Nay Nichelle likes to write outside. There’s something inspirational about natural sunlight, she says, especially at sunrise and sunset, when the light changes quickly and just so. It’s hard to put the reason for the inspiration into words, she says, but those moments often lead to lyrics for the R&B and pop singer’s next song.
“Nature is a safe haven for me,” she says. Like most of us, she gets caught up in technology, in social media, and all of the accompanying emotional and intellectual stresses. When she takes the time to be present in nature—in the mountains, at the beach, even taking a sunset car ride with the windows down—she’s able to listen to herself and just be.
Charlottesville’s mountain setting is still somewhat new to Nay Nichelle, who grew up in Choppee, South Carolina, and moved to Charlottesville in 2015. And while nature has only been inspiring her music for a few years, music has been a centerpiece of her life for a long time.
She regularly sang in church with her grandmother (who herself was a singer), and her mom had a solid collection of R&B, old-school hip-hop, pop, and country CDs that they listened to in the car. Nay Nichelle often snuck into her mom’s room and rifled through the jewel cases and toted her favorites—Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain, Marc Anthony, Carlos Santana—back to her own room, where she’d listen to the music for hours.
On a friend’s recommendation, she started singing more seriously in college and eventually wrote her own lyrics to original beats.
Nay Nichelle writes most of her lyrics when she’s feeling down. It’s when she feels best able to express her genuine self, and she doesn’t sugarcoat what she’s feeling. Take, for example, “But I Made It Tho,” off her 2017 release The Seeker VII. Written at Beaver Creek Park during a particularly difficult period in her life, the song captures how on that day, she very acutely felt the heavy weight of depression and the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes with carrying it around. But there she was, writing lyrics and melodies, making it through the day.
The singer says she writes for herself and “for the next person who’s maybe going through it,” because you never know who might need the encouragement. “Dealing with depression is really hard, and you don’t want to expose it as much to people…because they don’t [always] know how to take it,” she says. But if more of us are familiar with mental illness and mental health, perhaps we’ll know how to better care for and understand those who face it.
This isn’t to say that all of her songs discuss depression—she has songs about joy, songs about love. Some, like “No War,” another track off The Seeker VII, are inspired by black history and culture.
Nay Nichelle believes that those who have the talent and the opportunity to make music are obligated to use their platform for good, and she’s troubled by artists who use good-sounding music to send a negative message. Think about it, she says: Music is everywhere. We listen to it at home, in the car, at work; it’s in commercials, on television shows, playing overhead in malls and grocery stores. The question for her is, What positive message do I want to send?
“I’ve always wanted to use my platform to bring attention to the issues at hand,” she says, and thanks to an Adele “Hello” parody gone viral (see sidebar, below), her platform is sizable. At publication time, her Facebook page had more than 101,000 likes, and more than 15,500 people follow her Instagram account. And her audience keeps growing: She recently received social media props from singer Macy Gray, who liked and shared one of Nay Nichelle’s videos.
Nay Nichelle is passionate about bringing attention to issues of LGBTQ+ rights, of racial and social justice, especially where black women are concerned. “The silencing of black women is a problem,” she says, and so she’s currently working with frequent collaborator Doughman on a song to help amplify these women’s voices. She holds the megaphone not just in her music, but in her commentary, too: She often reminds and informs her social media followers that the whole conversation about Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues was started by a young black woman, local teen Zyahna Bryant.
Music is “a way of being more vocal,” of lifting people up with words and with spirit, with kindness and hope, says Nay Nichelle. And once the beat’s on and the singing’s begun, it’s not hard to get people to listen. “People love music,” she says. “Of course they’ll listen to it.”
In January 2016, Charlottesville-based singer Nay Nichelle hoped to nab tickets to Adele’s Washington, D.C., concert. But tickets sold out in a matter of minutes, and those lucky enough to get them later sold them online for hundreds, and, in some cases, thousands of dollars. Nay Nichelle decided to ask Adele herself for a favor…by writing some new lyrics to the star singer’s hit “Hello.”
“Hello, Adele, can you hear me?/ I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia, dreaming/ But I can’t pay that price/ I gotta pay for rent, gotta pay for light/ I gotta pay for WiFi,” Nay Nichelle sang in her comical plea that was also apt commentary on outrageous concert ticket prices.
“Hello from the parking lot/ I’m so glad I got a close spot/ ‘Cause I can’t see you, but I know you are here/ A hundred damn dollars/ Adele that ain’t fair.”
“Hello From the Parking Lot” went viral—the video received millions of views, millions of shares. Nay Nichelle was interviewed by a variety of entertainment websites, including BuzzFeed, about her parody, and even heard from Adele’s people. She didn’t get the concert tickets, but she did gain a bigger audience for her original music.