Cover Nikitaa is on a music to challenge stereotypes and break down barriers (Photo: Adhyan)

The Mumbai born, Los Angeles-based singer has created her own genre, “Goddess Pop” and is slowly breaking into the indie music scene—if she hasn’t already

It’s not every day you come across an artist that’s bold enough to name her own genre. But Nikitaa is. The Mumbai-bred, Los Angeles-based singer is slowly making waves in the indie music scene by blending ethereal pop and R&B, infusing her own colour and taking elements from her Indian roots to create her own unique sound which she calls, “Goddess Pop”.

The singer-songwriter has spent the past few years honing her craft in Los Angeles and has since put out a number of singles—each with a refreshing mix of sounds which eventually earned her a loyal following and millions of streams across music platforms. But the transnational artist is more than just a singer, she’s also on a mission to challenge (and shatter stereotypes) and break down barriers through her music—especially as a  female artist of colour in the industry.

In this exclusive interview with Tatler ahead of the release of her new song, Farewell, Nikitaa takes us through her humble beginnings, how she pays homage to her culture, the challenges of being a South Asian singer in the indie music scene and why we should be excited about her new song.

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Can you tell us how you got into music?

I was always interested in music for as far back in my life as I can remember. My summers were spent singing along to the cassettes my mum would pop into the stereo in her room, and I started training when I was four—at the same time, I began training as a dancer. I took keyboard lessons and learned basic western classical theory as well as Indian classical vocal lessons and theory. Every memory I’ve ever had is coloured, so to speak, with a song or an album. But I decided to pursue music as a career at the age of 19 and went to Musicians Institute in Los Angeles nearly two years later because of this decision.

Were your parents supportive of you getting into music?

Now, absolutely and unequivocally. But this wasn’t always the case. My mother’s family has a long history of musical talent and passion. This is an ancestral gift for me. But none of them were permitted to pursue it as a career. Notably, my Nani (maternal grandmother) studied under several Ustaads (maestros) in her hometown of Banaras (Varanasi) but was always prevented from pursuing it because of many reasons—one of them being that she was a woman.

I think my parents were initially caught between wanting to see me pursue something that truly fulfilled me and brought me joy, and wanting to protect me based on the experiences of their family members. But, eventually, their desire to support me overcame; my mother in particular found catharsis in the idea that I get to fulfil not only my own purpose but my Nani’s as well. And I feel as if I carry her with me whenever I sing.

You’re born and raised in Mumbai, why did you decide to go to LA? How was the journey moving from one part of the world to another?

I always knew I wanted to do something with contemporary English music, and I chose LA after speaking with my dear friend and fellow artist, Natania Lalwani. She was a Musicians Institute alum and recommended the school to me after I shared some of my early songwriting with her. I’ve always felt like I’ve been between worlds—the one I grew up in, in India, and the one that influenced me vis a vis all the music I was listening to. Between that and the fact that I’d visited family in California before, moving to LA wasn’t as much of a culture shock as I’d prepared myself for. I’ve also personally always loved venturing out on my own and so as difficult as it was to be away from family, it was also something that felt right down to my very bones.

One thing I will note though is that moving so far away really had me reflecting a lot on my identity as a brown woman that carries a certain amount of privilege. From the day I started school in LA, I was often told I looked racially ambiguous, and I was fetishised by others, while also facing alienation from my fellow Indian students—all for just being me. It forced me to find and stand strong in the integrity and truth of who I am, and it also helped me recognise that though I carried privilege (being light-skinned, from Savarna, Hindu and from upper-middle class) it would be what I did with that privilege that would make or break me and the people around me. Also, I could let all that fetishisation and alienation bring me down, or I could keep it pushing and keep working on me. I chose the latter. And I believe it shows in everything I do.

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You mentioned before that you didn’t have any example of South Asian women to look up to. Tell us what that was like. How did that influence the kind of artist you want to be today?

Honestly, in the beginning, it crippled me as the unknown does very often to all of us. What was I—a brown girl—going to bring to a pop or R&B space as an artist? What did I want to say, sound like? These were questions that plagued me often. My idols growing up had been primarily Black women such as Beyonce and Whitney Houston. I decided I could continue to be inspired by them but also to carve my own path. Suddenly not having anyone to compare my journey or even my vocal texture to became an exciting thing rather than a frightening thing.

I began questioning what it was at my core that I wanted to share with the world, and honestly, I just started writing and decided to see where it took me. A few songs into doing this, the idea of a Goddess-centric brand and artist became clear. Everything that I did encompassed the idea of honouring the full spectrum of feminine expression, rather than a carefully curated mask as we often see. In other words, honouring the archetype of the Goddess.

You describe your genre as “Goddess Pop”, tell us more about it. Why did you decide to bring in a new genre?

Because I felt like I hadn’t really heard much of anything that sounded like what I was doing. I hadn’t heard of any pop or R&B music composed and performed by a Brown artist incorporating instruments or vocalisation from their own culture in a way that would seamlessly blend with what most of us know of these genres. In my world, tablas and 808’s co-exist, as do santoors and guitars and more. I also wanted to emphasise that my music was a place to honour and express every emotion within the human range of expression with zero shame and full ownership.

The Goddess, since ancient times, has been a champion of inclusivity and full-spectrum expression whether it be concerning gender, emotions and sexuality I wanted to start a conversation about that as well. I was raised within the tenets of this understanding—it is one of the main pillars of my spirituality, which is so important to me and to my music. Goddess Pop is a genre where I get to be everything I want to be—an expansive being with a genre-melding sound and I have influences ranging from 60’s Bollywood, pop, R&B, metal, hard rock and everything in between.

Being of Indian descent and now based in the US, how do you tap into these two cultures when creating music?

The simplest answer is I don’t rely on what any song “should” sound like and I just reach for the instruments and melodies that excite me. This is what feels most authentic to me. If I want a tabla instead of a snare or a dhol instead of a tom, that’s what I’m gonna do. If I want the guitars to play a melody with the styling of a sitar or an oud, I’m going to ask for it. If I want to reach for notes people aren’t used to hearing or inflexions most associated with Indian classical music, I’m going to do it. I just want the blend between the two worlds to be seamless and authentic. Beyond that, I rarely ever place any boundaries on my creative process.

Goddess Pop is a genre where I get to be everything I want to be—an expansive being with a genre-melding sound

In what ways have you incorporated or paid homage to India in your songs?

I am constantly paying homage to India just by creating the music that I do, especially given the history of my ancestors. The fact that they were restricted from doing what I do now is a revolution in itself. To take up space in an industry where space or success for those that look like you is not always freely given, is a constant homage to my people.

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Your songs are mostly about love and relationships. In Boomerang, it’s about recognising toxicity early in a relationship while Farewell is about a breakup. Do you tap into your own relationships?

I absolutely do! Especially lately, I’ve felt more willing to do so. I’ve been through a lot in my relationships across the board, not just the romantic variety. And I’ve learned a lot. I think part of my message of empowering the feminine is owning the things I’ve been through so others feel they can do the same. So often we look at our past and beat ourselves up about it. I don’t believe in doing that. I believe in sharing my experiences and what I’ve learned from them, how they’ve shaped me. And I’ve found that people really relate to that and find inspiration and catharsis in that. There is strength in vulnerability.

Your new song, Farewell, tell us what’s exciting and different about it.

Farewell is possibly the most I’ve let any of my listeners in on the turmoil I was experiencing for about three years of my life, between 2016 and 2019. Even when writing about leaving or heartbreak in the past, my music’s been very strong-willed emotionally. But Farewell is very vulnerable, tender, and very special to me. It was the fastest I’ve ever written a song—in literally fifteen minutes. And I was crying the whole time. I used to be someone who would give and give and give in love without really stopping to think about what I truly deserved in return. And I was hurt badly for that. I was young and didn’t understand how to walk away or why I was choosing someone who didn’t cherish me for everything I was.

Farewell is really that moment of feeling exhausted, angry, wanting to leave, but knowing if the other person put in the effort things would probably be different. It is the essence of heartbreak—that moment you know the inevitable is coming and you can’t do anything to stop it. That perhaps you shouldn’t do anything to stop it, and that may be giving up is where you will find your freedom.

You mentioned that we can expect both English and Hindi or even Punjabi songs in the years to come. Would you be releasing a mixed language single in the future?

Putting out a mixed language project is one of my bigger goals and I actually have a few mixed language songs in the bank. I have experimented with the incorporation of Hindi in my English music in previous releases such as Clutch and Wolf. And I fully intend to explore this more during the course of my career.

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You’ve worked with a lot of artists over the years for your songs. How was the experience like? Did you get any piece of advice from them?

Yes! Honestly, every artist I’ve ever worked with has taught me something invaluable, some of them without ever meaning to. The one piece of advice I think is common is to stand strong in your artistic integrity. It’s very easy to let criticism or temptation to fit a mould get to you, but the key is to stand strong and evolve in the ways you desire, not in the ways others expect from you.

You sang for the Netflix show, Masaba Masaba, how did that come about and how did you approach making the song for the movie?

Musik Wala—the producer behind the track that I voiced titled Aunty Kisko Bola Be on Masaba Masaba—and I had known each other for a while at this point, and they actually reached out to me while I was in LA to see if I could cut a vocal take for the song. It was very hushed at the time, and I didn’t even really have all the details for the show or anything. The song was actually penned by Siddhant Kaushal. We locked the vocals in, and I didn’t hear back for nearly a year.

I was absolutely elated when I found out I was voicing a song visually performed onscreen by the legendary actress, Neena Gupta. I remember my whole family and I sitting at home to watch the episode when it came out. It was a surreal moment and such a big milestone for me!

We need your authenticity. We need your excellence. We need your voice. Remember that when you feel like nobody is listening.

As a woman and transnational indie artist, is it hard to be in the music industry? What challenges did you face if any, and how have you overcome them?

It’s definitely hard. Some people expect you to sound more “Bollywood” and then you don’t which is either a relief or a disappointment to them. Others think you’re “too much about your culture” and want you to whitewash yourself. I’ve even had people tell me they’re “relieved” that I look racially ambiguous because that makes me an “easier sell” to listeners. Of course, I do not work with these individuals. Sometimes it feels like people are more concerned with whether you are meeting their expectations rather than if you’re making good music. And all of this compounds as a woman—the expectation to fall into a certain weight, height and beauty bracket, the standards for which are painfully Eurocentric. Being asked if I was ready to shoot a video because maybe I wouldn’t like how my body will look on screen, for example.

In so many ways, as a female artist of colour, I am expected to shrink and fit into a neat little narrative. Having a good instinct, paying attention to my intuition and having steady and strong boundaries and expectations of everyone I work with has been paramount. Discernment is key. If the people around me can’t see me for me or believe in changing my vision rather than elevating it then those aren’t my people. Sometimes that has meant turning down major labels and well-established managers. But what good are those if they ask you to be something you are not and therefore can’t sustain?

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There's a lot of struggle that comes with being an indie artist, especially as a South Asian woman. Do you think the industry has changed a bit since when you first started?

I think there are a lot more South Asian indie artists in general who are choosing to create music how they see fit in several genres. On the industry end, I think the fact that major streaming platforms, for example, have their presence editorially in India is a huge win for South Asian artists.

But I still don’t see too much coverage for women and those who don’t identify as men in the industry. I want to see all-women bands, all-women crews on the sets of videos, non-binary stylists and more. I want to see wholesome, cohesive and informed conversations around the complexities of being South Asian, because being South Asian is complex, varied and the look and feel of it changes from person to person, region to region, community to community. I want to see artists affected by colourism, casteism and so much more get their due as well. It’s improving, and I’m grateful, but I hunger for so much more.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I have been steadily putting together a longer English project that I intend to drop this year, and that’s kept me plenty busy. This one’s almost entirely produced by me along with having been written, sung and recorded at home during these strange times we live in. I look forward to having the world hear this!

What’s your message to young girls also looking to break into the scene?

Strengthen your resolve, learn to say no, and always consult your truest desires and your intuition before you make any decisions! Take that first step, because nothing will happen until you do. And do not listen to what you’re supposed to sound, look, or behave like. We need your authenticity. We need your excellence. We need your voice. Remember that when you feel like nobody is listening.

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Farewell premieres on September 17 and is available on Spotify and Apple Music.

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