Words: Sydney Gore

Photography: Nailah Howze

Nija Charles was destined for greatness. Her first name translates to “truth” and “successful” in Sanskrit, words that resonate with the 22-year-old artist’s approach and trajectory. “I think my mom knew to name me Nija, because of everything that it means,” she says, on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “My whole life is based on trusting myself, walking in my truth and not settling,” she adds, pointing to a tattoo on her upper arm that reads “trust your gut.” “Literally every decision I’ve made, especially in my career, has been about relying on my first instinct. It’s never steered me wrong.”

Music was clearly Nija’s calling, though few could have predicted that she would become one of the most in-demand songwriters of her generation. Growing up in the suburbs of Union, New Jersey, Nija was constantly surrounded by music. Visits to her grandmother’s house were soundtracked by R&B, neo soul and jazz, and her aunt and uncle showed her the ropes of FruityLoops production software. In school, she learned how to play a variety of instruments, and thanks to YouTube tutorials, she got deeper into production. At age 13, Nija cut a deal with her mother; if she got straight As, she could get a Casio keyboard. After that victory, Nija eventually upgraded to a Mac laptop to get familiar with Logic software.

Music production became the foundation for Nija’s creative process, even though her songwriting got attention first. She began singing on top of her beats, a process that came naturally to her, too. After graduating from high school, Nija headed to NYU’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute, in order to pursue a degree in music recording and production. After school hours, she grinded with interning, beatmaking and sharing her work on Instagram.

When presented with life-changing opportunities in music, Nija decided to cut her time at college short. In the span of three years, she’s teamed up with top collaborators in the industry, written hits that dominated the charts and earned two Grammy Awards. Of course, Nija is still writing her legacy.

We caught up with Nija to talk about her story and vision for the future, timed to the futurism- and technology-inspired WMNS Air Jordan VI.

Growing up, your mother made it mandatory for you and your sister to play at least one instrument. Can you explain the thought behind that?

So, my grandmother actually did the same thing to my mom. My mom wanted my sister and I to be cultured and see if we liked reading music. Throughout my youth, I learned how to read music and play a couple of instruments. The first instrument I played was the flute. I really wanted to play the clarinet, but my fingers weren’t big enough, because I started playing in third grade. In sixth or seventh grade, I switched to the saxophone, because I finally started growing and was able to reach the notes. I learned how to produce music in high school from learning to play piano by ear.

Knowing you were originally drawn to saxophone and flute, instruments that might sit more in the jazz and improvisation realm, how did learning instrumentation create your foundation as an artist?

It helped me create a foundation where I know what things are supposed to sound like, the pockets of where to put my melodies — what notes and harmonies work. When you learn something as a kid, it’s easier to grasp; it becomes a part of you. Music production and songwriting come so naturally to me, because I learned all of these tools when I was younger.

You mentioned that you learned to play piano by ear. Were there any other signs like that, where music just came naturally to you and felt like it was your destiny?

Honestly, it was what I would do in my spare time. Even before I started doing music production, my favorite thing to do was just listen to music. My mom bought me a Walkman, and I would literally go to summer camp with my headphones and a bunch of CDs, just changing them in and out. It was yet another sign that I was destined to do this, because I wasn’t taught to love music, it’s just “in” me.

You’ve talked about flying to L.A. on weekends during college and deciding against your study abroad program. What was your mindset when you started at NYU? Did you go in ready with a “five year plan,” or was there any anticipation that you might leave early?

I don’t know if I’ve talked about this in any other interview, but the crazy thing is, I had a gut feeling that I wouldn’t finish. I went into college not knowing what I was going to do. Also, because my major was recording music, yet my concentration was production, I wasn’t thinking about writing or artistry. Going in, I was like, “I’m in New York City, so I’m just going to network and see what happens.” I interned at a recording studio called Blastoff, which helped a lot. I got to meet a lot of the artists and A&Rs who I work with now. I got to know my way around the studio and mixing, and that helped me with my recording and writing process, as well.

My mom was paying for NYU out-of-pocket, and she was like, “I can only afford two years, so I don’t know what you’re going to do.” My second year started, and NYU made it mandatory for my year to study abroad in Berlin. I was like, “You know what? I need to get a publishing deal, so let me really focus on making songs.” I would make a song a day and post snippets on Instagram, where other A&Rs and artists started asking me to pen stuff for their beats or ask for the songs. That’s how I got the Lecrae song, “Lucked Up.” That really spiraled and became the start of my career.

I ended up just taking a leave of absence. During my spring semester, I was going back and forth to L.A., meeting A&Rs and publishers. After my first visit, I got my first offer, which really got the ball rolling. Every week that I went, I would take another meeting and get another offer. At that point, I knew I’d have enough money to move to L.A. and pay for college. I ended up not going back to school.

What gave you the confidence to walk away from finishing your degree? How did your friends and family react when you made that decision?                                            

I wouldn’t say that I was ready to walk away from my degree, I was just ready to put a pause on it. I also met with the SVP over at RCA, J Grand, who’s like my music father mentor. He told me, “You’re going to be one of the biggest songwriters one day, you have to leave school.” He’s actually the one who convinced my mom to let me leave school. After we had dinner with him, she was like, “You know what, you’re right. We’re going to do what we need to do, so you can follow your dreams.”

Can you talk us through your creative process for both songwriting and production? How has it evolved over the years?

For production, it’s really anything that goes. It doesn’t matter if I start with drums or a keyboard, it’s really just trial and error. There’s no right way, and there’s no wrong way. With writing, I’m listening for the right chords or beat — something that inspires me in the music. Then, I’ll go in the booth and freestyle melodies and words at the same time. Melody is the most important thing for me, because that’s what everyone remembers. Sometimes, the whole song will come out. Other times, there’s just one word that makes sense to me, and I’ll work with it. I make the song in the back of my mind as I go. Like, I’m not thinking about it, but the back of my mind is thinking about it.

How would you describe what it feels like when you’re in the zone and the words and ideas are just flowing?

It’s the most therapeutic experience, because it feels like everything is right in the world, and there are no mishaps or bumps in the road. When everything starts to come together, it’s like — it’s done.

Whether during Covid times or any other time, do you have a preference for sessions, writing alone, being with the artist you’re writing for or otherwise?

I always want the artist in the room, because it’s much easier than me shooting in the dark and not knowing what to write about. There have been many times when I’ll go into the studio, and the artist isn’t there, and it turns out they had something different in mind. The most beneficial outcome for me is when the artist is in the room, and we can both vibe and really get things going.

Now that I’m in L.A., I have to schedule sessions and go to them. I can’t just cancel, I have to try. What makes it work is finding something that inspires me, it can be a chord or a melody that just sparks something.

What was going through your mind when you got your first No. 1? What did that moment mean to you, especially since you had been open about it on social media and manifested it within a matter of years?

When I got my first number one, it was a weird time. I was actually on a Zoom call with the Black students from my college, trying to voice our frustrations and things we felt needed to be done. I was a little angry at that time, and I remember my sister texting me, blowing up my phone. I was happy, but I was in a weird place, because I was mad and happy at the same time.

I just didn’t know how to celebrate the number one. It was during quarantine, so I couldn’t go outside, and they had us on lockdown in L.A. I celebrated on FaceTime with my family once everything settled down. I’m very grateful, and I’m like, “Yeah, I did it!” At that moment, I was definitely like, “Man, I wish the world was in a better place for me to be able to accept this right now.”

What are some of the main changes since you started out? With or without Covid, what is your schedule and life like these days? Are you having to turn projects down?

My life has really taken a major turn since two and a half, three years ago. I look back, and I’m like, “I was literally just in my dorm room, and now I’m one of the most sought after creatives.” There are times when I have to turn down projects because of how busy my schedule is. I never really thought about how important time is, because I was just having fun, but now I’m like, “Man, time is everything.”

I hate turning down projects, because I’m still a fan of music and these artists at the end of the day. I can’t do everything. I had to learn the hard way. When I first moved to L.A., I was doing so many doubles, and I got burnt out. I had to learn self care and really space out the sessions.

Between talking about your solo career and hinting at future collaborations, it’s very clear that you have a lot of ambition and determination. Why did you decide to start your own production company?

I really wanted to start my own production company, because I feel like that’s what needs to be done. I don’t want to be seen as just a songwriter. My purpose is to do more than songwriting. I need to change the world. By having my own production company, I’m able to sign other producers, songwriters and artists and give them a platform of their own.

How would you describe your personal style?

My style is a cross between minimalistic and over the top. I wear very basic things like graphic tees, but then I’ll do something over the top like put a knot in the shirt or roll up the sleeves a certain way. I’ll wear reflective or patent red leather pants to give the outfit a pop.      

“My purpose is to do more than songwriting. I need to change the world.”

What is it about this Air Jordan VI that speaks to you and your style?

What I really love about this particular Air Jordan VI is how the black is almost shimmery, it’s very sleek and chic. That’s what I try to convey in my style and the clothes I wear. It’s simple, but it’s not simple to wear. Along with the baby blue inside, there’s just enough color to have a pop.

How did you learn about sneaker culture and Jordans growing up?

Sneaker culture is one of the biggest things where I’m from. Your shoes are one of the biggest parts of your outfit. You can wear a basic white tee and some jeans, but if you have on some crazy IVs or Concords, everyone’s on you. I remember being in high school, and some people had little toothbrushes to clean their sneakers. My uncle had a lot of sneakers, and my mom always wanted to get me the best, so I learned about Jordans pretty quickly.

What’s next for you?

Overall, I’m just going to expand as a brand. I’ve worked with so many people as a songwriter, and I’m starting my production company, so I’m going to take on more projects and do what I love to do. I’m going to start my own artistry and put my own songs out. I want to get into TV production and just make sure that I’m seen as a mogul, not just a songwriter, because there are so many things I want to do. So really, the next step is expansion.

 The WMNS Air Jordan VI is available starting September 24 on Jordan.com, SNKRS and at select retailers.

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