Hit songwriter and producer Nija Charles brought her skills and experiences to the Zoom room on February 15 to listen to and advise several talented New York City Department of Education public high school students on their songwriting craft for the latest Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session, hosted by producer, songwriter and Stuyvesant HS Music Educator / SHOF NY Education Committee vice chair, Harold Stephan.
At the young age of 24, Nija Charles has already garnered 12 Grammy nominations, two number 1's on Billboard Hot 100 and has also landed a spot on Forbes’ "30 Under 30" list. Her work with artists such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z (Heard About Us and LoveHappy); Cardi B featuring SZA (I Do); Cardi B featuring Kehlani (Ring); Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande (Rain on Me) and Chris Brown featuring Drake (No Guidance) has secured her position as a creative powerhouse and tastemaker.
Stephan welcomed everyone to the session and asked Charles about her beginnings in the music business. Charles talked about her roots in New Jersey, born to parents who were heavily influential in exposing her to all genres of music, and her uncle and aunt who created beats and loops with the production software Fruity Loops. “I love R&B but I was exposed to so many different types of music. My parents were House Heads in NJ and always listening to the radio. I was in a rock band and was exposed to Afro beat and pop and learned all of these different structures. I genuinely liked all of these genres.”
“I went to school for production and not songwriting, but I was 14 or 15 when it clicked that’s what I want to do.” She was part of Future Music Moguls, a free program for talented high school students at The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and then enrolled in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University where she practiced her production and songwriting skills.
“That music program prepped me, showing me how to use ProTools, etc.” She combined school with an internship at Blast Off in NYC before then deciding to move to LA. “You have to be in artists faces and being available and around. In LA calls come all the time and become part of a routine.”
When asked about her influences, Charles said she “Listened to a lot of Usher, Alicia, Beyonce, Jackson 5 and others, and when I grew older, I found out wrote the songs.”
Stephan asked about her experiences as a woman in the music industry, and she said, “Exposure is what makes the world go around, especially for female producers. It’s kind of like a proving game every time I’ve been in a room. I knew I'd have to prove myself as not just a studio groupie. People tend to automatically think you belong to one of the men.”
Stephan played songs from five pre-selected students for Nija who also took their questions, one being about her writing process. “Usually there are chords and a loop. I'm a free styler and have to spew things out, melodies and lyrics. I'll take the words and craft the story around whatever the melody I hear. I'm a very good listener and will take something someone says and make a song out of it. Friends will tell me about a situation and tell me how they feel about it...sometimes we live regular lives and have to take inspiration from others.”
When asked about ways to promote their music, she explained, “There’s not one answer to growing your network. Start within your school, town, county and state. Go on blogs and DM tracks to people. Tik Tok is your best friend and great way to grow. Find a different way to push lyrically in a way that hasn't been done before to reel people in. Being consistent and driven to create, and with social media, I was able to turn one opportunity into five. There are a million good people, but in order to stand out you have to be great.”
One student asked about signing with a record label and Charles said, “Labels want the full package with buzz, numbers and following. You don't need a label until you feel you need money. With distribution companies and uploading to Spotify, etc., you don't need them.”
Stephan asked, “What keeps you continuing on and your motor going with your success?” Charles responded, “This isn't a job to me and the success just comes with it. I’ve been making songs since I was 13. It's fun for me, and no matter how many accolades I get I'll still be writing. There are times I just want to make music for myself and it keeps me going.”
Another student question was about writers block, and Charles said, “I’ve experienced it, but I know it's not really me, so I don't sulk about it. I just put on TV, eat dinner and hang with friends to free my mind. Forget music for a second and just live.”
When asked about her favorite songs, “No Guidance is my favorite song I’ve ever written, Chris Brown's biggest hit in a long time, about black culture. Helping Chris and Drake create this moment means a lot to me.”
In closing, Charles gave this advice to students, “Keep at it, and the number one thing is to be a good person.”
This Master Session was streamed live on the SHOF YouTube channel and is available for viewing HERE.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame and SHOF New York Education Committee chair April Anderson are grateful to Nija Charles, David Gray, EVP/Head Of A&R, Universal Music Publishing Group, Simone Dixon, A&R / Creative, Universal Music Publishing Group and Elizabeth M. Guglielmo, Director of Music, New York City Department of Education for her continued support of these events and opportunities for public school students!
The SHOF Master Sessions at Stuyvesant program has hosted events for NYC public school students highlighting both the business and creative sides of the music industry since 2018, with past sessions featuring TBHits, Sam Ashworth, Denzel Baptiste & David Biral p/k/a Take A Daytrip, Khari “Needlz” Cain, Steven Van Zandt, Steve Greenberg, Mark Hudson, Samantha Cox, Leyla Blue, Maude Latour, Laundry Day, Pom Pom, Mike Campbell, Billy Mann, Gregg Wattenberg and Rich Christina.