Los Angeles-based R&B artist Sha’Leah Nikole developed a passion for music and theater early in life while attending the Amazing Grace Conservatory, a theatrical training institute focused on providing inner city youth with training in both the performing and digital arts. After attending Alfred University in upstate New York for college, graduating with a B.A in Communication Studies, she began to make a name for herself in the West coast music scene and gained acknowledgement with her work in musical theater in NAACP award winning shows. She has had the opportunity to share the stage with and sing background for artists such as Beyonce, Kanye West, Ledisi, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and the late Nipsey Hussle. She released her first EP, The Queen Issue, in 2017 and will be releasing her forthcoming sophomore EP, Work of heART, in May of this year. She recently shared her music video for “Mahogany”, a song which highlights the deep appreciation and admiration she has for the culture that shaped her life. She worked on the video with director and tv writer Nina Gloster to help her to bring her concept to life. The video has Black men and women of various shades and sizes, and features Sha’Leah alongside her mother and grandmother, as a way to celebrate diversity, representation and generational wisdom within the Black community. When she is not singing or performing on stage, she serves her community through her non-profit organization My Footprints LA, an organization that promotes self-growth through service and mentorship. Having had so many great mentors growing up, she seeks to give back to her community, especially those who are unhoused, letting them know that they are loved and have value as humans. For Black History Month, she is taking part in a series of Gospel performances at Disneyland for Celebrate Soulfully/Celebration of Gospel, as gospel music is an integral part of Black history. With plans to release her new EP, hopefully play some live shows, and do more theater productions, Sha’Leah Nikole has plenty of exciting things going on in her world! Make sure to connect with Sha’Leah Nikole via the following links in order to stay up-to-date with all upcoming EP, music, theater, and tour news. Make sure to catch her on 2/19 at Downtown Disney and of 2/26 at Fantasyland Theatre at California Adventure for the Celebrate Soulfully/Celebration of Gospel.
You grew up in South Central LA, surrounded by the arts. What can you tell me about your childhood and in what ways attending the Amazing Grace Conservatory of Music at such a young age fueled your passion for music and the performing arts?
Living in the inner city, there’s a lot that can distract you. My mom didn’t want my brother and I to fall into the life of the streets or anything that can come up, a lot of times living in these places that don’t have a lot of resources. She put my brother and I in Amazing Grace Conservatory, and it definitely changed our lives. When I first started, I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to go. I have an older brother and he does music, as well. I thought, “You know, this is his thing” and it wasn’t really for me, but once I got into the classes and really started to learn about it and the way it made me feel, I was just like “Oh! This is what I want to do”. I started at the age of 9, and when that happened it was like I had to be in there every semester. I had to tell my mom “I want to go to AGC this semester.” And it wasn’t free, so she had to come up with ways to be able to pay for us to go. She started cooking meals for the school so that we would be able to go on scholarship, and just finding ways that we could continue to pursue our dream. It was something that I loved to do, and the more that I was there, the more I fell in love with all of the arts.
The school taught dancing, singing, and drama. Did you feel more drawn to one discipline over another?
Originally, I thought that acting was going to be my thing, so I started doing that and focusing on that. Then, maybe around the age of 12 or 13, is when I got my first solo in a song. I didn’t really put too much focus on my voice, but after that moment, to see the reaction of people and how I made them feel by singing this song, I was like “Wow!”. I didn’t even know that I had that in me. It was a natural gift that was given to me, but throughout the training it was like “Ok. I can do this and I can get better at it,” so I think it kind of switched gears to music for me as a teen. I still love acting and I’m not the best dancer…I like to dance, but I don’t think I’m the best dancer (laughs). I would definitely say that music is number one and then acting.
After high school, you attended Alfred University in New York. What your time like in college? Did you enjoy being in New York? I imagine it was much different than California!
Oh yes! It was so different! I remember the first time it snowed. I called my mom and was like “Oh my gosh! It’s snowing!”. I was so excited, and all of my friends were looking at me like “Ok. Next week you’ll be over it!” (laughs). I enjoyed my college experience. It was a time for me to really just figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. I went to a smaller school, so there weren’t a lot of things happening. There was, like, a step team so I was like “Ok. I want to be a part of the step team”, so I started doing that. As far as the arts, I started a gospel choir at the school, me and a friend of mine, because there weren’t to many options of things to do, but we created what we wanted to see. I guess when I was in college, I learned that I’m also this creator. If I don’t see something, then I can create what I don’t see and the things that I want to see. That was something that I started to do in college. I had a lot of moments where I made so many amazing relationships and got to do things I would have never done, being in California. It was definitely an amazing period in my life and I learned so much and got to see so much. Even though my school was in upstate New York, all of my friends were from the city, so I would get to go to New York City and I love, I love, I love New York City! Any chance that we could get to go to New York City, I was like “Yes! I want to go!”. I was able to be around the arts of New York City!
You received your first placement as a songwriter on Nipsey Hussle’s “Feelin’ Myself” and have had the opportunity to sing and share the stage with so many iconic artists. What can you tell me about your early days of singing and songwriting and how those experiences have helped to shape you as an artist? What did you learn in the process?
Oh yes! After I graduated college, I came back home and I was thinking “I want to write. I want to write music.” Before I left school, we have friends who are in music and things like that here in LA, so friends of ours who are pretty much like family have a production team called 1500 or Nothin’. When I got that call, I reached out to one of my friends who is like a cousin to me and I said “I want to write” and he said “Ok. Come up to the studio.” And he was saying to come every day, and that’s what I did. I would just come up to the studio every day and would be in the rooms with them as they were producing these records and writing these songs. I would just start to contribute and started to learn how to write my music, essentially, just with people who were doing it all the time. That’s how the Nipsey Hussle collaboration happened. We were in the studio one day, myself and another writer named Jay Black. They were doing a record and he was writing, and I hadn’t even planned on writing anything on the song. I was just there, hanging out and watching and taking my notes and stuff. And they were like “Alright. Go ahead. Get in the booth.” And I was like “Me?” and they were like “Yeah. Write a section”, and so I wrote the section and they played it for Nipsey and he loved the song. He put his verses on it, because we did, like, choruses and things like that, so he put his verses on it and then released it here in LA. It was just such a major accomplishment for me at that time, because Nipsey was just coming up and doing a lot of stuff, but he was well-respected in the community. It was major. And I was like “This is what I want to do”, so I kept writing, but I never lost sight of the acting and theater. I grew up doing that, so I continued to pursue theater at the same time as doing music. So doing auditioning and different things like that opened a lot of doors. I met people and had all of these different relationships, which got me to do things like singing with the Sunday Service Choir. A few people told me to come and audition, that I grew up with or worked with in different capacities. They were like “You should come audition”, so I went and auditioned and that’s how I was able to do the Sunday Service thing with Kanye West. And then, as I was doing that, a friend of mine from the choir said “Hey. I have this opportunity to sing for this major artist”, but we didn’t know who the artist was, but he said they were looking for people, so I said ok. Come to find out, it was Beyonce, and we were like “Woah!”. So many amazing things! I think what I learned from that is that the relationships that we make throughout the years are what will keep you working and keep you thriving in this business, knowing the different people. And if you show up and do what you are supposed to do, then they will always call you back. Being around artists who do what I want to do on a huge scale, you can’t help but learn from them as you’re watching them work. Just being around Beyonce or Kanye West and all of the different people I’ve had the honor of working with, I just watched how they work and have picked up so many different gems just being in their presence.
What has your journey been like in finding your sound as an artist with your solo music?
It’s been a journey, you know (laughs)? I listened to a lot of different artists growing up. Brandi is one of my favorite artists. I also listen to a lot of older stuff. My dad had a lot of records when I was growing up, so I listened to a lot of Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin and The Isley Brothers and was just trying to find my own sound, which was just a mixture of all these different things that I had been hearing growing up. As I continued to put out music and write songs, I figured out what kind of worked for me or what felt the most real and authentic to me. I think maybe the last project I put out…I started writing when I was in high school…so the last project that I put out, which was maybe like 4 years ago, I feel like I’m finally understanding my style and my sound. I think that comes with a lot of growth and experiences and being able to be around these other artists and see how they work and be like “Ok. I like that and I like this”. It just helps you to create your own identity in music. It’s just been a jouney and I think now I finally found my sound. I recently asked people on my social media “Who would you compare my music to?” and a lot of people said “You’re in your own lane and have your own sound.” I loved that response because it goes to show that I’m not trying to sound like anyone else and have created something that is unique to me. So I was very happy about that answer!
You recently released your music video for “Mahogany”. How did you meet and come to work with Nina Gloster on the video to bring your concept to life? What can you tell me about the ways you sought to showcase the diversity of Black beauty, culture, and experience and what is what like to have your mother and grandmother in the video with you? I imagine having 3 generations of your family reperesented was pretty special!
Yes! The whole video and song is so special to me. I wrote that during the pandemic and there were so many things happening in the world at that time. We were all on lockdown, and then there was so much social unrest happening within the Black community and police brutality, so I was like “What do I want to say right now?”. The first thing that I said in putting music out was that I wanted something that would be uplifting and would celebrate Black culture, because in the media there wasn’t a lot of celebration at that time. That’s how “Mahogany” came to be…the song, the words, the lyrics. And then I reached out to Nina, who is a friend of mine. We actually served together on the same youth ministry at church in our early 20’s. I met her and we just clicked instantly and she was on her journey of becoming a writer and director and doing all of these amazing things and we just remained friends over the years. She’s one of my closest friends. When I figured out the concept and idea that I wanted for “Mahogany”, I had to reach out to her. I reached out to her and played the song for her and she was like “Oh my gosh! I love it! I would love to be a part of it!”, so we just put our brains together and came up with this concept to celebrate all of the Black beauty. The song describes Black beauty, so it was like “Ok. How do we make this visual?”. We just decided to celebrate all different forms of Black beauty. So for women, all sizes and shapes. And with the generations, it was important to me to have my mom and my grandmother in the video because it just shows the strength in community and family and the passing down of generational wisdom. And so just having my grandmother be a part of it, and for her to even see and be on set, she was amazed and it got emotional for her, listening to the words and just all of us being there together. She was crying at one point. So it was a beautiful experience, just to uplift people, and they left that day feeling magical and amazing. That was the point and I hope that when people see it they feel the same way we did when we were making it.
You will be releasing your second EP Work of heART later this year, which touches on themes of self-discovery, love, and vulnerability. What can you tell me about the album and your process of writing it, as well as the significance of the title and emphasizing the ART in heart?
Yes! So I started working on this project during the pandemic and so for the past couple of years I’ve been living life and just working on different music. For a while, I didn’t put anything out because I didn’t have anything to say, and I didn’t want to just put music out just to put it out. When I release music, I want it to be something that speaks of lived experiences, so I waited until I lived a little more life to have those experiences. It comes from real life vulnerable places. There’s stuff about heartbreak on there, and I wouldn’t have been able to write the song unless I actually was able to go through a heartbreak and come out on the other side of it. And just self-discovery and learning about myself throughout the pandemic. Being locked in your house, there’s a lot of time to reflect and learn about yourself all over again. It was really exciting to do that at that time and learn and create, but it took a little time. At the beginning of the pandemic I was like “Oh. I don’t feel like doing anything”, and then maybe a couple of months in I was like “Ok. It’s time to get some of this out on paper and in the booth.” I did and I was able to work with some really amazing artists and producers. It really just brought everything to life, so I’m really excited to share what my journey has been for the past few years. I hadn’t really put anything out to share, so I’m really excited about it. And Work of heART…basically, the title is self-explanatory. It’s art…you know. I’ve been working on this art but it all comes from my heart. It all comes from the real experiences and it’s the work that I’ve done over the years of loving myself and just all of the beautiful things that come with work. Art comes from the work and it’s all from my heart. That’s what the title means.
Outside of music you also serve your community through your organization My Footprints LA that promotes self-growth through service and mentorship. In what ways do you feel like you were nurtured growing up by your culture and environment and what can you tell me about the ways that you seek to give back and serve your community?
Growing up, I had so many mentors that were just pouring into me and I didn’t even realize it at the time that that’s exactly what they were. Going to Amazing Grace Conservatory, there were so many people that became mentors to me and poured into my life. It was kind of natural for me to do the same for other young people, because it’s just what was instilled in me. I started My Footprints by working with the youth. The youth have always had a special place in my heart, and still do, because they are so ready to learn and are so impressionable. At the ages between middle school and high school is when they are really becoming who they are, and so to have a part in that is a beautiful gift. And service…just growing up in the inner city and seeing the homeless population grow exponentially over the years, it’s heatbreaking. And it’s like what can we do to show these people that they are loved and important and just giving back. So, with the young people we started building up their self-confidence and also saying how it’s important to give back to those people who feel forgotten or don’t have people to pour into them like we do in this situation here. I started doing a yearly event called Thankful To Give and we collect toiletries and all kinds of items to take to downtown LA and pass them out to the people in the community. It’s grown over the years. We started out just giving out toiletries and then we were able to give blankets and socks and things like that, so it’s just a reminder to never forget that we are all people. We are all human. We don’t know what got these people to the point that they have no roof over their heads, but we can remind them that they are still important and are still human by just helping out when you can.
In 2021, you had the opportunity to work on a celebrity cruise line. What was that experience like? It sounds like it would be a lot of fun!
Oh yeah! It’s a lot of fun! We got to do a lot of different shows and go so many different places. The cool thing about performing on the ship is all of the people you get to meet and they come for the shows and are excited to see what you have. Being able to do that and travel the world at the same time-it was the best gig! It was amazing! I had a really great time, just being able to share my gift and also see the world at the same time. I loved it.
What can you tell me about the short film you did called Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story and the ways that she inspired and influenced you?
Oh wow. That was an amazing experience. I auditioned for the role of Mahalia, and I was able to play her as a young woman and Ledisi plays her as an adult. I really learned all that Mahalia Jackson did for the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of times we don’t hear about what the women did in that time. So to be able to share her story and show how much of an impact she had on the Civil Rights Movement and gospel music and just people around the world, it’s a great honor. She was amazing and her voice was amazing and people were just blown away by her talent and her gift and also just by her heart. She was just so full of love and wanted people to come together. It was amazing experience and was my first film and I got to work with so many amazing actors who have been in this industry for years and years. Everyone was just a joy to work with. I got to work with Janet Hubert who is famous for playing Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and she also went to Juliard and studied the arts. So she was just amazing to be around, just with her knowledge and how she shared with us. It was a beautiful experience. I’m excited. It should be coming out this year, so I’m still waiting to hear what exactly the dates are, but I’m really excited for people to just be able to hear about the amazing life Mahalia Jackson had.
As someone who loves art and surrounding yourself with art, who are some of your favorite artists and what are some of your favorite pieces of art and museums/galleries or places you like to go for art?
Oh yes! I’ve recently just fallen in love with more visual art and going to museums and different art shows. For my birthday, I believe last year in 2021, I went to an exhibit called Shattered Glass at the Jeffrey Deitch Museum here in LA, curated by AJ Girard and Melahn Frierson, who are two young Black independent curators. When I went to this art show, it was about 50 artists of color whose work was displayed and it was beautiful. I was just like “Wow!”. I haven’t been in this scene, so I was just in love with it and since then I have been going to different art shows and became friends with AJ. He’s always at different art shows and travels the world and is a respected independent art curator, whose here from the inner city of Los Angeles. To see him sharing art with the community and the world is a beautiful thing, so I love going to different art shows. Some of my favorite artists…I love Brandi! I’ve already said that (laughs). I also love Musiq Soulchild, Chaka Khan, The Jackson 5. I just watched The Janet Jackson documentary, and I didn’t realize how much of an impact she had on music and her career, so I was just like “Wow! Janet Jackson is amazing.” I love India Arie and a lot of Gospel music, as well. Kiki Sheard is one of my favorite artists. I just listen to a lot of different types of music and some of my friends are some of my favorite artists, like Alex Isley and Kenyon Dixon. These are people that I grew up with, essentially, and now they are making music that the world loves to hear, so it’s amazing to see that and be a part of that circle.
You are doing some performances for Black History Month at Disneyland for the Celebrate Soulfully/Celebration of Gospel performances. What can you tell me about those performances and how that opportunity came about?
It’s absolutely amazing! Our first performance was on the 5th. It’s the first time in many years that Disney has done anything like this. We were able to meet the team at Disney who put this on and they were just so excited and so happy that this was finally back at Disney, celebrating Gospel music in Black History Month, because that’s a huge part of Black history. We are up there and doing multipole shows a day and are just sharing Gospel music at Disneyland. It’s amazing. We get to do that at Downtown Disney and then we’ll also be at California Adventure with the Celebration of Gospel, when they have Jonathan McReynolds, Mali Music, and Kierra Sheard who are like the headlining performers and we get to perform on the same stage as those amazing artists. It’s very exciting. People had an amazing time on the 5th and it’s a lot of fun. The guy I met, his name is Dedrick Bonner, I met him doing, I believe, a choir gig. Someone had recommended me…you know, those relationships again. Someone recommended me for a gig with him and we’ve been working together ever since. He reached out to me and asked me if I was available and I was super excited to do this with Disney. I mean, who doesn’t love Disney? It’s been a great experience. They took great care of us and we are excited to go back.
What’s next for you? What are some of your goals for 2022?
Definitely the release of this EP that’s coming out. I’m really excited to share that with everyone and do some performances with that. I haven’t done many performances, again, because of the pandemic, and things are slowly opening back up, so I will really be excited to get my live show together and share the music with people and possibly put together a small tour and go a couple of places. As far as acting and theater, I want to get back on the stage and do some more theater productions. I’m actually putting together something special for the release of the EP that has to do with art, so I’m excited about that. More details about that will be coming soon. I’m just really trying to utilize all of my gifts and doing a little bit of everything!