After writing her first song at age 5 and teaching herself to play guitar at 9, Niykee Heaton dedicated her entire childhood and high school years to making music. With her songwriting giving her an outlet and escape from her troubled home life, Niykee spent nearly every moment outside of school creating and sharing original songs that showed off her soulful vocals and powerful lyrics. Fast gaining a massive following after WorldstarHipHop picked up her acoustic-guitar-based rendition of Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa” in December 2012, the 19-year-old Illinois native is set to deliver a debut from Steve Rifkind and Russell Simmons’ All Def Music in partnership with Capitol Records, revealing her timeless sense of songcraft, intuitive grasp of beats, and a lyrical sensibility that fuses poetic finesse with pure emotion.
On “Bad Intentions”—a raw but smoldering R&B ballad whose lyric video shot to more than a million views soon after its January 2014 release, largely on the strength of her staggering social-media presence—Niykee’s near-lifelong devotion to sharpening her songwriting is more than evident. “I realized early on that the only way to make my voice heard and say what I wanted to was through music,” says Niykee, whose older sister Rachel battled cancer for most of her life and died when Niykee was 12. “It was less like a hobby for me and more like a lifesaver,” she adds. Since her family couldn’t financially support her musical education, Niykee gave herself vocal training by singing along to a Diana Ross greatest-hits CD, and learned to play guitar by holing up in her room with an acoustic handed down to her by a family friend. And when it came to her songwriting, Niykee relied on a natural sense of rhythm she attributes both to her South African roots and passion for hip-hop, yet also drew a great deal of inspiration from the bare-bones authenticity of singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits (two artists beloved by her sister and older brother).
In her early teens, Niykee began posting pop covers on YouTube while continuing to cultivate her songwriting. “On Friday and Saturday nights when all the other kids were going out, I was staying home and writing songs or, when I got a little older, driving hours to some broke-down bar and begging them to let me get up and play,” says Niykee, who struggled with bullying throughout her school years. “I was doing everything I could to move my music along, but nothing was working out at all.” Having promised her sister that she’d make an impact with her songs, Niykee told her parents that she’d put songwriting aside and go to college if her music career hadn’t made any major strides by the time she turned 18. Then, the day before her 18th birthday—and shortly after she’d ditched the pop covers and started posting her acoustic takes on tracks by hip-hop artists like Chief Keef, A$AP Rocky, Lil Wayne, and Pusha T—Niykee wound up on WorldstarHipHop and found herself fielding interest from a flood of record labels. Instead of aligning herself with a label right away, she graduated high school six months early and self-financed the recording of a host of her own songs, eventually signing with Steve Rifkind and Russell Simmons’ All Def Music and setting to work on her debut EP.
With her personal highlights so far including getting hand-picked by Snoop Dogg to accompany him onstage at the YouTube Brandcast in May 2013, Niykee has kept up a steady songwriting routine despite the whirlwind of recent years. Now a magnet for up-and-coming producers, she constantly combs through beats sent her way and finds that many end up sparking song ideas. “I’ll know if a beat’s good after the first five seconds, and then I’ll get a song in my head and start writing immediately,” she says. “I go out to my back porch with my guitar and the words just come, and usually it’s all done in under 30 minutes.” As she continues develop as a lyricist, Niykee notes that the pain of her past serves as an endless source of unlikely inspiration. “Even when I’m not writing literally about things that have happened to me, all the pain of my childhood and losing my sister ends up getting pushed into my music,” she says. “It shapes my songs and builds this deeper meaning under everything, which is one the most important things to me—I need to know that I could listen to any of my songs 20 years from now, and still be proud of what I had to say.”