by Dom Jones
I first saw Niya Norwood sing last semester at a Berklee Black Student Union open mic. I immediately thought, “This singer has the kind of reckless abandon that we all hope to be free enough to evoke in our music.” After that initial sighting, I hardly ever saw her around campus, and I never heard her sing again, until her event, “Just Because,” came across my timeline on Facebook. Excited at the chance to see Niya take on a full set and original music, I put the date into my calendar, and quickly arranged an interview. I sat down with the 4th semester voice principal a few minutes before the show to chat about why she came to Berklee, her musical inspirations, and what she hoped people would leave her performance with.
“I didn’t want to come to Berklee. That one right there… [Pointing at childhood friend, Corbin Johnson] he was the only one who really knew that this place was where I was supposed to be. I was really stuck on musical theatre, and I transferred schools a couple of times, and I really still wasn’t happy. Then, I came here, and everything sorta made sense. “
Niya brought an army of well equipped, well rehearsed singers to back her up, making the entire performance feel more like a large orchestration that could have been in the BPC. As 1A in 1140 Boylston filled up with excited listeners, Niya gave her thanks to the audience and began the show. From the very first song, her range was apparent, swinging from a low contralto up towards second soprano. A riff heavy singer, she told me that some of her musical inspirations were, “Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, that guy sitting right there,” at which point I pause her and ask who he is, “his name is Cedric Jackson. Lisa Fischer is a good inspiration for me, Lalah Hathaway, those are some good names.” And you can definitely hear how Lalah’s influence has impact her sound and the manner in which she controls her tone and resonance with a high level of precision.
Niya shared the spotlight throughout the night, partnering up with Xenia Manasseh for a magnificent and heart stirring rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “Blue Ocean Floor.” Xenia’s voice is complimentary to Niya’s, even though she seems hesitant to take lead. When she does, what we hear is an astounding clarity and thoughtfulness around intervallic and melodic choices, and a pureness that is like looking into the sea and being able to see its floor. While Xenia respectfully sits in her space as a supporting singer, her lead vocals push her appropriately into the spotlight with Niya, if only for a moment, much to the enjoyment of the audience, who is “oooohing and aaaahing” throughout the night.
When her previously mentioned musical inspiration, Cedric Jackson, takes the stage with her to sing Chris Brown’s “Do Better,” the friendship and connection is immediately apparent. Cedric doesn’t hold back, and neither does Niya, their vocal conversation an exercise in acrobatics that brings merriment and wonder to the ears. I hear a girl behind me say, “Dang. I don’t belong at Berklee, guys,” compounding the complete astonishment at the level of skill Niya and her friends have harnessed. Her duet with Cedric brings a male perspective to the emotional sensitivity that her show is wrought with, and he leaves the stage to rousing applause.
When Niya launches into an original tune, “Black Girl Magic,” from her forthcoming project Healing, I begin to understand her more as an artist. This is her moment to send a personal message to the audience, but also to reinforce one with herself. As she sings, “Girl, you know you got that black girl magic,” I can’t help but think that she first sang this as both an encouragement and an admonishment to never doubt the potency of her gifts. When asked what she hoped the audience would leave with she tells me, “Really just that music is just life, it equates to life. It is what I live for, what I breathe, and is one of the most important things to me aside from family and friends. It’s just everything in the world to me, music is life, and if you feel the same way about it as well, you need to find a way to express that.” Thanks for giving us life, Niya, on a cold Friday night in Boston.
Keep up with Niya on her website: nnorwood.wix.com/artist