, it’s the path of an Olympic athlete.”
Going forward, Mak Nova is likely to go in unforeseen directions and take big creative risks. Her relative lack of exposure to the wider range of music earlier in her life means that she is still in her formative stages. Playing “dress-up,” as she calls it, might also be an exploration to find new modes of expression.
“She has a very holistic artistic vision,” said bandmate Stafford. “She has all the elements, and her vision is very integrated. The words have a meaning. The music has a meaning. The dancing has a meaning. And the clothes, too. All of that has a cohesive message.”
Curtiss is wary of over-intellectualizing what she is doing, and instead works on allowing herself to follow her muse in whatever direction it takes her.
“At the end of the day, I just want to have fun,” she said. “And I don’t want to leave any rock unturned. So that’s gonna get weird sometimes, for sure.”