When published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s beloved children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland critics and bewildered adults. Even today, many cannot comprehend the book’s illogical anthropomorphic characters like the Restless White Rabbit. The ridiculous situations in the story, including the Mad Hatter’s never-ending snack, make some people wonder, “What’s the point?” “
But not Nia Johnson. 23-year-old R&B melodist Charlotte who stars as Nia J named her debut EP, which she released in September, Rabbit hole, based on the White Rabbit’s gateway to the original world of Bizarro.
“I was drawn to Alice in Wonderland because I felt my journey through this music ensemble was like… falling into a rabbit hole, finding out who I am and trying to understand the world around me “, says Nia J.
The EP is a series of elliptical reveries and discoveries, with seven delicately crafted songs that combine silky confessional vocals with thrilling, almost subliminal R&B beats and stacked ethereal harmonies. To listen Rabbit hole it’s like stumbling across a secret diary filled with hard-earned, insightful revelations about the pain, anxiety, and kindness that can come from love. It’s as intimate as a human heartbeat, and as magical as a haunted music box.
Nia J will perform this set of songs, along with her previous singles, on November 12 at Snug Harbor. The singer and keyboardist is featured on a show hosted and hosted by local hip-hop rapper and impresario Erick Lottary titled Safe Haven. Lottary says the relatively unknown Nia J is ripe for discovery and a perfect fit for the evening’s addition.
“I heard his music earlier and was blown away,” Lottary says.
In addition to Nia J’s melodic alternative R&B, Safe Haven features Asheville’s chillwave soul group RBTS Win and local rap artist Devn. Surprisingly, the concert will only be Nia J’s second professional show, following an October 12 opening slot at Snug for Ecuadorian pop group via Colorado Neoma. What Nia J took away from this concert is that she loves to play.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “I was in my element and can’t wait to do more shows.”
Growing up in Pinehurst, 100 miles east of Charlotte, Nia J sang in church choirs, which also integrated into school choirs. She started writing songs at the age of 7.
“I just wanted to be a singer,” she suggests. At 8, she learned to play the keyboard on her own by discovering a Beethoven piece on a toy piano.
“I knew from a young age that I loved music,” she recalls.
Johnson’s High School Choir competed nationally with other school choir groups. She says the feather-swarming harmonies that permeate her songs today come from her choir training.
However, not all of Johnson’s early creative accomplishments have been able to fully erase the veil that hangs over her and her family to this day. Moving with her family in 2005 from Cleveland, Ohio to Pinehurst, Johnson, then 7, had an unpleasant awakening. His father had negotiated the rental of a house for his family.
“My dad can pass for white because he’s mixed,” Johnson says. “Then my mother, me and my brother finally came to move in, and [the owners] meet us. Then they say, ‘Oh, the house is no longer on the market.’ All of his family’s belongings had already been moved in, which the white owners quickly locked inside the house. Johnson remembers his parents ultimately successfully suing the racist owners of the house. Johnson calls the experience a “scar.”
As a black child growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, she was frequently the target of micro-attacks from her white peers. They called her an “Oreo” – black on the outside but white on the inside – implying that her intellectual and creative pursuits could only be whites.
Desperate for a change of scenery, Johnson eventually headed off to college at UNC Charlotte. Surprisingly, she chose to study business rather than music.
“I put music aside because I thought business would be more of a solid career for me,” she says. His decision to put the music aside, however, did not hold up. In her freshman year, she sang a song as part of a talent show, and her love for creating and performing music returned.
Shortly after, she meets her fellow student and musician Ike Ike Byers, who then performs in the duo Cailan & Ike. Nia J and Byers began to collaborate, and Byers went on to become his longtime colleague, producing and co-producing most of his songs to date, including the tracks on Rabbit hole.
“Working with Ike challenged me,” says Nia J. She credits Byers for introducing him to new sounds that fuel his music today.
In 2019, Nia J released the singles “Bliss” and “Before You”. “Bliss” represents another obstacle that Nia J had to overcome: it took a long time for her to come to terms with her sexuality and come out as homosexual. In the song, she addresses the subject of an early infatuation, a woman she never really knew because she put up walls to block Johnson. In the song, Nia J’s feathered voice drifts into the background:
“Ignorance is really bliss / I can’t miss what I don’t know…”
The song “Before You” details a hard-earned revelation.
“I realized that before I could love someone else, I had to first find out who I was and fall in love with myself,” she says.
In 2020, Johnson graduated with a business degree and a minor in art history. His love for Renaissance art had blossomed during a school trip to Italy. While in the ancient city of Verona, she composed “Bad Faith”, one of the Rabbit hole, while sitting on the Ponte di Castle Vecchio, a fortified bridge that spans the River Adige.
“For you, I would paint the world / Any color you want to see …”
“I had been surrounded by so much art, I imagined myself as an artist in song,” she says.
Taken as a whole, Rabbit hole details the progress of a young person towards adulthood, a modern collection of despised love (“Not Delivered”), pleasure (“Dopamine”), affirmation of sexuality (“Hazy”), relaxation and smoking (“Day Talk”) and vulnerability.
“I really don’t like sharing and communicating,” says Nia J. “Music is the way I talk about private things.”
Anxiety comes to the fore in the EP’s title track, the most intensely personal confession in a collection that focuses on emotional vulnerability. The song tackles the specter of mental illness with this line:
“I kill the dragon that lives in your head …”
The dragon is a metaphor for depression and anxiety, she says. Johnson reveals that her current partner is struggling with these issues and that she herself also suffers from depression, is in therapy last year and is currently on medication.
Shedding light on this once dark topic, Nia J says she’s encountered magic – which is also the title of one of the Rabbit holethe most ethereal pieces.
“The magic that I have encountered [is] by kindness, people so empathetic, so kind, [that] they changed my life, ”says Nia J.
Nia J is eagerly awaiting Safe Haven, a Charlotte show that could show her more magic, while also sharing her journey to acceptance and transformation – a personal arc just like that of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
“I hope people who listen to my music know that it is okay to be who you are, to love who you are, not to know where you are going and to keep growing and changing in a way. that you didn’t think was possible, ”she says.
It seems for Nia J – and everyone who has discovered and will embrace her enchanting and uplifting music – diving into the rabbit hole leads to a warm, glowing light at the end of the tunnel.
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