For Nancia, the storied road and rise up through the rhythmic ranks began in a familiar fashion.
“In ancient times, it started with me singing in church and school in Cambridge,” the singer says all these years later. “In church, you have to compete for the solo parts—you have 30 to 50 people in a choir. It’s fierce. And on top of that, when you sing in a church and you’re a newcomer or you are young, the elders have mature vocals that challenge and inspire you. You train with them, and singing every week you have to come prepared and know your music.”
If she wasn’t singing shoulder to shoulder with elders, Nancia was neck and neck with peers.
“I went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin and I took choir,” she recalls fondly. “My music teacher put me in the forefront, and through word of mouth I started singing at Cambridge City Hall events, shelters, wherever. If they needed a student, I was there. It started to become word of mouth.
“I was learning about music and discovering myself. I was taking in as much as I can, working with different vocal teachers and getting into competitions. I used to go to talent shows, and if they knew you sang, it was expected [that you would compete].”
Competition at her church and school proved to be proper preparation for an industry in which shit is never just handed to you. There’s no doubt about it—Nancia is young and has been crushing it on social media while opening for America’s top R&B singers. But don’t get it confused; she’s been in the rat race since MySpace.
“I had some stumbles,” she says. “The music industry is very unforgiving. I remember certain music industry personnel have judged me on my appearance and not my talent. But I know what I have. … One of my wakeup calls was in New York. I did the Apollo. … They told me to practice more, but they still let me go on to compete because they thought I had talent. Did I win? No. But I created connections, and from that point on I started working with producers from New York and agents and have been back and forth between there and Boston.”
It was a turning point.
“At that point I really loved the whole Bad Boy movement, and I was doing hooks for just about everyone, but I wanted my own movement. I started working with Smokehouse [Media], and it made me cross over into a different, more R&B-gospel-hip-hop sound, which forced me to perform in front of a different crowd.
“For me, the roots of R&B are gospel vocals. There’s a common story line—love, love, love, love, love. I try to shy away from that, ’cause everything is not love. I’m still R&B, but I want to go outside the boundaries.”
Another turn, Nancia says, came after she lost her voice for six months a few years back.
“I got sick and started getting sore throats,” she says. “My vocals were becoming weak, and I went to therapy at Mass General Hospital to get it back. I came out of that stronger and with a new confidence. It was the birth of new Nancia vocals.”
Though she’s been Massachusetts R&B royalty for years, Nancia really doesn’t carry herself like a prima donna. On a recent Friday, the singer showed up at the Hard Rock Cafe in Faneuil Hall an hour before her show for a sound check carrying her own bag with the evening’s wardrobe changes. For all her diva attributes—big personality, major online following, a clothing line—she’s utterly accessible.
“I have to constantly be engaged with my supporters and fans,” Nancia says. “I’m on social media and always talking to everybody. … It comes down to that connection, that interaction. You got to secure that connection. That’s what we want as artists, that’s what makes our music continue to move forward. I’m always making that effort. I want to connect with whoever can connect with my music.”
Other times, Nancia rolls deep. Her entourage, a mix of models and artists, have held each other down for a decade; though she has only recently become a local headliner and started opening for names as big as Lil’ Kim, everything you see has been a work in the making. At our Hard Rock interview, Smokehouse quarterback, photographer, and chief producer Jay Hunt is on hand with multiple recording devices, making sure that every shot and angle is correct. It’s all according to their long-term plan.
“I never would have thought in a million years I would get to open for the people I’ve been able to perform with,” Nancia says. She’ll be adding on to that list when her new project drops in July. “If someone told me this when I was 10 years old, I would have never believed it. It’s surreal. Like singing the National Anthem for the Red Sox and for the San Francisco Giants.
“Not even your voice is guaranteed tomorrow. This is my dream. I don’t care how big or small it is, I’m going to go for it.
“At this point, I’m just owning it.”
TRC FEST WITH NANCIA, BRANDIE BLAZE, LOUIE BELLO, DUTCH REBELLE, PORSHA OLAYIWOLA, AND MORE. TUE 5.12 AT THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.