Sing before you speak.
By EmmoLei Sankofa
NYALLAH (she/they) is a vocalist, songwriter, activist, community organizer & creative born & based in Los Angeles, CA. A recent graduate of the Thornton School of Music at USC, she has a passion for manifesting social change through her music.
Describe yourself in 3 words:
Reflective, giggly, passionate.
Can you tell us a little bit about your playlist?
It is Black as FUCK haha! I wanted my playlist to include a range of different types of Black womxn and femme artists, in both genre and persona. From groovy R&B to laidback hip-hop to Lo-Fi soul, I wanted to show our many dimensions. The list is primarily independent, underground artists, because I wanted to highlight archetypes of Black womxn that haven’t received much mainstream airtime (yet). It includes a few homies too; we gotta support the fam.
When and where did your musical journey start?
My mom always says before I was speaking I was singing my alphabet, so music has always been a part of my life. In 4th grade, I was in my first choir, and in middle school, I explored theater and musical performance more. I’m from LA, and for the first 2 years of high school, I went to Hollywood High School. There I began to immerse myself in more live performance; by sophomore year I was a main soloist for my show choir, cast in my first musical as a supporting role and performing all around LA. Performing became regular.
My junior year I switched to VAPA, a visual and performing high school in DTLA. It was the first time I was solely around creative minds, and it was ... liberating. Not too long after, I really dived into theater and music; I was a member of both our chamber and show choir; I was cast in another musical and starred as the female lead in the school’s production of an August Wilson play my senior year. The summer before my senior year, I was blessed to attend GRAMMY Camp, a prestigious music industry program held by the GRAMMY Foundation at USC for high school students interested in having a career in contemporary music. Held right at the USC Thornton School of Music, it was there that I first realized I could perform and create non-classical/Jazz music for a living. I was like: “ahh. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
You’re a fresh grad from the University of Southern California. Congrats! How has being amongst some of the best emerging musicians and artists fueled your artistic development?
Thank you! Thankful I got thru, that shit was rough. Being a full-time student while also having a budding music career was a balancing act: lots of late night school rehearsals and early morning sessions. I majored in Popular Music, a contemporary program at ‘SC that gives an overall knowledge of the music industry. Even though I was a vocal emphasis, I was required to take classes in music industry, ear training/theory, music history, drumming proficiency, Logic/ProTools, etc. We get the opportunity to truly hone in on our craft while learning the necessary information to be successful and verse musicians.
It was a privilege being able to study there, though. Even though it was tough sometimes, the information I learned there has prepared me for the music world at large. It’s not so scary...don’t get me wrong, it’s a little terrifying (laughs) but it’s not as scary as it would’ve been without going to USC. I’m thankful I had the privilege to attend on a nearly full ride. As a Black queer womxn, opportunities like that don’t always come so easily. I’m thankful every day I was able to study there.
The timbre of your voice is really unique and distinct. What top 3 vocalists do you gravitate to most in an effort to understand your own voice?
Thank you! Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, and India.Arie are my Top 3 vocally, with Erykah Badu/Lauryn Hill being in my top for style and storytelling specifically (their vocals are also fire, obviously). Vocally I gravitated to the first three because they have warm, deep alto (sometimes tenor) vocal ranges. I have a pretty low voice, so I’ve always gravitated to male singers or womxn with lower registers like theirs. Lalah has such a warm, rich tone, and her vocal abilities are ridiculous. Her riffs are insaneeee. Jill Scott is the definition of cool. She is one of the most transparent storytellers, talking her shit and speaking from experience. I respect that. Jill sounds so free when she’s singing, and I mean she’s REALLY sangin’. I’ve laughed (and cried) to many a Jill tune haha. India.Arie is the QUEEN of affirmation; she is love and she is light. When it comes to Black girl magick, India.Arie is it for me. So honest, so sweet, so filling. Whenever I hear a song by her, I swear she’s singing to me. They’re all powerful Black womxn, all talking their shit and speaking their truth.
Name a plant that you feel best represents your essence as an artist.
A sunflower. Really warm, sunny. Or a succulent, because they retain a lot (of water and otherwise).
Give us the backstory on your newest EP, reflections.
reflections highlights my journey of understanding my identity through the lens of healing and reflection, rather than disappointment and judgement. I started writing songs for the EP January 2016 and finished early 2018. When I first began writing, I was going through a lot of transitions: a relationship had ended, friendship dynamics had changed, my mental health was pushed to the forefront. The world I knew (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually) was being uprooted; my old ways of moving through the world didn’t suit me anymore. I didn’t know who the fuck I was. Seriously. I was so confused and didn’t trust myself. I was ashamed that I allowed some of the situations during that time to happen. Overly critical, overly judgmental. Kinda similar to where I’m at right now, if I’m being honest haha.
It was a really hard time. I had to do a lot of necessary internal work, unpack my demons. Call myself out, hold myself accountable. A lot of that work was done through making music. Writing affirmations in the form of lyrics to get through the anxious moments. Just letting go, and allowing myself to feel through it all. Next thing I knew I was writing an EP.
If you were given the opportunity to record your next project anywhere you wanted, where would you set up shop?
Ooh ... somewhere with heavy African roots/heritage. I’m seeing either an island or somewhere within the continent itself. Cuba came to mind immediately. Or Sierra Leone (I’m half). I want to explore happier, feel-good music. I notice I often write regarding my trauma or my healing. While I enjoy being vulnerable in that way, songwriting solely from that perspective is one dimensional. Something I am not. Sometimes, I just want to be silly and write a song I can dance around to. I feel like traveling to a tropical, Afro-centric country would be the environment to help bring that energy out. Give me some sun, a piano, Black people, and a studio, and I’ll be good.
Who’s one artist on your playlist we need to start following immediately, and why?
Melanie Charles. She’s from Brooklyn I believe. I stumbled onto her song “Trill Suite, No.1 (Daydreaming | Skylark)” earlier this month and have been in love ever since! That shit is like Love Jones and Black love in audio form. Her vocal range is amazing; I’ve listened to that song at all times of days, and it never gets old. Her older work is really dope too. I’m so excited to relocate to New York; there’re so many talented jazz musicians and vocalists that I can’t wait to collab with.
7.20 - Locs Festival - Brooklyn, NY