The rapper dubbed the Queen of Englewood by hip-hop's Lupe Fiasco talks to The Root about her new EP, her deal with MTV and why she decided to move out of the hood.
These days the Queen of Englewood, Nikki Lynette, actually lives in Wicker Park.
And those two Chicago neighborhoods are planets apart: Englewood is deep South Side, colorful but deadly, while Wicker Park is multiculti and so hip it hurts. But 27-year-old Nikki, who dropped the boundary-breaking EP The Strong Survive a month ago, isn't feeling much tied to anything these days except her music.
"In society, there's all this pressure to be cool and in with the in crowd," she says. "But you know, after high school, you don't have to be into that anymore."
And so Nikki has embraced independence: She raps with machine-gun speed but also borrows electrifying rock licks from Guns N' Roses. She can be sassy or sad, ironic or nostalgic, and nod appreciatively at Toni Basil or Prince. And when she steps up and sings, it's a clarion call.
She just got back from a road trip in which she met with fans all over the country and realized that being herself -- suburban and South Side, multiculti and soul diva, rapper and rocker -- is a beautiful thing. "The people who came out to see me, the people I represent, aren't exactly status quo," she says with a laugh.
In person, Nikki has a soft, pretty face and a sweet, girlish smile, and she laughs easily. She wears braids and big, round glasses. But after just a few minutes around her, it's clear she's got a fierce focus.
"I don't own fear," she says, and her eyes get steely. "I could be afraid of being different, but I don't own it. I'm brainy; I'm a nerd. I like to read books along with [what's on] the Internet. We're all adults now; nobody falls into categories anymore."
Except that people still try to nudge her into one: Is she rock? Is she rap? Is she pop? Is she black enough? Tough enough? The Strong Survive is only going to add fuel to the fire: The beats are blistering, the rhymes are stinging and the guitar is electrifying. Lyrically, it's Nikki meets Prince meets Joni Mitchell meets Axl Rose.
"I say, you know what? I'm just gonna be myself."
So far she's defied the haters, defied the boundaries. A year ago she won second place in a national contest that got her in Billboard magazine and tons of press. Then, last March, MTV made her an offer. It was big stuff, real money, a break in every way.
But the Chicago boys who owned the studios where she'd recorded what MTV loved so much wouldn't give up the masters unless she gave up her soul. "It was a big lesson," says Nikki.
It meant carving a new path, a different way: giving her music away, making videos, doing meet-and-greet tours instead of clubs and concerts. It meant joining SAG and AFTRA and becoming a businesswoman. It meant reinventing, redoing, re-envisioning and re-recording her music all on her own.
"MTV licensed everything, all my songs," she says, and there's more than a hint of triumph in her voice. Though the details of the deal are private, it has given Nikki the financial independence to focus on her art. Now she's all over Jersey Shore, her songs punctuating Snooki's and the Situation's antics, and providing the sound track on The Real World.
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.