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NISHA: Pushing for representation in music

NISHA is a multi-genre (pop and hip-hop) indie artist and a rising star.

In this long-form interview with Tyler Marie, DJ of WRFL’s Signal Boost (Fridays 10pm-midnight), they discuss her life and career and perspectives on gender, queerness, sexuality, ethnicity and nationality as they intersect with the music industry and society right now.

You can listen to this interview in its entirety by clicking here.

Hey NISHA! I’m excited to talk to you. Listeners of my show Signal Boost here on WRFL should be quite familiar with you by this point, but for anyone out there who has not had the pleasure of meeting you, please introduce yourself to our lovely audience.

Hi Tyler! It’s so good to talk to you. And hello everyone! My name is NISHA, I’m an artist, and I know Tyler has been playing some of my songs— I think that’s super cool, I think her show is great, and now that we’ve had the chance to speak and relate, I know she’s going after many of the same things I’m going after. I found most of the music that I really love and identify with in college, so I think it’s great. Thanks for having me.

Thank you so much for being here. So, you’re based in L.A. now. I know you came up through New York and helped lead the underground scene there for a while. You’ve performed across the country. Can you tell us about your memories of coming up and how that brings you to where you are now as an artist?

I did come up through New York! I wasn’t born in New York, I was born in Nigeria and then I went through my elementary, middle, and high school in Central Florida, but I was always obsessed with New York, even when I was a kid living in West Africa. New York was the center of pop culture, and I grew up obsessed with pop culture. Every artist that I really loved moved to New York and made some of my favorite work in New York— Nina Simone, Patti Smith, the Brooklyn hip-hop scene.

I was fortunate enough to go to school to study singing and to study history, and I loved it there and I ended up finding a home in the Lower East Side in the spoken word art scene. I worked at a performance venue and I used to put together shows for other artists, and I used to perform a lot. I used to host an open mic; there’s this really cool video you can look up that was made that reflects that time and how special it was. I think New York gave me a real understanding that to be an artist means community. The words “artist” and “community” are pretty synonymous for me. I loved it.

The winters got me at some point. I was born in Nigeria, and I’m Indian, and then we lived in Florida, so I felt like I was not built for winter. It’s just not working for me! But I love New York, I have family there, my sister lives there and my niece and nephew, so I go back there pretty often and I find it to be pretty grounding. It’s definitely a good reality check, you know?

Yeah even just being there can be such a grind in a way, but New York feels like it has a pulse or like it’s alive in a way that nowhere else I’ve ever been quite feels like.

Totally, yeah. I’m a big energy person, and I totally agree with you, there’s definitely a pulse and an energy, and it’s a very revitalizing place too. I think that’s why a lot of artists get inspiration there, because you have everything juxtaposed right in front of you, it’s not compartmentalized as much.

Exactly! So given all of that, what led you out to L.A. and what have you found that you’ve liked about being out there?

I’m very much influenced by music and artists that I love, and when Frank Ocean put out channel ORANGE, I feel like it kinda rewired my brain; something shifted. It opens a door for you when you see someone making music or art in a way that you didn’t know was possible. There was just this sense of pressure? It almost felt like if I didn’t make that shift, I wouldn’t get to be a part of something really special for myself as an artist. I studied classical music and opera in school, but I was always like in the bathroom singing along to Rihanna, and that’s what I really wanted to do.

Yes! I’ve just gotta say, I know that very well.

Singing along to NISHA! That’s the dream. That makes me really happy. For those who don’t know, Tyler was mentioning earlier that she was singing along to Figures, and I was rehearsing Figures, so we were synchronized.

I love that! We were synced up without even knowing that we were. It was retroactively serendipitous.

Without even knowing it! That’s right. Take that, Mercury in retrograde, take that.

So yeah, I moved here to L.A., and I think artists go through evolutions and I had one of those moments where I broke down the life I was living in New York—I had a steady gig, but I felt like I had hit my own ceiling in a lot of ways and I wanted to see what was out here, so I came out here and kinda kicked it for three months, I lived in my friend’s garage, it was really like that! It was really back to being broke and figuring things out, and then I had a completely serendipitous occurrence.

I had been coming out to L.A. and writing and doing sessions, and one of the artists that I worked with, I got a call and they were like, “Interscope is gonna put out this song you’ve written with Daya and with Toby Gad, and it’s gonna be Gryffin and Illenium,” and that gave me a chance to have an ‘in’ to the music industry and be taken seriously as a songwriter and be offered things like publishing deals and given the opportunity to work more. That happened all within, like, six months!

It’s fascinating how so much can happen in such little time. From the perspective of an artist, to push through those times and see the light that’s out there and that’s waiting for you, I’ve always respected that.

Yeah! That’s awesome. I think part of discovering your potential is really just paying attention to your fear, you know? And I think they’re very connected. It gets easier in some ways, because now I’m making the transition to being an artist full time and releasing music independently full time. Earlier, I had ended up signing with Universal as a songwriter and I spent about two and a half years just writing about six to eight songs a week, and just exploring.

Rick Rubin has this line where he says the thing about repetition in practice and rehearsal is that it opens up new pathways in your brain. That’s the principle behind improvisation in jazz too—you keep doing the same thing until you make a mistake, and then you follow the mistake. I would say that’s my process. I have moments that are like, “wow, I just got it,” but mostly I’m a very curious cat, and I have to look in all the corners and try to figure something out and know what it is. And then now, I’m full time releasing music and performing and inhabiting the space! It’s cool.

That must be a wonderful place to be, especially after working for several years to get to that place. It has to be fulfilling.

It is, it really is. I think it’s fulfilling because I wake up every day and the battle has changed from “how do I get through this day?” to “how do I finish this song?” I love doing this, so when you get to focus on it, it’s definitely a state change mentally.

Let’s talk about your music a bit. I’ve described you on air as a multi-genre artist, in that you seamlessly span between heartfelt pop, high-energy R&B, and hip-hop that’s truly cutting and incisive. I’ve been so impressed by your range, which I think is much more diverse than a lot of artists are willing to put out there. What’s it like as an independent artist to refuse to box yourself in by genre, and to let your music speak for itself in whatever form you might see fit, especially as you have to navigate this industry?

That’s a really good question. You know what’s funny, I think for a time that my penchant for that kind of genre bending was my weakness. It was something that actually prevented me from having success, because I would go off and write a country song, and then I would write a hip-hop record, and when I was at the table with the industry they couldn’t really make sense of it. I had to keep figuring out how to explain it or how to make it cohesive for the listener and for the industry while also staying true to myself, and I think I found my answer.

Of course, things have changed so much now that the world is more receptive and the listeners are more receptive. I always have this experience that people who are more open don’t see the genre, they just hear the song, and I try not to dumb it down because I feel like people are real. I think we all have a lot more sides to us than we’re comfortable revealing or that are acceptable to reveal. I think it’s reflective of what’s real within a given human being.

That’s so true. Especially now I think maybe there’s a little more room. Listening to your songs, it’s not like “oh, this NISHA song is a different genre and so it sounds like a different artist”—it doesn’t, right? It’s very authentically you, even if you’re presenting it in these different forms, and I think it speaks to your well-roundedness how you’re willing to put that out there. I’m glad to hear that people are responding to that well, even if there are industry types who still need to come around, that maybe they’re getting it and they’re getting you. I think that’s exciting.

Well thanks to all of you, thanks to you Tyler and thanks to the communities that have come out—the South Asian community, the LGBTQ community—and have been so supportive. I think they’re starting to see that it’s reflected in the reality of who we are.

But I think it’s based on love. Nicki Minaj is a teacher for me. So is Bob Dylan. And so is my brother, and so is my niece. I think to me, the ultimate goal is to find that moment where you can have a conversation with everybody in the room, and that’s pop to me. It’s when you find that one thing you can say where everybody is connected through a sense of familiarity and love and storytelling. I will add anything to the dish to get to that moment, you know? I’m here to explore what I have and my experience.

We love that. Especially as a free-format station, we don’t box ourselves in by genre. We’ll be weaving through all these genres telling stories of our own, so yes we love it.

Yeah! It becomes a story on a deeper level. I want my live shows to be awesome too, and for us to dance at the show and laugh, and if we get in our bag a little bit that’s cool too, it’s all good.

You’ve lived on both coasts of the United States and you have a multi-ethnic background like you mentioned from Nigeria and India, and in your video for “Figures” you had several other South Asian actors join you to help deliver that song’s message. Can you talk about the statement you wanted to make with “Figures” and how your experience and background inform your worldview and your music?

A loose concept was ‘Brown Cinderella’—I love classic stories; even my song Wendy is about like flipping Peter Pan when you look at it from a female character’s perspective. I think that’s important. Part of what I’m doing as a human being is trying to unlearn some of the conditioning that was very destructive for myself. That includes things like placing material wealth above health—just patterns that end up being destructive.

So in the video we had this fabulous amazing cast, with Nik Donani from Atypical who plays my stepmother, and Ritesh Rajan from Russian Doll. We had this crazy star-studded cast, and we came together to tell a story about the shade, about how society can judge you on the wrong things and overlook your inner value if you’re not playing by the rules or if you end up circumstantially getting caught in a position that puts you at a disadvantage.

Sometimes society tends to pile on insult to injury and it’s not super empathetic. That definitely exists within my culture, within South Asian culture. I actually just saw Parasite and I was weeping by the end of that movie. It’s dope, it’s so dynamic. The stuff that happens, it does that kind of thing where it plays with how surreal it is, the world we live in and sometimes the things we prioritize and just how counterintuitive it is to being healthy and happy.

Absolutely. On a related note to that, on my show Signal Boost, I play all women, nonbinary, and queer artists throughout the show—

Yay! Yay!

Thank you for the love! —and I specifically try to amplify artists who advocate for feminist action that is both queer- and trans-inclusive and that works toward equality and justice. As a fellow queer woman, how does your identity factor into your music and into the goals that you want to achieve when it reaches the ears of other young women and queer people?

First of all Tyler, thank you. This is amazing, and I have so much love for you for this.

Aw. I mean, likewise, obviously. Oh goodness.

Yeah! It really is incredible, because being heard and being seen is such a gift—it’s such a healing gift—when you’ve been on the other side of that, when you’ve been ignored.

The way it fits into my music—so, my sister is an immigration attorney and she is part of an organization called Sanctuary for Families in New York, and she’s done immigration work for clients coming out of gender-based violence from all over the world. I speak to her quite often. One of the things she told me was that sometimes the hardest part is getting someone who’s been victimized to believe that they deserve to win, you know?

Oh my gosh, that’s such a good point, yes.

Right? I think that’s definitely a part of what I’m focused on owning in my work—when I have someone hit me up and they say, “when I listen to your lyrics, I feel so powerful.” I try to find those moments where I figure something out for myself and then be responsible for putting it in music.

I would for sure say that representing myself and advocating for my listeners as a queer woman is a very important part for me of decolonizing my sexuality and decolonizing my art. When I actually look into Hinduism and the texts, there are so many stories that have representation of non-binary, of matriarchy, all of it. So I think it’s getting back to what the truth is about life. That’s how I see it.

That is an excellent point that this structure of ‘defaults’ that we find ourselves in, especially in this society, are arbitrary and do not run that deep, right? Especially if you consider the breadth of everyone on the globe and the history of the world. It’s nothing! It actually doesn’t mean anything! We have to fight so hard, but then yes, to break through—and as an artist, to be able to help open other people’s eyes to that as well—is really important.

Right! Right. Yes. I think art creates the world we live in. It can create a world for you to live in that you can’t have in society, that you see in this song or in this movie that your feelings are valid, and it helps you move through it. That’s what we’re in this together for, that’s what we’re doing here! That’s why we’re synchronized rehearsing Figures together.

I’m so here for it. Let’s continue on this line. You’ve talked before about expressing both empathy and kindness for those who are discriminated against or left out, as well as righteous anger at the systems of power that perpetuate that kind of injustice, which is something I relate to and I think many of us can, especially with what’s going on in the U.S. right now. From your perspective, how does that balance come into play through your art and also just as a person with all of us living through this intense time?

Wow, I know. With a whole lot of mistakes, Tyler, to be honest. You know? When figuring out something as simple as setting boundaries for yourself, and then actually taking on things that you have to commit yourself completely into, and not losing yourself in the battle as well. I’ve developed a couple of things that I know I need for myself, and then beyond that I really rely on other people to help guide me and give me feedback when I’m working on something. Even when I’m writing something but I’m like, “I know I’m pushing the line on this, or that I’m saying things that are creating reactions in myself.”

I think balance comes through community. None of us are omnipotent. It exists when you have enough people who you can trust to help show you what the center is. For me, I’m a Gemini sun, I’m a Libra moon, it’s all duality, you know? So figuring out what the center is, it’s a challenge for me but it’s one where I rely on community.

There’s definitely a balance to strike during this particular time, especially with overconsumption of the type of things that can bring you constant despair, right? So I think that’s a great point about how community in particular can help maybe recenter you from all the things that make you feel like there’s no hope. That people around you—those who love you and who do care—can bring a different vibe to help keep us afloat right now.

Yes! Totally! Completely. When you do have someone who can feed that back to you—also my therapist is great, but they can check when it’s like, “This is real, and that is not real. This is righteous anger, and that—umm no you’re just mad, it’s not that deep.”

That’s so true, sometimes it can blend together and it all just circles around in there, yeah!

Totally. I’m careful about that, because I think the anger and the power behind the anger is kind of attractive. When I make those records, it definitely creates attention, and I’ve even just felt the pressure for myself to be like “let me do more of this,” but I have to ask myself, “What’s the purpose? What’s really underneath this?” An artist like Kendrick Lamar is someone I really respect, because he makes a record about drinking, but it’s also about what your relationship is to drinking. So I’m down to keep playing with it as long it’s coming from the right space.

Absolutely. It’s kind of connected to your multi-genre balance. We were talking earlier about how the second verse of Figures got in my head and never left, because you go on such a tear through that, right? It stuck with me. That’s the type of thing that fuels me and gives me energy. But you also have these songs that help chill me out and appreciate things a little bit. I just really love it.

Dope. Ah! I’m so grateful, and I’m grateful that these songs are connecting. I really said to myself, I was like, “Nish, don’t put out anything that you wouldn’t listen to,” and I’m happy that I’ve had the opportunity to stick to that. I’m grateful that we live in a time where I can do things like independently distribute and honor that.

I’ve been playing several songs of yours on WRFL, including your new tracks like Balance, Hi Lyfe, and Heaven. Can you choose one of those songs that’s especially meaningful to you and tell us about the story behind it?

Yeah, absolutely! I always have a favorite song until I release the next one and then that one becomes my favorite. I think they’re like little song babies and they need particular love and attention when you first put them out.

I’m gonna go with Heaven, because the first thing is that my family loves it. When I put out Wendy, I sent my dad a two-page letter explaining to him why I was saying “Wendy ain’t sucking dick no more” —it was a big transition for my family to hear me out of the gate. But with Heaven, there is this element where they play it; my nieces love it and want to listen to it on repeat. Just to have that kind of connection with my family in Africa, to send to my family in India.

We have this WhatsApp group that’s like, my big Indian family, and I send them music sometimes as I’m working on it, but I definitely send them my finished things. I have a very musical family. My mom sings, and my dad had a band when he was a teenager; he was obsessed with the Beatles and he had a band called the Dragonflies. I have a family that loves to act, sing, and perform, and this is the first record that I feel like has landed collectively with them, which is pretty special for me.

Also, the day we wrote it, it was just an odd day. I had called my manager that day to say I didn’t want to go to the session, I wasn’t feeling well. When I got there, I was in not a great mood and I wanted to rush through and get done with it. We wrote the first part of the song almost as if it was a freestyle. The producer Nick Marsh played a guitar loop, and what you’re hearing from the first verse up until the hook is the first take. That’s pretty much the first thing that came out of my mouth. I left that vocal in there; I didn’t go back and re-record it, and I didn’t edit it because it just kind of happened that way, which is really special.

Then it took me a year to finish the rest of the song. Which, go figure, I don’t know what that’s about. But it’s a really interesting piece, and I’ve kept it as a friend for a bit, and then it was really special to release it and to see the reception it’s had. I didn’t know! Especially after “Figures,” I was kinda going all the way to the left—

Hey! There we go!

I’m so cheesy! I’m such a cheese. Ah! I did it! But yeah, that’s the story. That’s Heaven.

We’re here for it. (laughs) You talked earlier about how you’ve also written songs for other artists, which some people may not know, including co-writing Gryffin and Illenium’s Feel Good featuring Daya, which recently went gold! That is an amazing accomplishment. How does it feel to hear other artists lend their voice and style to your lyrics and compositions, and how did it feel to receive that gold record?

Yay! It’s super cool. You never know where it’s gonna go. I wrote this record called Money that Lil Miquela put out—she’s a digital art consciousness and she’s dope—they kept that one pretty much the same from what we did. But Feel Good was just a piano song, so it went through such a metamorphosis by the time it got released. I think writing and contributing to other people’s art and final expression gives you a chance to do so many things you wouldn’t do on your own. I had a song in India last year; I had a song in Israel. The coolest part of writing is definitely to have music be released internationally and to work on things I wouldn’t normally get to do. It’s very exciting.

They played Feel Good at Coachella and a bunch of different music festivals, and other than the gold record, the highlight of that experience was just to see it at these huge spaces. It’s cool. And then my brother’s babysitter knew the song and I was like “what is happening?!” The plaque is cool. It’s chilling in my room; I touch it for good luck. No, it’s good, I think it’s great motivation.

Absolutely. I was thinking about how you shared that photo where you were holding the gold record. I think there’s something to these structures of music that can still be fulfilling? Certainly when I saw you in that photo I was like oh my god this is amazing.

Aw. I think you’re totally right. I think it’s a marking point for the whole community, for everybody who’s been cheering you on. It’s our gold record. I think that’s also why it’s super important to keep pushing for representation in the industry. You have a lot of artists who are making incredible music but don’t get to celebrate these moments, because the system isn’t lining up. But yeah, this is definitely our gold record. Again, my dad started a band in Ghana in the ’70s and because of the circumstances in his life, he never had the chance to do what I’m doing. So I feel really proud of being able to bring this home.

That’s so inspiring; I love that. So far you’ve blessed us with an array of singles over the past several years, and you’ve been on fire lately with new music, but I have to ask, what do you have planned for 2020 and looking forward? Should we expect more new singles like you’ve been releasing them? Maybe even an EP or an LP?

Yes! The answer is yes. My plan is to release one single a month until summer. I think the last single would hit mid-May. They’re in post-production right now; we’re finishing up the last-minute edits. I’m really excited; I have another love song coming out that I made when I got the chance to work in France last year, in Paris with an incredible production team, Le Side. That single is going to be the first out of that body of work. And then I have a Figures follow-up coming right after that, which I did with the same producer as Figures. There’s a record I’m finishing tomorrow. So we’ll see. I have some music that I do want to put out as bigger bodies of work, it just takes a little bit of organization to do that. So there’s music, y’all. As we unfold it and I have the opportunity to just release it, that’s my plan.

I love that so much. Sounds like I’ve got some good material for Signal Boost all semester long too, which is great!

We’re gonna be rehearsing together all semester, Tyler!

Just call me up. (laughs) So, my friend who actually helped introduce me to your music last year keeps asking me, “When is NISHA gonna tour?” You’ve been doing live shows in L.A.; do you have any plans to go on the road?

I would love to. That’s my goal for 2020 is to tour. So when we’re listening to the music, y’all, just manifest it, just close your eyes. I’m so excited. I’m rehearsing as though—I’m putting the show together while I’m playing these shows in L.A. and I have such an amazing team. I’m performing with dancers right now. My choreographer, Amita Batra, is actually based in classical Indian dance, so we’ve combined those movements with pop stuff and I get to perform with these dancers—it’s really incredible, we’re having a really good time. So yeah! We’re gonna tour this year. I’m asking y’all to put that in your intentional space as well so we can do it together. It’s gonna be so fun; it’s gonna be the best.

That sounds like an exciting show! So, you can take this any direction you’d like, but what would you say has either been the thing that made you know you were meant to be an artist, or the lesson you learned that you take with you every day?

That’s such a deep question, Ty! That’s dope. You know, I’m an artist who has done a lot of other things and a lot of other jobs on the road to being a full-time artist, so I will say I had to take a second at one point and just stop and ask myself, “What do you want to do? Is this what you want to do? Is this who you are? Are you an artist?” Because I was living my life that way but I was also getting distracted by different things, and when I would lack the self-confidence I wouldn’t apply myself in the best way. So that was grounding.

The lesson I take with myself every day is to take the time to be where I need to be, to do what I really want to do. My biggest answer to that has been meditation; I meditate every day. I started it about three years ago and it’s just my time. It’s my time to figure out what things are, before I have to deal with anything else or anyone else’s opinion. So I would say that: to take the time to just know yourself.

That’s wonderful; I love that. NISHA, thank you so much for joining us on WRFL.

Thank you so much for having me, Tyler. And thank you all for listening to the music. If you’re listening to the music and you’re connecting with it, come reach out and say hi. I mostly use Instagram, so come say hi to me there @thisisnisha—I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Signal Boost with Tyler Marie airs live on WRFL, Friday nights from 10pm to midnight.