Q&A: Hip-hop artist Naya Ali talks vulnerability, career changes from marketing to music

Nataleah Small

Gritty. Honest. Vulnerable.

Naya Ali, a hip-hop artist born in Ethiopia and raised in Canada, said she writes songs that embody those emotions.

After beginning her career in marketing, Ali began to pursue music full time in 2017.

Ali released her first EP, Higher Self, in 2018 and part of her first full album, Godspeed: Baptism (Prelude), on March 20, the week she was scheduled to perform at South by Southwest. The Daily Texan spoke with her about the festival’s cancellation and how she has developed her unique sound as a hip-hop artist.

The Daily Texan: How did the cancellation of SXSW impact you as an artist?

Naya Ali: It’s (had) a great impact. South By is such a crucial event for creators, be it in music, in tech and everything else. The connections you can make and the boost it can give and the resources that you can have through this festival is sort of priceless. It was an opportunity to expand into the States even further, being from Canada. But I also believe in timing, and I believe everything is laid out in perfect order. … I trust the universe interest God that everything is lined up in the way it’s supposed to be.

DT: Tell me a little bit about you as an artist. How did you get involved with music?

NA: Music has always been part of my life. I grew up on country music and Motown. It gave me sort of an eclectic ear. I got into rap in my late teens, early 20s. It was a passion on the side, but because I didn’t know myself, I didn’t feel like my art was honest. So I stopped, and I focused on school, and I focused on my studies. I got a job in marketing, and I was working in marketing a couple years ago. On my birthday — I believe it was in 2017 — I told myself I was going to change my life in one year. I committed to it, and I quit my job eight months later. The funny thing is that things went so fast in the last couple years.

DT: Do you feel that you have found your sound, or do you think it will develop as you develop as an artist?

NA: Everything in life is in movement. So of course it is going to evolve and it’s going to change, but right now, I know that I’ve found my pocket. I did a lot of self-work, and just knowing yourself as a person, as a human, just makes it easier to be more honest and to create more from your heart to create more true music to yourself. I do feel like I’ve found that, but as life goes and as life moves, I will change too, right? So my music will change automatically.

DT: Tell me about a pivotal moment in your life that had a significant impact on the sound of your music.

NA: It was when I was making my first EP (Higher Self, 2018). Prior to working on that, I was going through such a hard time. I was really unhappy. I had started a business, and it failed. I graduated grad school, but I didn’t find a decent job. It was a super low moment in my life, but I went back to music as a form of therapy. … The more I used it as a form of therapy, the more I was crafting myself and my sound at the same time.