Interview: Niykee Heaton Takes Us On Her Journey From The ‘Net To A National Tour
Niykee Heaton refuses to let the unseasonably crisp 43-degree April temps in NYC bother her during her day of press runs. As she struts into VIBE’s Manhattan offices, she’s wearing a heavy, light-colored jean jacket and an oversized gray NBK (“Naturyl Born Killers,” her personal brand) sweatshirt, which work perfectly with the rather frightful weather outside. However, she can also be seen wearing two mighty-thin layers of flesh-toned leggings, which are more than likely designed to make you do a double take.
“Don’t wear pants!” she says to me with a grin. “You’ve got such a cute little body!” Her confident, no-f**ks given personality is not far off from the open book presence she’s known for on social media. You may be one of her 2 million Instagram followers, but the 21-year-old blonde bombshell is here to prove she can do more than break the Internet.
The Illinois-bred songstress gained immense popularity via YouTube three years ago by performing acoustic versions of hip-hop songs from the comfort of her bedroom, such as Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” and Trinidad Jame$’ “All Gold Everything.” Since then, her extreme work-ethic coupled with her mastery of self-promotion has helped her emerge as a bright spot in the pop music realm. She’s had the chance to work with Russell Simmons and Migos, she’s met with Kanye West in the studio, and has performed at events like UMG’s “Music Is Universal” SXSW showcase this past March.
The Capitol Records signee recently wrapped up her first headlining concert, The Bedroom Tour, in late 2015, which was sold out for all 20 stops. A “do-it-yourself” kind of gal, the Florida local self-wrote and produced her debut EP, 2014’s Bad Intentions, as well as her March 2016 mixtape, The Bedroom Tour Playlist, which features remixed and remastered versions of the songs performed on the tour.
Her steady rise as a musician has not been easy. Internet trolls and detractors have questioned if she is truly a musical force to be reckoned with, but it seems like she’s not letting anyone knock her hustle, proving that she is much more than just a pretty face. Read on to learn about your #WCW’s experiences both online and on the music radar.
VIBE: What’s it like making the transition from YouTube into the music industry?
Niykee Heaton: For me, it wasn't such a crazy transition, because I never really thought of myself as a “YouTube star.” I never wanted to be a Youtube star. I always thought it was kind of corny when people would just do covers for a living; I never wanted to be known as that. I'm grateful that I could get noticed through YouTube and by doing covers, but that was never a long term thing for me, so it was really easy to be like push that to the side, and be like, "Wait, this is my real music." So I kinda did that without thinking. It was my fans who had to catch up and make that transition, which they're slowly doing.
How has having a South African upbringing shaped you, because I know your mom is from there, right?
I was actually born in Illinois. My sister was born in South Africa and all my mother's side still live there, so I'm actually half. Even though I was pretty much raised in the United States and I only went there to visit family, I always felt like that was home. And I never knew why I felt so out of place in Chicago until I went back and I visited my family, and I was like "oh, this is where I'm meant to be." I love South Africa. That's where I want to retire, that's where I wanna be whenever I have downtime, but having that sort of background. My mom's family are very much hippies and very free-spirited. Very, very laid back, very about nature and beauty and everything like that, so I think having that side to my ancestry is pretty cool. I think that's where I get my free-spiritedness from.
What type of music did your parents play in your house when you were growing up?
My parents kind of had sh*t taste in music. I think my mom was into, like, Steely Dan or something. I was like "you're so annoying." My dad, I don't think he was a crazy music person either, it was more of my siblings. They were the ones who were very musical. My sister had a very deep appreciation for music, and my brother plays the mandolin and the banjo and everything like that, so that's where I kind of got all my music taste from, my siblings. They listened to a lot of folk and bluegrass, so I was kind of brought up on that. Then, when I ventured out and I could think for myself, I started listening to rap music, so it’s kind of like those two worlds collided.
Who’s the first rap artist that you were like, “oh yeah, this is my person”?
I remember exactly! 'Cause I was in fourth or fifth grade, and it was Lil Jon. I was like, "This. Is. Everything." That was the first type of music I got into.
A little crunk!
I guess it would be crunk music. I was like, “This is my life! This is who I'm meant to be!" I was like nine and my siblings tried to beat down my door, telling me to turn it down. I was like, "Nuh-uh. This is me now." [laughs]
What was it like working with Migos on your song “Bad Intentions”?
They're really cool. I've always been fans of them, and they're just the, like, sweetest guys ever. I was actually on tour, and I was in Atlanta performing and they stopped by to support. I had no idea until I got off stage and they were right there. They came in, performed a song and then, we went back to the studio with them and hung out. Then we went to the strip club with them. It was like a whole big adventure with them, but we ended up forming a really good relationship with all of them, and I'm in love with all three of them. I love them, they're honestly so cool. They’re one of the only artists that I've met who I've imagined them and perceived them a certain way, and when I met them, I was not disappointed. They were exactly what I thought they would be. They’re the best people ever.
When you’re writing songs, where do you get your inspiration?
I feel like I draw inspiration from everything around me, including my past and things that I went through. I feel like it isn't just the stories I've had to tell from my childhood, it's... I might be going through a rough patch right now, or I might be going through some things, and I draw inspiration from the frustration that I'm dealing with. Or, you know, some guy that didn't answer my text. I draw inspiration from pretty much everywhere. But I try not to write about specific places, events or people. I like to keep it broad and talk about emotions or moods or just a vibe, because I feel like people can relate to something more generalized rather than something so specific.
I get that. You don’t want them to be like, “Oh, she’s talking about herself. Why would I want to listen to that?”
Exactly. Not everyone got their heart broken by the guy named Jimmy on a Wednesday, but everyone can relate to pain and loss and stuff like that, so that's kind of how I like to keep my music: generalized.
One of your songs “Devil” (off of the Bedroom Tour Playlist) has a very blues-inspired sound. Did you listen to a lot of blues music by way of your siblings?
What's weird is that they never really listened to blues! But actually, the way I learned how to sing is that I found a Diana Ross Greatest Hits album, and I literally memorized and mimicked every one of those songs until I could teach myself how to sing. Because I didn't naturally know how; I sounded awful, I was like, tone deaf, and everyone was like "Can you f**king stop singing?" I had to teach myself how and that's how I did it. I listened to Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and a lot of Nat King Cole, and I feel like that kind of stuck with me. So I do have that kind of bluesy soul resonance that stayed with my vibe, mixed in with all the other weird components about my music. I feel like there's so many weird elements to it.
What’s your favorite song from The Bedroom Tour Playlist?
“Devil” is my favorite because it reminded me of AC/DC meets Juicy J [laughs]. But for us, we put Playlist out and everyone was like aren't you so excited? We were like, "No, we've been hearing these songs for, like, four years!" I've already written 30 new songs that I'm ready to put out, so we're very tired of them!
What "it factor" do you think you can bring to the music industry that we haven't already seen before?
I think the one thing about me that's very different from all the other artists and acts in the industry right now is that I really pride myself on being a real musician and a real artist. I was horrified when I found out that people in this industry don't write their own music. They have nothing to do with any of their songs, they just act like a puppet, and it absolutely horrified me because at first, people wanted me to do that. They wanted to take away and strip me of my identity and have me be this puppet. There's no f**kin’ way. I'd rather never be famous. I'd rather give all this up right now because you cannot take away my music from me. Most of the pop stars out right now, they're performers or they're recording artists or they're just really polished, amazing mannequins. But there's a difference between being that and being a musician, and I feel that's what I am. I'm a musician, I make music from scratch, from the ground up. I produce it, I write it, I sing it, I perform it, and I feel that's the way music should be. I want to bring that back into the industry. And also, hey, I can do it wearing minimal clothing, and I still do it well! You know? You can do all these things, you don't have to have guidelines or restrictions or rules. You can be exactly what you wanna be if you can do it well.
You get a lot of attention on social media, so how do you balance it out, so your presence doesn’t interfere with your music career?
I feel like it's a hard thing to do. For me, as a human-being, it isn't hard, but I feel like for everyone looking at me and perceiving me as a person, it's hard for them to accept me as a musician and also as a person who is just something pretty to look at. What sucks about society is they have this concept and this idea that if you are pretty to look at, and if you have a nice body and a nice face, then how dare you claim to also have any sort of talent. They want you to just be pretty and just be a model, so it's hard trying to convince people that, no, I can do both, I don't have to pick one. I don't have to wear a garbage bag over my whole body in order for you to take me seriously, and to take my voice seriously and my talents. No one should have to choose. You can own your sexuality and be empowered, and also claim the craft and be an intellectual. That's the message that I'm trying to push and the movement that we're standing behind. But it's hard, because people are very close-minded.
Do you want to be a role model in that sense, or would you rather not have that stigma?
I never wanted to be a role model, because I'm not perfect. I'm not like a little Disney Channel star who, you know... I'm a human being with flaws, and I never thought that I would have these young girls looking up to me and calling me their idol. It's so crazy to me. Before, I would have said "oh, hell no. I don't want any of that. I don't want to do any of that, I just want to do music." But, I think it's because of the girls who have reached out and told me their story and how I've helped them that I feel, not obligated, but I feel like I can't shy away from that now, because they almost kind of gave me that title, and I don't want to let them down. I'm just gonna keep pushing and keep doing what I'm supposed to do.
How do you push the haters away who have tried to discount your success?
At first it was hard because I'm not a mean person. I don't think I've ever bullied anyone online or said mean things or ever just tried to hurt anyone, so it's hard for me to understand that. That was really crazy to me, so I was like, maybe, I just don't look at any of those things. But what's hard is that in order to see the comments and messages from my real fans saying positive things, I have to go and see all the terrible things, too. In order to appreciate the fans who are there to show me love, I have to hurt myself by seeing all of these awful things. It's hard to balance, so I try to stay away from Instagram comments because that's where most of the [rolls eyes] is, so I try not to read Instagram comments. But Twitter is good. It’s mostly my real fans so it's not that hard.
I feel like back in the day, people were always showing midriff and skin, and today, it’s such a big deal. I don’t get it.
I don't know why society sexualizes nudity so much. It's just skin! Unless I'm literally demonstrating the use of dildos or having sex with someone right in front of you, I'm not being sexual. It's just me owning my body and being proud of it. I'm not doing anything sexual, just because people perceive it that way is not my problem, and I'm not gonna put on a cape to make people more comfortable with me being nude. I'm always so hot!
It’s always either so hot or so cold! I’m dreading summer, I absolutely hate it. Do you have bad humidity in Florida?
So much humidity! So, no clothes! I love the humidity though, to be honest, because it's another reason to be nude [laughs]. Just wear less clothes, I said it's fine!