For many underground musicians, the ascent from a clammy, beer-drenched London cavern to the sunlit peak of public attention, can be frustratingly long and thwarted. Yet, the career of 20-year-old artist Nayana IZ – who has previously been christened on BBC Asian Network’s Future Sounds 2020 list – seems to be soaring skywards with her jazz-inflected, soft hip-hop sound. As a British-South Asian artist, Nayana IZ evokes the duality of both her bloodlines through a curious hybrid of rap and whisper, in which her feathery voice floats like a breeze slithering through a thunderstorm of brazen, blaring beats.
Born and raised in North London to Indian parents Nayana’s IZ’s grandma was a Thang-Ta sword fighting dancer and a masterful Manipuri singer. Yet, her disconnection to the native land of her parents has seen Nayana IZ wrestle with how to express her Indian culture authentically. “A real musician is someone who’s properly connected to the soul and the source,” she tells me over Zoom whilst casually rolling a cigarette. “I can’t just write a song in Hindi when I don’t know the language, it would feel like I am selling and disrespecting my culture.”Though she splices her sound with elements of Sanskrit and Hindu iconography, don’t expect Nayana IZ to compress her culture into the guise of an alter ego. “I know a lot of musicians have found success perform- ing as a character. But my image as an artist is who I am, it’s no character and it’s important I portray my culture in its purest essence.”
Honest, yet vaguely hesitant, Nayana IZ has previously remained quiet on the subject of her school years until now. “I started making music when I was becoming heavily bullied at school, I basically needed somewhere to hide and I came across the piano room.” While many children concoct an imaginary friend as an antidote to loneliness, Nayana IZ’s piano morphed into her faithful companion; the inky-black keys at her command; the melodies howling with her emotions. “It was at this point that I fully realised the power of music and I became an artist knowing that chords and harmonies could make us feel more deeply than spoken words, and that blew my mind.”
Throughout her formative years, Nayana IZ continued to cultivate her musical talents through songwriting and particularly dubious renditions of Maroon 5’s “Payphone,” which Nayana IZ naively, but wholeheartedly believed “Adam Levine was going to see,” she declares with a peal of laughter. But it wasn’t until Nayana IZ joined the alternative hip-hop collective NiNE8 – a melting pot of offbeat, like-minded London artists – that her creativity truly simmered to the surface. Performing their experimental, Lo-fi sound across venues in the hidden underside of London’s nightlife, the collective has successfully collaborated with Converse and recently played to a socially distanced audience at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. “A few years ago, I was very depressed and I just didn’t want to live for a while,” she stutters, the painful words evading her grasp, “as soon as I met everyone in NiNE8 I was like, ‘Wow, the world is so beautiful.’ I started dreaming again, I started believing again and it felt like I had finally found my home.”
As our conversation flows into potentially vulnerable territory, Nayana IZ’s resilient, frosted shield begins to thaw. “A lot of my actions and decisions throughout my
life have been controlled by a fear,” she divulges, “I started rapping because people told me I wasn’t good at singing.”Nayana IZ’s struggle to carve her space in the music province seethes through her searing, cutting lyrics that softly shift into achingly vulnerable verses. “In this upcoming EP I subconsciously included a lot of messages to my inner child, I want to make her feel powerful again as I have spent too long hating and blaming her.” Nayana IZ’s latest single, “Breaking Point,” is composed like a reconciling love letter addressed to the bruised, timid child in the piano room.
Though Nayana IZ is reluctant to proclaim herself as a role model, she is committed to encouraging South Asian girls to confront their fears; to impart them with a sense of power in the face of entrenched subjugation. “I want South Asian women of all ages to listen to this EP and feel so overwhelmed with strength,” she says with palpable passion. “If I can make one girl feel like a fuck- ing warrior before she faces the world, that would be an unbelievable purpose.”