It’s a far cry from Nikki’s youth, when she found herself singing lullabies to her little brother in a battered-women’s shelter. Her journey from instability in the Chicago suburbs to a place of personal peace in the city is against the usual narrative, but she doesn’t seem to do anything the usual way. It’s also nothing she wants to dwell on.
These days she’s home, in her Wicker Park apartment, reading King Leopold’s Ghost and listening to Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and old Mamas and the Papas. “I really love Cass Elliot’s voice,” she says.
It’s a long way from 67th and Lowe, the turf she owned so well that Lupe dubbed her the Queen of Englewood. “I loved Englewood,” says Nikki. And she might have stayed there, happy and settled, but for an incident four years ago that rocked her to the core.
“I was home when I heard a gunshot,” Nikki explains. “Everybody went quiet in the building. Then this girl started screaming. I knew the girl and her sister, and I knew their mom and that her mom had a boyfriend. I just rushed out in the hallway and grabbed the girls — I wanted to go into their apartment, but I also didn’t want to go in — and you could hear all this wrestling around and then a second shot.”
Her neighbors, it turned out, had committed a murder-suicide, and Nikki, with the survivors in her arms, was forced to give a statement to the police.
“I didn’t want to move; I hate moving,” she said, “but I had to move. I didn’t want to not be around black people, especially because I’d lived in the suburbs in mixed areas before and hadn’t been very happy.” But Wicker Park has been freeing. “There’s all kinds of people here, including black people,” she says. “Nobody even notices me.”
Which means she’s free to plot out the next phase: new songs, a live band, a solo album. “I’m dying to do some full-out shows,” she says, tapping her foot, “really sing, really move, really get out in the world.”
Achy Obejas is an author whose most recent book is Ruins, a novel about Cuba in the Special Period. She was born in Cuba and came to the United States by boat in 1963. She writes for The Root and other U.S.-based publications.