Nailah Blackman: welcome to the evolution | Snapshot

With music in her bloodline, T&T’s Nailah Blackman was almost destined for a career behind the microphone. She was the breakthrough performer of Carnival 2017, still a teenager — but, as she tells Laura Dowrich-Phillips, her ambitions go beyond soca, to another stage of musical evolution

  • Nailah Blackman. Photography by Ikenna Douglas @idouglasphoto, styled by RisAnne for Brown Cotton Caribbean @risystyle, make up by Kai Forde @simplii_beautifulll
  • Nailah Blackman. Photography by Ikenna Douglas @idouglasphoto, styled by RisAnne for Brown Cotton Caribbean @risystyle, make up by Kai Forde @simplii_beautifulll

One of the most striking things about Nailah Blackman is her sense of style. In her videos, on stage, even on an ordinary day hanging out with friends or running errands, the twenty-year-old singer exudes a combination of star quality, youthful exuberance, and confident sexuality in her attire.

Fashion is a big deal for the rising star from Trinidad and Tobago, who learned to sew at a young age, and makes her own clothes. More than just determining her brand, fashion is one of the ways she plans to stamp her presence — and, by extension, that of T&T — on the international stage. 

“We want to look like outsiders, outsiders want to look like us,” she says. “When I travel, I get so angry at Trinidad and Tobago — I love us, but it’s like we always want to be like somebody else. Why can’t we be like us? Let’s be Trinbagonian. So I want to work with people who are like-minded,” she explains — hence her support of T&T designers like the Brown Cotton label in her “O Lawd Oye” video.

Blackman is putting her money where her mouth is, too, with the launch of her own fashion line called Sokah — a line formerly owned by her mother, Abbi, the eldest of the fourteen children in the Blackman clan. So in between writing, recording, and performing, Blackman takes time to source materials and do sketches. She doesn’t yet have a date for the launch, but the first collection will be called Everything Is Connected. The line will consist of clothing which will be repurposed with new materials, namely denim, crocus, and mesh. “The whole concept of Sokah is Trinidad and Tobago, so my main colours are gold, red, black and white.”

“Sokah” is the original spelling of soca, the genre of music invented by her grandfather, the late Garfield Blackman — known as Lord Shorty before he found God and became Ras Shorty I. As he explained it, “so” represents the soul of calypso, while “kah” comes from the Hindi word for “divine.” Shorty’s aim was to unite the two major races in T&T — Afro- and Indo-Trinbagonians — through music. 

Blackman took the genre back to its origins this past Carnival, when she launched her EP Sokah and its title track. And the merchandising of the Sokah brand is just one cog in Blackman’s engine, which has gathered steam towards an international career since she burst out on the soca stage in 2017 with “Workout”, a duet with Kes the Band frontman Kees Dieffenthaller.

Formerly a neo-pop/alternative singer known on the underground open mic scene, Blackman participated in soca and calypso competitions in school, but hated them. When she decided to try her hand at soca again, she was discouraged by many producers, who felt it would destroy her sound. 

But producer Anson Soverall, known professionally as Anson Pro, saw her potential. “Let’s do this,” he said. “I know exactly what to do to make you popular.” Under Anson’s guidance, Nailah became the breakout star of 2017, following up her collaboration with Kees with a string of singles: “Baila Mami”, “Badish” with Jamaican rising star Shenseea, and “O Lawd Oye”.

“Baila Mami”, on the Parallel riddim, was a strategic move to establish Nailah as a solo artist and get her name known. “I wanted to come out with a pop summer song, and Anson said, No, you need to come out with a local soca/dancehall/pop song that will make you international but local at the same time,” Blackman says. 

“I took it hard at first, but I was like, Nailah you are trying to pay some rent, so I went back to the drawing board and asked myself, What do you want? I wanted people to know my name, so what’s better than having a song with a title that rhymes with your name?”

The song also signalled her intention to spread her wings across the Caribbean. The lyrics include the term “yardie,” a Jamaican word which Blackman deliberately inserted to establish a connection to Jamaica, the first place she performed outside of T&T. Now she calls the land of reggae and dancehall her second home.

 

I met up with Blackman in Kingston last April, where she was one of many soca stars in Jamaica for Carnival in Kingston. Apart from fulfilling her Carnival obligations, she was hard at work filming a video with Tarrus Riley on Hellshire Beach for the remix of “Dangerous Boy”, and recording “Birthday Song” with Ding Dong, musician and dancer, which was released in May. She also laid down new tracks for T&T Carnival 2019 with Shenseea.

“She is a cool girl,” Blackman says of her Jamaican peer, “and our teams have the same vision. We have built each other. She built me in Jamaica, I built her in Trinidad. All around the world people know us as a duo. We met the first night she came to Trinidad in studio, and while we were shooting the video for ‘Badish’, people thought we knew each other before, because we just hit it off, it was such a good vibe,” says Blackman, who revealed plans for a joint tour one day, and more song collaborations.

When it comes to her music, Blackman is not afraid to infuse different sounds into her body of work.  Her EP Sokah, which she launched on her twentieth birthday on 2 December, 2017, includes not just the reggae-flavoured “Dangerous Boy” but also “Oceans”, a nod to her acoustic past. Afrobeat, pop, and Latin music are all tied into her music, which she nonetheless fiercely defends as “sokah.” 

“My music is not soca, it is sokah, which is the evolution of soca music” she explains. “Soca is the evolution of calypso, and sokah is the evolution of soca. Even if it is not necessarily in the soca line, with the marriage of Indian and African rhythms, it will always be soca influenced,” she adds. 

Since she burst onto the T&T music scene, Blackman has been greeted as a breath of fresh air, a beacon of hope for a country yearning to have a soca star go truly mainstream on the global stage. She has the passion, says Robin Foster, a producer who worked with Ras Shorty I and who sees the same drive in his granddaughter. 

Of course, comparisons have been made to Rihanna, the mega star who was discovered in Barbados, and whose success has fuelled hopes of mainstream stardom in the hearts of countless Caribbean entertainers. “I don’t want to be like Rihanna,” declares Blackman, “but I want to be at her level,” making no bones about her ambitions.

To get there, she’s working non-stop. 2018 is her year of travel, and though she has been booked at numerous events across the Caribbean and the wider world, she is focused on clearing a path to global stardom. So far, she’s performed at South by Southwest, a major music festival in Texas, started her own Vevo account on YouTube, and recorded a track with Nigerian highlife singer Adekunle for a new album by DJ Walshy Fire.

Blackman is also working to officially launch her Sokah album online. Though all the tracks have been released, she’s still tweaking them to make the album international. “We want to make sure it has the ears that need to hear it, and we want it released in the right channels, so people can hear it in Africa, Latin America, Asia — that’s the plan,” she says, revealing that some of the channels have been established already. 

Over lunch, producer Soverall and Blackman were hard at work planning her children’s show, Lahlahland, for which she’ll do kid-friendly versions of some of her songs. Even though she wanted to spend the day at a nearby waterfall, work took precedence. To achieve her goal, she knows, hard work and consistency are key.

“This is where my upbringing comes in a big way” she says. “When I was younger, my father had us living in boot camp. We had to wake up 5.30 every morning, pray, run a mile and a half, cross an ocean, because we needed to be fit and disciplined. And then we had to walk to school — he had a car, but he was, No, you have to walk to school,” she recalls, laughing. 

“I don’t rest, in terms of music. It is all about being consistent. We already have the formula, we are already making good music. The problem with Trinidadian music, soca and other music that comes out of Trinidad, is that we are not consistent. We will release a song for Carnival and wait until next year to release another song, or we will start doing something amazing and just fall off. It comes down to consistency.”

And then, on cue, it’s back to work.