What happens when a little girl obsessed with music spends her life traveling all over the world? In the case of now LA-based singer Naïka, she grows up to serenade her listeners’ ears with global sounds they may not have heard before in pop music. In August 2019, she released her single “Déja Vù” along with a lyric video that makes it hard to avoid dancing along with her. Pulling sounds from her own family’s Caribbean culture, as well as sounds from the African and European cultures she encountered as a child, Naïka isn’t a typical American pop artist. She’s here to bring her own sound…and maybe even do it in French.
Naïka talked with FRONTRUNNER about “Déja Vù” and how her unique background, including her experience at Berklee College of Music, influences her songwriting. She also spoke to the influence of culture in her fashion choices and what the term “world pop” means to her.
When I saw you were born in Miami I got excited because I’m from Broward County, and though Dade County seems to always try to throw shade at us, I think Miami is bursting with culture. What part of Miami do you think you bring to your music?
That’s awesome! [laughs] I love Broward County, it’s such a beautiful area.
I definitely agree that Miami is a crazy melting pot, which I absolutely adore. From my experience in the U.S. so far, it’s unlike any other city in the country. It doesn’t even feel like you’re in America. There are so many flavors to the city, from the mix of all the different Latin-American cultures, to the Caribbean presence, especially the Haitian community, which holds a special place in my heart. This cultural significance has been a huge influence for me when it comes to my music.
You’ve traveled all over the world, and your parents hail from Haiti and Madagascar, respectively. How has culture from places outside of America affected your love for music?
I’ve always been obsessed with music. My parents both come from countries where music plays an important part in the culture. From an early age my mom would have to sing to me for me to do pretty much anything, from taking a shower, [to] eating or going to sleep. Growing up, my parents only listened to world music at home, whether it was Haitian/Caribbean music, African music, or any traditional records from the country we were living in at the time. My dad also enjoyed some French artists that I consequently grew up listening to, but I was only really introduced to the music of all the bigger Western icons–like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Queen, etc.–much later in my life.
I read that you like to call your sound “world pop.” Do you mind sharing what you mean by that?
Definitely. I call it “world pop” because it merges my love for pop music with the love I have for my roots and the world music that I grew up with. My music is influenced by the Afro-Caribbean, European, and other “worldly” sounds and rhythms that have shaped me into who I am today.
On “Déja Vù” you sing part of the song in French. This isn’t your first time singing in a different language. You also covered the popular Haitian song “Papa Gèdè (Bel Gason)” in 2016. What role do you see language playing in music, especially using more than one language in the same song?
I use singing in different languages as a raw representation of my roots. It’s who I am. My background isn’t linear. There are so many cultures that have equally shaped me and are a part of me. I speak these three languages at home so I think it’s important for me to reflect that in my music. I am also really hoping that it can tap into people’s curiosity upon listening, so that they can entertain a connection with another culture that they might not be familiar with. Hopefully some listeners can learn, appreciate and connect with the dissimilitude, which I think is a beautiful way to bring people together.
In your “Déja Vù” lyric video, I couldn’t help but admire all the looks you served. All of your outfits fit perfectly with your sound. Do you think your fashion reflects your sound, or do you wear whatever you want and it just happens naturally?
[laughs] Thank you so much! I really love fashion and the creativity that comes with it. It’s a big part of who I am. My mom works in fashion, and she is the most creative person I know. She’s a huge role model to me, and I have learned a lot from her throughout the years. My first job and earliest working experiences have been from working at her store. I grew up around clothes and fabric. My grandma used to sell fabric in Haiti and I would always go in her stock and wrap the materials around me to create my own outfits and put on fashion shows for my family. It’s definitely something that runs in my blood and is another medium I use to express myself creatively.
What’s your favorite song to perform live?
One of my favorite songs to play live is “Oh Mama.” It’s super fun. I love the harmonies in the chorus that I sing with my bandmates. Mostly, my favorite part about playing it live is when I pull out my kazoo and play the solo in the bridge. It’s usually the first song of the set where the kazoo comes out, and it’s always fun to see the crowd’s reaction to it.
For songwriters like yourself who write all of their own songs, I’m always curious as to what comes first: the lyrics or the melody?
It definitely depends on the day and context. I’m a melody freak. I just love coming up with melodies and can go on for hours if no one stops me. I’ll often be in random places throughout the day and have to stop what I’m doing because I have a melody idea that I need to record on my phone. The ones I really like, I’ll bring into a session to see if a full song will stem from it. Same for lyrics. I’m always keeping my eyes and ears peeled for lyrical ideas and concepts to write down on my phone.
When I’m in a session, if we start working from a beat, usually the melody will come first for me. When I write alone and in a more intimate setting, I’ll usually focus on the lyrics first.
One thing that made you stand out to me is that you graduated from Berklee College of Music. How do you see your formal musical education playing a role in your music-making process and success?
Berklee was a huge learning milestone for me. Although my parents are music lovers, they are alien to the music industry and anything that goes behind making music. Before I went to Berklee, all I knew was that I sang and wrote songs, and that I wanted to make it as an artist. I had no idea what was coming my way in terms of my musical education. I had no idea about the great deal of work that goes on behind the scenes of making music. Throughout my college experience I learned to grow as a performer and vocalist by watching my peers. The environment set the bar of excellence very high, which was challenging, but also extremely motivating for me. I definitely went through some form of existential crisis during my time at Berklee, but I came out of it much stronger and with a clear idea and vision of who I wanted to be as a person and as an artist.
What advice would you give an artist who wants to skip the college step and just jump straight into the industry?
Work hard–very hard–and surround yourself with people who are better than you. Find out who you genuinely are as a person and artist, and then be the best version of yourself that you can be in order to inspire others with your art. Don’t limit yourself by trying to be like everybody else.