In her Emmy-nominated HΘMΣCΘMING film, Beyoncé speaks candidly about feeling like she had to stay in a small box as a Black woman in the music industry, afraid to break barriers and push boundaries that had yet to be pushed. This is a sentiment that singer-songwriter Nerika has found with her own music: as a Jamaican American artist, she’s only recently begun to find comfort in creating whatever music she wants without feeling pressured to meet others’ expectations by producing certain Caribbean sounds. A graduate of NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Nerika has been utilizing all of the skills she learned in school to craft her unique sound, as well as create captivating visuals for each of her singles.
Nerika sat down with SPICY to discuss how she came to find her voice, the creative process behind her new music video, and her experiences as an up-and-coming artist of color.
Take me back to when you knew you wanted to pursue music. Did you have a musical background growing up?
I did have a musical background, but I’m from New Hampshire and my parents and entire family are very Jamaican, and very much so immigrants. So I always just felt this sense of shame when talking about music as a potential career. It was something that I always loved doing and it was definitely my passion. I feel like a lot of people around me knew that that was something that I loved, but as far as turning it into a real career, I always felt weird about it. I’m speaking for myself, but I feel like for most kids of immigrants, we feel this need to repay our family back for all of the sacrifices that they’ve made for us. They’ve always really talked about smarts and intelligence as things that they love and appreciate about people. They would always talk about how I’m going to be a doctor or lawyer or teacher, and I would be like “Yeah!” I did my best in school, was always doing extracurriculars, just knowing that the goal was to get into a really good school and get a good job that would make a lot of money so I could then give back to my parents and my family. And while that was all happening, I was simultaneously in all of the choirs, all of the musical theater shows, just always performing, always singing, taking music theory classes. I was just obsessed with music and art. So I think it was in high school when we had to make that decision: a “Where are you gonna go?” and “What are you gonna do?” type of thing. I kinda just had this conversation with my parents, and I was so scared. I was so scared to tell them I want to go to school for music. And the crazy thing is that they were super supportive. My dad was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and he was always super into writing and poetry and stuff like that, so he never really got the opportunity to pursue that. If you’re in Jamaica and you’re talking about big dreams like that, most people will side-eye you like, “What are you talking about? Get a job.” So he didn’t really have the opportunity for himself. He exposed me to reggae growing up, and honestly it’s weird because he has this really eclectic taste in music. He likes reggae and he put me on to all the old school stuff, but he really likes rock and Western music. So I just grew up listening to all different types of music. I applied to my top choice school—NYU’s Clive Davis Institute—and I knew I wanted to go there because not only is it about performance, but it’s teaching me about the business, and I wanted to be smart about my career. I wanted to know how the business worked. I wanted to know how to produce my own stuff if I wanted to, and just learn more about the industry, and not just studying singing. So I applied for that and I got in and got a really good scholarship, thank the Lord, because I could not afford that school otherwise! So I talked to them and they made me feel good, and I realized that a lot of that guilt that I had for myself was just me putting it on myself, because at the end of the day, they made those sacrifices so that I could take these risks and so that I could have the choice to do what I want and live out my dream. So that’s all they really want for me, and I’m so grateful because I know a lot of other kids don’t get that opportunity or that type of response from their parents.
When you first started making music, did you know what kind of sound you wanted to go for?
At first I was super into jazz because I was in the jazz choir in high school, and I thought I was going to be like some jazz artist because I grew up listening to Alicia Keys and I loved her. So I took piano lessons and stuff like that. That’s what I thought I was first going to be doing, but then when I got into NYU, that’s the first time I started actually recording myself. I had no idea about Logic, Garageband, and all those things; I really didn’t even know what they were until I got to NYU. So from there things shifted from very acoustic, live instrument type of feel to in-the-box production. I started working with Austin Crute, who is one of my best friends now. He literally produces everything for me, and he kinda introduced me to the world of in-the-box production and 808s and stuff like that. So when I really started making music, it was more in-the-box production type of thing, and now I’m kind of at a point where I kind of want to blend the two. I want to blend and create a fusion of what I grew up on: that very acoustic jazz stuff with in-the-box Caribbean music.
How important is it for you to communicate your identity and story in your music?
I think it’s really important because I feel like specifically with my identity, it’s not just, “Oh, I’m Jamaican.” It’s important for me to inject my identity because it’s gonna sound different than if Rihanna is doing a reggae track or if Koffee is doing a dancehall track. I think it’s important for other people to see, because when I listen to artists (especially the female artists coming out right now), I’m just so happy that they’re here because I feel so seen. Just being able to identify with different artists like Lizzo and Doja Cat, there’s so many people where I feel like this is who they are and it’s no longer like cookie cutter brands anymore. I feel like I’m just seeing real people that I really identify with. So for me it’s not necessarily like, “I have to make like a reggae song,” and being put into this Caribbean box, but it’s more about just naturally expressing my identity. And whatever comes out comes out. I grew up listening to alternative rock and reggae and R&B. How that all meshes together makes up who I am. It’s really important for me to just be truthful and honest and do what feels right so that other people can see it and be like, “Wow, yes! She doesn’t have to sound like Rihanna or like whoever else who’s Caribbean.” I think what I also want to show in my music is me being super vulnerable. Being honest can also be a form of confidence. I think that’s really important to show, and the artists that I really love do that beautifully.
Let’s talk about “Leave Me Alone.” What kind of emotions and thoughts did you want to deliver when you were writing it?
This song literally happened so quick. When I overthink the writing process, it’s just not it. And a lot of times the songs that feel the best just come out in the moment. I think I was just really annoyed, and I was with Austin and I think I just literally sang it. Like, I was annoyed with someone who was just texting me a lot and I was just like, “Leave me alone / ‘cause I don’t want to talk to you.” Literally just did that, and I didn’t even realize it until Austin was like, “Bro, that’s literally a song.” After that, I just went home and fleshed out and finished it. So that song I actually wrote pretty quickly. What held it up was the production process, because I’m kind of a perfectionist—trying to work on that! The production ended up taking a long time because I wanted to have that blend between the electric guitars, the drum samples, but also having that in-the-box tight, clean feel too. Initially I just wanted to have it be a fun song and have it give a message that shows you can like someone and you can be interested and want to date and have fun, but you don’t have to necessarily settle down. And I feel like that guys usually have that narrative a lot: being swaggy and having all these girls and blah blah blah. And then I feel like when women have that role of dating around and doing that, a lot of times it’s oversexualized—and there’s nothing wrong with that either if that’s you—but I feel like there’s a lot of middle ground being lost. Just the instances of exploring dating, exploring love, and not necessarily wanting to be tied down to anything. I’ve honestly never been in a real relationship in my entire life, so I’m just not into rushing anything and I just feel like there’s always been this huge pressure to. “Why aren’t you dating anyone?” “What? You don’t have a boyfriend?” I just feel like so many girls feel like they need to be in a relationship to be whole. Even with my friends, I try to encourage them like, “You have so much going for you and there’s so much of yourself that you don’t even know yet.” There’s so much that you can explore within yourself, and then finding that person once you already know what you like and what you don’t like makes it even more beautiful. And obviously there’s nothing wrong with dating; dating is awesome. But it’s just about putting yourself first and knowing your limits and having fun here and there, but you don’t have to have a formal relationship. If you find that person, you find that person; that’s dope. But there really is no rush. We have our entire lives! In the bridge [of the song], I wanted to show that vulnerable side of myself. Yes, I’m confident in who I am and yes, there’s a reason why I’m taking my time with relationships, but it’s also kind of scary too. There’s a fear of rejection and that fear of being vulnerable and opening up yourself to someone. It’s a lot to be vulnerable and date and be committed, so I wanted to show that too towards the end.
How would you say “Leave Me Alone” differs from your other songs?
I don’t even know what the common theme is with my songs. For right now, I’m just going to say the common theme within my songs is me. I haven’t been working on an album for a reason; I’ve been working on singles and visuals for those singles because I just want to explore and see whatever comes out. I feel like I have so much time, and I feel like there’s this huge pressure to make it and pop. Yes, we should fight for our dreams, but at the same time, we’re so young and there’s so much time. I just wanna explore my craft and perfect it and see what comes out, which is why I’ve been taking my time with releasing. I want to make sure I love the product; I really believe in quality over quantity. As far as “Leave Me Alone,” it differs from the other songs that I’ve released so far in that the production is more of an open, natural vibe. It has those in-the-box high hats and stuff, but there’s more acoustic elements in there, and there’s a lot more background vocals. So I think just having that balance between the two is more along the lines of the music I want to continue making. I feel like it’s really important to show aspiring artists’ process of coming up, because I think a lot of times artists—even myself at one point—feel that pressure to pop. But if you love this, at the end of the day, you’re doing what you’re doing because you love it. Not that we want to be doing it for free—shoot, we tryna make money!—but we could be doing this and going on with our lives and just pouring our hearts into this art without any type of praise or validation. So if you keep the art close to you and keep what that means to you close to you instead of all the outside voices and opinions, it’ll just be like a healthier journey. And I just feel like it’ll be more natural; things will happen the way they need to, everything will fall the way that it needs to, and then you can just focus on what’s actually important. Even when you do pop, there’s going to be something else that you’re looking at that you’re trying to get to. You just have to be centered within yourself. And I think it’s so important to just prepare yourself mentally and just stay ready in that way so that regardless of what happens, you’re straight. There’s always gonna be so many crazy variables around you regardless of whether you’ve popped or not. And when you do pop it just increases. It took a toll on me in college, just feeling like I had to be a certain type of artist and a certain type of person, and now stepping I feel like I have this refreshed, more honest perspective of the industry and who I want to be as an artist.
When you were conceptualizing the “Leave Me Alone” video, what did you want to portray?
I wanted this video to be super true to me as a person and my dating life. I wanted it to be a way for like my potential audience to get to know me more, because I feel my last video “Runnin’” was just more cute visuals, but it wasn’t very personal. So when I was conceptualizing the video, I had two options: to basically either go like super abstract with visuals and stuff that doesn’t necessarily relate to the video but looks really dope, or just playing super true to the lyrics and the storytelling of it. And I felt like the song was just begging for me to go with the storytelling. Even if it’s cliché, I just felt like I needed that. I wanted it to be cute and super playful, but I also wanted it to be kinda funny and goofy. I’m not really the romantic, gushy type, so I still wanted it to be funny. So I just had this idea of someone stalking me, but like they’re not actually stalking me; I’m just crazy and the guy’s actually really sweet and nice, but because I’m not a relationship person, I’m like “Why is he following me? Why is he stalking me?” So once I got that general idea, I was thinking of locations and scenes, and I was like, “Let’s like break it up into different settings.” Soccer is a huge part of me; I started playing soccer when I was like 6 years old; my dad taught me how to play and then I played for 12 years competitively. So soccer was one of my first loves, honestly, along with music. So I knew I wanted to put that in the video somehow, and came up with the soccer practice idea. As far as some of the other scenes, I really love the feel of an outdoor party and performance scene, so I really wanted that to be a part of it too. I just wanted to incorporate so many different types of people so that everyone feels seen, and it’s just a safe, fun environment for everyone to be themselves. For the bedroom scene, because I’m an introvert with extrovert tendencies; I really enjoy my alone time, and my room is my place where I feel the most peace, where my energy is restored, where I can process everything, and just be centered. So I wanted the video to begin with me just being in my room and contemplating. Then Kamau (the director) had the idea of him blowing up my phone on Instagram. From there, once I got the foundation of the ideas and the scenes, then my friend Kamau came on board to direct, and he took all of the ideas I had and completely enhanced them and fleshed them out, and it turned out really well. I’m so happy with it. And he’s so talented. Working with him was wonderful because I feel like when working with men they always have this way of mansplaining or belittling or making it seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about, but with him, it was so great because I felt like we were equals and he would listen to my ideas. So it was just a really healthy experience. A lot of the people who worked on the project (including Kamau) were NYU students too, along with friends and peers, and it felt really good. And then Holyrad ended up coming on board; they’re a production company and studio who are really here for independent artists—especially the artists of color—which I love. They actually sponsored the video; they really loved the project and believed in it. They always wanna support independent projects and just artists in general, regardless of the budget that you have. I think that’s so important and necessary because a lot of us are poor out here and can’t afford crazy productions and budgets. And for me being a perfectionist, I hate to sacrifice quality, so I’m so grateful that they came on board for this because it really enhanced the entire project. I used to write little plays and skits when I was younger and I used to really love acting too, and I knew that with this song, because there was such a storyline, I wanted to be able to explore that side again and have this skit, and I feel like it turned out really well. I feel like this project kind of allowed me to get in touch with myself in a way that I wasn’t necessarily able to and didn’t even have the bandwidth or energy to when I was at NYU. I’m really glad that I got the chance to work on this project post-grad because it allowed me to get in touch with all of the older parts of Nerika that were kind of just left in the dust while trying to fight for my life at NYU.
What would you love to see for women of color artists in the future?
I’d like for them to not feel like they have to settle, and not feel like they’re not worthy of success to the point where they’ll take any opportunity that comes to them right away. Everyone’s journey is different, but I am very much here for working independently, building your audience to the point where you know yourself and you can build leverage, so that these companies aren’t like putting you in crazy deals where you’re not making any money or you’re trapped for so many years. I just really want there to be more access earlier on for aspiring artists, especially women of color and black artists. I would hope that they’re able to see that careers in the arts aren’t just some pipe dream. I feel like a lot of people—especially where I grew up, along with people from other countries—look at those things and think they’re just pipe dreams. Getting access to learn how the business works and how to develop your craft early on will allow you to succeed. There will be more women in the business succeeding and owning stuff too: not just succeeding in the business, but owning their masters, owning their music, owning their own labels if that’s what they choose to do, and just having full control over their art and not jumping into things because they think that they have to at that moment. As far as representation, it’s already happening, but I hope we get to a place where black women are celebrated but not necessarily just as a token. I just want it to be where black people can live their lives whether they’re awkward, thick, whatever, and live it and be true in it and do what they need to do without having to be some token artist who’s the artist doing this because they’re black and they’re talented and it’s unheard of.
How have you found navigating the music industry as an up-and-coming black woman?
I’m still pretty new and I’m just now really beginning this journey, and it’s weird because executives (even at NYU) who are interested often want to put you in this box. They don’t want you to speak out too much. They like your brand and they’re here for the vision, but they don’t want you speaking out too much because then you’re taking too much control, you’re too aggressive, you’re doing too much. And when they don’t, it kind of goes back to the tokenism thing. They’re like, “I could see this doing well because you fit X, Y, and Z boxes,” and it’s not even about you anymore. You’re checking off these boxes that they think could be marketable. I’ve been in experiences where I have ideas about things that I want to do to help people and push kids of immigrants forward; I’m still figuring it out, but I just have ideas and I know that this is something that I want to move forward with in the future. And I was told that I’m not an “expert” and not qualified to do this. It’s crazy that someone—especially someone who’s white—can look at someone who’s black, who’s a kid of immigrants, who has had these experiences, is not as privileged as you are, and tell them that they’re not qualified enough to speak on their own experiences. Who are you to say that to? I just feel like that happens all the time; people are just like shut down. This is my experience, and I know that other people are feeling this because I’ve literally dealt with it. It’s weird that you think that you know more than the people who are actually going through it. It’s crazy. I’m just really hoping that things can just be normal. It’s either black women being fetishized, or they’re put on this crazy pedestal, but it’s not even about them. It’s because of like others’ white guilt and them wanting to try to do something for the community, but it’s not genuine.
I’m going to be releasing my next single called “Bachelor,” and I have more singles on the way, more music videos on the way, and a lot more content that I’ve done in the past. I’m really excited about these projects, and also just stepping out of just like the music realm. There’s so much more that I’m interested in and there’s so much more that I want to do with my career than just music, so there’s other stuff that I have planned that has to do with art and the world. I just want to create impact in whatever way I can, and I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to one category. So I’m really excited to explore that. And pretty soon I want to get into directing my own music videos. I already have a hand in it from conceptualizing and executive producing, but I want to fully direct my stuff. But that’s just going to come from working on more projects and getting more experience. I just want to have more control, continue to do my independent thing, and find people who connect with me. I also wanna continue bringing together fellow cultural misfits and black women and sharing my story on a smaller scale and just building that community. I think that’s a wonderful place to start. And I say “cultural misfit,” but I don’t even think that label shouldn’t even be that because I think the way that you express your culture is the way that you express your culture. I used to feel like you had to express your identity in a certain way and be a certain type of black person, because growing up in New Hampshire, there weren’t that many black people, so the only ideas and references that my peers got from black people was what they saw on TV. And like if you weren’t that type of black person, it was automatically like, “Are you even black?” And then on top of that it was like, “Oh, are you even Jamaican? You don’t have an accent.” And I’m like, “Y’all, I grew up in New Hampshire with you; how else do you think I’m going to talk?” So I felt for a long time like I was a cultural misfit, but now especially like in the era that we’re in now of seeing so many different types of people emerge and being represented, I don’t even think that’s what it is. It’s more just about how you express your identity and your experiences, and I think it’s really beautiful that we all do that in different ways.