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This piece is part of the Algorhythms project: artists telling stories about music they discovered from humans. Because where we discover music is an important part of its impact, and not all music is discovered through an algorithm.

Nakala on Gospel Music

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For a genre devoted to love and sex, R&B music is remarkably heteronormative. In the last five years, Janelle Monáe, Kehlani, and King Princess, among others, have redefined the scope of sexual experience for women within the realms of pop and indie. But for mainstream rhythm and blues, straightness remains the norm.

Nakala, a rising singer-songwriter from the UK, is helping to change that. On her latest EP, Talk Less, the gender-queer artist (she/they) explores desire, pleasure, and partnership—typical elements of RnB—in which women are both subject and object. They take on the role traditionally played by male artists like Usher or Ne-Yo, fantasizing about where they’ll go with, take, or do to their girl. In laying claim to this role, Nakala breathes freshness into familiarity while remaining firmly within the musical canon. 

Nakala is not the first gay R&B artist or the first to explore same-sex attraction in their work. But in the music of their contemporaries (e.g. Dizzy Fae’s “Her,” Asiahn’s “Like You,” or Kelela's “Truth Or Dare”), sexual orientation is a matter of tension or complication, either for the artist or for society. What sets Nakala apart is that for her, gayness is a given. How her sexual orientation manifests—the joy of it, the pain of it, the total ordinariness of it—is what’s of interest.

For their Algorhythm, Nakala appreciates the range of musical genres their friends, partner, and grandmother have shown them—including opera, musical theatre, and gospel.

I have plenty of memories of great music being introduced to me; from being 10 years old hearing the school orchestra play for the first time and being hugely impacted by the epicness of all the instruments playing at once, or being 13 years old and my cousin introducing me to bands like Muse and Foo Fighters, or my parents taking me to Italy in my early 20s and watching a live Opera in the Tuscan hills. Even in recent years being introduced to Musical theatre by my girlfriend has blown my musical mind AGAIN! I could go on.

All these moments stay with me and still ignite my passion for making music to this day. But one of my biggest influences was being introduced to Gospel through an old college friend who forced me to join a gospel choir. Not only did it introduce me to harmonies, amazing chord progressions, EPIC vocal acrobatics, it made me a much stronger pianist and also introduced me to God. Gospel taught me what faith is and just how powerful music can really be - nothing has ever moved or shaped me like it, and if it wasn’t for that friend forcing me to join a choir with a very strict Christian leader (something my rebellious teenage self was pretty against at the time!) I wouldn’t have ever felt music the same way, I wouldn’t have faith or have grown as much as I did... and I wouldn’t have the bad ass piano skills I have now!

Nakala debuted the music video for hit single “Paris” last month (which features her and her girlfriend, Hannah Edser). Check out Nakala’s personal YouTube channel for a behind-the-scenes look at her artistic process, and listen to our full Algorhythms playlist here.

Looking to be reminded just how powerful music can be? Grey Matter is a community platform where artists and listeners discover one another. Learn more and join the community here.