Sudan Archives, Flume, Lucky Daye, & Grimes are some of the names you’ll find on a typical Naya Akanji playlist but she grew up listening to local stars (like Lagbaja & Plantation Boiz) and international acts (Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey). Naya’s musical influences and background are solid, but her self-awareness and belief in her art is even stronger. This was evident in her detailed responses to my endless questions, as well as the enthusiasm in her voice as she spoke about her journey, lessons, and hopes
Read the full interview with Naya Akanji:
Tell us a bit about yourself, growing up and the journey into music.
My name is Naya Akanji. I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. My early influences in music mostly came from listening to my dad play pop music, american pop music. That was the sound I grew up on. There was a lot of divas, a lot of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and just a lot of foreign music. And then, here in Nigeria, the artistes that were being played at that time were the likes of P-Square, Plantation Boys, Lagbaja. I was in love with Lagbaja growing up. Generally, I would say right now my music is somewhat a mix of both of those worlds that I was exposed to really early on.
There’s also a ton of choir background in there. As a preteen, I joined teenage choir and then as a teenager I joined the adult choir and I did that for probably a decade. I just have a lot of influences and lots of choir experience. And I think they influenced my sound and who I am today and built me up. In a nutshell, that’s the core of my influence in music.
I like stuff that sounds dark. I would always prefer music that sounds dark and emotive to happier sounds. Even though like happy music is also beautiful, expressive music, I generally gravitate towards darker sounds.
What influenced your decision to do music? What moment or person was integral to your journey into music?
Okay. So I have two very clear memories of that. The first one, I think I was around five. My dad was playing a Whitney Houston song. I did not know the lyrics. I was singing rubbish but he was encouraging me like, ” Go, girl, you can do it. ” and I continued singing. That is a core memory for me because he made me want to do it for him, to impress him and to show that I could, even though, obviously as a child, I was probably singing rubbish.
Then another really core memory for me was when I was around eight. I used to practice dance moves by myself in the living room, although now I’m a terrible dancer. I was watching TV one day, and there was this woman. I didn’t know who she was, but she was dancing so well. I was like, “This woman is dancing like I want to dance”. Long story short, I found out it was Beyonce and though I cannot dance now but seeing her do what she did with so much energy, it was divine. It was such an experience to watch her on TV. That moment really inspired me.
In those two moments, I knew I wanted to be an entertainer. I knew I wanted to be an artist.
You mentioned earlier that you tilt towards dark and emotive sounds but songs like ‘Faji‘ and ‘Girlfriend‘ (with SirBastien) are happier. How would you aptly describe the type of music you create?
Yeah. The thing is, as a creative, I am a conduit for art. It’s not just what is in me that I will pour out all the time. If I am in a room with creatives or I get inspiration that is beautiful or It’s just a very fun environment, I will create. It doesn’t always have to be dark music. For example, how ‘Faji‘ happened at the Ejoya recording camp. I was in a room with Tsuni and Sazsy Afroshii. Sazsy was playing beats and she was like, “Two of you are in here right now. Let’s just create something.”. The beat was very groovy and I freestyled some melodies. They all liked it, the group energy was great and the song was ready in a really short while and it came out really well. It is a pretty song
So, basically collaborating with other creatives will pull things out of you that you do not know were inside.
For your solo career, are you looking to explore happier sounds?
I’m looking to explore so many different sounds. I have been recording a lot and I’ve made some very interesting songs – the kind of songs that I would listen to from other people and I would love.
I think I’ve explored most of what I want to create by myself right now and at this point in time, I’m looking to do more collaboration and exposing myself to different creative energies. That’s the phase I’m on right now, and it’s been fun. I’m collaborating and exploring happy sounds. I’m doing dark sounds, weird sounds, electronic music. I’m doing everything because why not? Life is short. Do it now.
Your Dream Collaborations. Local/International artistes and producers?
I would really like to work with OdunsiTheEngine. I want to see where his head is at right now creatively and really explore that. I would also like to be in a room with Teni. She seems like a very fun-type creative, like it’s very instinctive and free for her. I’ll love to just soak in that creative energy, because it seems like a lot of fun when she’s creating.
Internationally. I want to create with Steve Lacy, because I think he makes really interesting music. I’d like to work with Frank Ocean if he ever comes out of retirement. I would love to be part of his creative process. I’d like to work with Grimes too. There are so many people I want to work with, way too many to start listing.
Interesting Choices. I’m curious, What does your playlist look like? What names would I find on a Naya Akanji playlist?
I’ve already mentioned Grimes because I listen to her religiously. I listen to Sudan archives, her last album, ‘Athena‘ is constantly on repeat. That’s the one album that I have downloaded on whatever device I’m using. Sometimes I listen to Aphex Twin because I like some of his work from the 90s, some of the electronic stuff he did. Chloe x Halle together as a group, they make really exciting music and it’s interesting that they are part of the creative process from the scratch . Listen to Lucky Daye, Shygirl, Flume. I fully believe Flume’s album, ‘Skin‘ is one of the best albums in this world.
Apart from singing, do you play any musical instrument? Do you produce or engineer?
I produce. I had one song I produced out earlier this year called, ‘Temp Peopl3‘ and there’s another on the Drummr Africa project, ‘Yamen Yamen‘. I’m still doing a lot more, production wise, I’ve tasked myself to make one beat a day because I’m actively trying to improve. I do not just want to have the idea. I want to see if I can actually bring to life what is in my head.
Instruments? Not really. If I need to accompany myself for a song, I can do something and just cover back up with vocals. But I’m not a very good instrumentalist. But yeah, I’m trying to make production my strong suite.
You also do 3D animations. Do you do graphics design too?
No, not really. I wouldn’t say I do graphic design but i do 3D animation and 3d art. Generally, I just want to bring out all the ideas in my head. I want to be able to bring to life, the pictures and sounds in my head.
What’s the creation process like for you? What are the things you do to get into the creative zone?
It depends. Sometimes it’s spontaneous; the music will always live in you. I find that I work best when I have a little process to follow. First, immersing myself completely in music, not necessarily the kind of music that I want to make. Just soaking myself in music helps me get into this zone of creation, of appreciating music, and birthing ideas for melodies. It does that for me beforehand. And then when I’m creating with someone else, say a producer, I usually prefer to be a part of the process instead of people sending me beats. I prefer we sit together and make together from the scratch. So basically I’m co-producing, but I’m not touching anything.
After that, I start with melodies. I just sing things that sound nice and pick the best sounding melodies. Record them and put words to them.
That’s very interesting. Let’s talk about live performances. What are your most memorable moments on stage?
It doesn’t matter if they know your songs. You just have to make sure that by the time you leave that stage, they know who you are
I can give you the first time I ever held mic. That was teens Church, I was 11/12. They let me lead something, it wasn’t worship (I was too shy for that. I can’t remember what it was,) but anyways, they gave me the mic and I was too afraid to switch the mic to the other hand. The mic was really heavy and I was feeling pain on one hand but I was so nervous and so afraid. I avoided looking at anyone’s face as I was singing. I felt pain in that hand nonstop for two weeks.
Since then, my confidence on stage has improved tremendously. I’m comfortable on whatever stage. Nobody can beat me, nobody can bite me and I sabi sing so there’s nothing that wants to happen. I’m confident that if the sound system stops, I can get everybody to still move by getting them to sing something until everything comes back together. I’m confident on stage. I don’t have any problems.
I see stage performances as an opportunity to; one, have fun. That’s most important for me, have fun and secondly, actually connect with people.
I think, with confidence, more than half of the work is done once you have control on the stage
I think Ayra Starr tweeted something about how that in some of the countries she’s performed in, the people don’t know her songs. So it doesn’t matter if they know your songs. You just have to make sure that by the time you leave that stage, they know who you are.
Yeah, What’s your favorite memory on stage?
My last one at the Mainland Block Party, a couple months ago. It was a lot of fun. I liked my outfit. It was cute and the crowd really responded me. That made me really happy. I loved that one and I’m looking forward to a lot more performances before this year end, so hopefully I’ll be able to create a better memory.
How’s support from family regarding the music?
When everybody thought it was just a hobby or it’ll just be in the choir, it was easier for my parents to wrap their head around it. It took a while, especially my mom, it took her a while to come around. I made it clear that this is what I want to do professionally. It took a while, but everybody had to come around, love and support it. I couldn’t be more grateful.
When did you start music professionally?
There’s some stuff from earlier, but I wasn’t serious so I don’t consider it actual music. In 2019, I put out my first single, ‘No Words’ and then 2020, ‘Vivid Emotions’ So that’s three years doing music professionally.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?
OK, so two things; One is the fact that it was kind of hard in the beginning to just say no to people trying to tell me what I should do. Everybody has their own idea of what they think would work based on what they know and what they like. They’re forgetting that you are an entirely different person and as far as you exist, there are people who like the kind of art that you like and you should be creating for them. Imagine if Obongjayar, for example decided to start doing Afropop, I do not think he would have popped. He might have surprised us but he’s creating his own art and he’s making it work for him.
Earlier on, I wish I had learnt how to just ignore people although I still did what I wanted eventually and I’m grateful for that. It just would have saved me a lot of uncertainty and a lot of confusion early on.
Would you rather be independent or sign a record deal, right now?
I feel like it depends on what comes my way. Ideally, the best situation for me or the one that will not let me fight people every morning and night is a distribution deal. That’s honestly ideal. But then again, if RCA comes to pick me up, do you think I will not sign?
In your three years of doing music professionally, what has been the most important lesson for you?
We are social beings. I know as creatives, we might say we’re introverts but If you don’t socialize, you will dieNaya Akanji
One thing I am still learning and will continue to learn is collaboration. I’m not even saying necessarily in creating music but just generally in life. I would say up until 2020, I had maybe like three friends on heaven and earth. During lockdown, there was nothing left to do with my time and with my life so I started responding online more. I discovered that life is easier when you have people to go through it with you. So, that’s one thing I’ve learned, collaboration in life in makes it easier.
We are social beings. I know as creatives, we might say we’re introverts but If you don’t socialize, you will die. It (Being Reserved/Isolated) doesn’t do anything for you. There are situations where I feel like I can just walk up to discussion and say hi but then I’ll be rooted to the spot with anxiety. I know it’s not my fault. It’s how I was made but I had to consciously start working my way out of that.
An important part of being an artist is the visual appeal. Have you been able to perfectly define your visual brand?
It’s easy for me to say my visual brand is just me being me but they (the audience) don’t know me. They only know what I show.
So far, I honestly cannot gauge how much I’ve been able to portray these parts of me. Naya Akanji can be lively, She can be a jokester, sometimes on Twitter or on her stories. However, I need people to sense the overall moodiness around the music and the pictures, and all of that because that. is the core of who I am. I like the blue hair, and I’m going to stick with it for a long time because it just represent that aspect of me. Also, I feel like I can be mysterious. I can be sensual, playful and funny but mostly I gravitate towards the darker things.
Do you have a stylist at the moment?
I don’t have a stylist but I have a creative director that we work together on stuff. She does make up, and we work together on visual ideas and stuff. She also directed the music video for ‘Closer’.
We sit down and think, ‘what can we do with our zero budget’? And then we come together with fun ideas. It’s really fun working with her. Her name is Kemi Awoyemi Jordanna. She’s my creative director, and she also sometimes makes clothes so she sort of styles me, but I don’t officially have a stylist.
Shout out to Kemi. Currently, do you do music full-time, or do you have a job at the side?
Music is my Full-time life now. This is my life.This is actively what I want to do because I weighed the options of getting a job by the side and doing music. I discovered one thing. It’s easy for people to say get a job to fuel your passion but I have seen what it has done to my colleagues or my friends who do music. They don’t do music anymore or music has now become the side thing. You cannot actively serve two masters. It is not very easy.
I’m giving it this year, actively. That was my goal – to actively create, work on music and then put it out. Afterwards, if I need to get a job, I will because man must chop.
Any project in sight?
Yes, I am working on a project. It’s something fresh. None of the singles released this year will be on it.
When should expect this project?
Probably next year but we might get a single to close up the year, though. We should expect the project from next year and I promise it’s going to be amazing. Working on it is already an experience in itself. I’m having some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. And yeah, I really cannot wait for everybody to hear.
What’s the goal for you in music? These days, success means different things to different folks for everybody. What would a successful career look like for you?
Yes, I want to sell out big stages. Yes, I want that.But you know what? I want to be able to look back about 25 to 30 years from now and see that I was able to score a movie for Disney, I was able to write a symphony for an orchestra in maybe, Berlin or someplace like that. I want to be one of the first artistes to perform on the moon.
There are certain things I want to be able to look back on from my pure white villa in Athens and be like, yes, I did everything I wanted to do.
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