We Talked to Indonesia's 'R&B Princess' NIKI About 'Going International,' and '90s Nostalgia

"I actually grew up listening to a lot of Destiny's Child because my mom was really into that late-'90s R&B. Like Boys II Men, Aaliyah, those kind of people."

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Nov 14 2017, 6:00am

"Say hi to the next R&B princess straight out of Indonesia."

That's the flattering and mysterious YouTube description of the music video for a song called "I LIKE U," the latest single from an 18-year-old singer and producer who goes simply by NIKI. The track is a bouncy piano-driven ballad anchored by trendy trap hi-hat triplets, 808 bass, and NIKI's powerful voice. In the video, NIKI sings to herself in a bedroom plastered with TLC and Aaliyah posters—homages to the late '90s R&B legends that have obviously influenced her musical style.

NIKI, real name Nicole Zefanya, was born and raised in Jakarta. Since her late teens, she's posted originals and covers of songs by American and British artists on her YouTube channel under her given name. On her family trips to Los Angeles and through the open borders of the internet, she's cultivated her own pop cultural sensibility and infused it with the styles of modern pop and R&B, creating a genuinely stateless sound that would feel at home anywhere with a computer.

Nowadays, NIKI is studying music at a small university in Nashville, Tennessee, while putting out singles under her new shortened moniker. Her new songs are coming out through 88rising, the New York-based pan-Asian management and media production company that's home to Rich Chigga, Higher Brothers, and Keith Ape. The videos for her two newest, self-produced tracks—"I LIKE U" and "See U Never" (with an assist from Rich Chigga, aka fellow Indonesian Brian Immanuel)—have racked up over 796,600 plays on YouTube at the time of publication. It seems like people like her, too.

VICE's Ethan Harfenist reached out to NIKI to see how she balances her life as a college freshman with her budding career as the internet's favorite R&B princess.

VICE: Your new stuff coming out under 88 Rising is forward-thinking, but it still leans pretty heavily on classic R&B. It fits in with this whole nostalgic trend going on right now. Why do you think we're so obsessed with the sounds of the late '90s and early 2000s right now?
NIKI: I thought about this a lot myself. Honestly, I think it started with like…OK, first of all, I think that EDM has been like the reigning genre for a while, and I feel like it's sort of dying—not dying but it's sort of losing its throne, I guess, recently. And I think through that, hip-hop's sort of come to the surface as EDM died down, and hip-hop diversified. And there's so many sub-genres of hip-hop nowadays, you know?

I'm going to name some people: There's this Singaporean artist, her name's Sam Rui, for some reason she's the first person that comes to mind. But like, she would use super alternative, kind of mellow sounding synths that were super, like, indie pop, and she'd pair it with trap [instrumentals] and that's modern contemporary R&B.

And I think it's because hip-hop is so diverse now, and I thought about hip-hop because I personally think R&B is under the whole umbrella of hip-hop, but that's just my opinion. I don't know if I answered your question, though. [laughs]

I get what you're saying. Modern R&B is 100 percent influenced by some of the experimentation in modern rap today. but in terms of the style of your songs, not so much the instrumentation, do you feel like what you're doing owes a lot to the '90s TLC sound?
1,000 percent, for sure! Absolutely. I actually grew up listening to a lot of Destiny's Child because my mom was really into that late-'90s R&B. Like Boys II Men, Aaliyah, those kind of people. And so I honestly have no idea how the trend started, but yeah, for sure like it's indebted to late '90s R&B—my music is at least. It also feels like it's tied to the… '90s clothes are back! The style is back. And I feel like that also informed and permeated into music too.

Yeah, the fashion is back too. It makes me wonder whether anything is really all that new today. Or whether it's just a remix of this reflection of the past.
I feel like stuff is definitely new, but I also feel like everything is rooted in the trends or styles that were established in the past. I feel like originality nowadays is so difficult to come by. I mean, OK, it's so easy to come by, but it's also difficult in terms of 1,000 percent pure authenticity in art because of developments like the internet and having the ability to stream music. People can just submit their own music sitting in their bedrooms now. And I feel like the world is so much more well-acquainted with each other and more interconnected, and so people are always being influenced by one another.

So, in that way, I feel like true originality is hard to come by. But at the same time, people are being so much more creative nowadays with music software developments. We have synths built into our computers now! You can alter those synths a billion different ways to make your song sound super original. But still, I'm for sure influenced by people that have done the same things in the past.

Asian musicians are sort of having a moment right now in the US with Rich Chigga, CL, and so many others. What's behind this?
I feel like Asians are so underrepresented in the media. Name one Asian mainstream artist, not like a freakin' classical music composer that scored a film 20 years ago. Somebody that's popular and in the public eye. Name one person that's won a Grammy in the last five years—or in the last 30 years! Name one Asian actor that won an Oscar, you know? We're not even talked about. We haven't been talked about.

This generation is very—how do I explain this? I feel like my generation is starting to be more inclusive as a society and just with TV shows casting more people of color, and breaking stereotypes and having Asians play the jock instead getting some white guy. The breaking of barriers that way, I feel that's why Asians are starting to rise now, because people are starting to realize, 'Oh wait, Asians exist. Whoops!' I think that's whats happening: the media is starting to bring Asians to life.

How do you try to represent your Indonesian roots as an artists working in the US? I was reading this interview with Rich Chigga where he seemed to portray Jakarta as this crime-filled city full of gun violence. But I personally know it's nothing like that. How are you trying to tell the rest of the world what Indonesia is all about?
I'm not outwardly like, 'Indo pride!' all over social media or anything like that, and it's not out of hiding, it's just that I don't do that. But in terms of my daily life, like, in college, being in freakin' Tennessee, I just try to tell people about it. I try to be like, 'Oh, that's so funny that you mention that, because back home in Jakarta, this would happen.' And I just try to include not just Jakarta, but Asia in the conversation.

I like to challenge people. Nashville is not the most diverse city, you know, in America. Especially my college. It's predominately white. So I just bring my Jakartan mindset, my perspective, and my world view into the conversation. And that way people are like, 'Oh my gosh! I never even considered that that existed, or people thought like that, or people say that.'

Do you consider yourself an Indonesian artist or an American one?
I don't know if I like those terms. I will never deny that I'm from Indonesia, you know. But when people say, 'she's an Indonesian artist,' yes, that's true, but it's somewhat confining. I know Indonesian local artists, the people that only exist in Indonesia. And I don't want to be one of those people. That's the connotation I get from the 'Indonesian artist Niki' kind of thing.

I wouldn't consider myself an American artist either, because that's just straight up not true. I'm not from America. I don't know! I'm an R&B singer. I make my own beats. I'm from Indonesia.

So you have someone like Agnez Mo who has been in the US forever, but has never really broken through. Yet, she is still really popular back home. Where's your focus, professionally? The US or Indonesia?
I mean, it'd be nice to break through both! [laughs] But I just think of it like, hey, I break through wherever I break through. The thing about America and Hollywood—not Hollywood, I don't think with the internet anything is 'Hollywood' anymore—I feel like America is the epicenter of entertainment. It's literally the superpower of the entertainment industry. So in that sense, yes, I want to aim for the American charts because America is the majority; if it trends in America, it will probably trend everywhere else. But if I'm just focusing on Indonesia, yeah it'd be great if I broke through those charts, but it tends to stay in that local bubble. And it would be ideal to universal.

There's such an obsession in Indonesia with 'going international.' Why are the standards for success so dependent on an artist making it in the West?
I love that question. I'm going to be straight up honest, Indonesians are very aware—at least subconsciously—that Indonesia has a very long way to go. That's in terms of everything. But Indonesians don't think much of the country. We just think of—when I say 'we' it's because I'm Indonesian. I don't mean this personally, I'm generalizing. But I just feel like we tend to idolize the outside world. Everything outside of Asia is just so cool and so far away. I'm not really sure where that come from historically, like why we developed that kind of mindset as a culture. But that's just the way it is.

So, on that note, do you have any performances planned in the US? I know Rich Chigga is on a US tour right now, and doing an Asia tour soon.
Not yet, I don't think. I only have like two songs in my rep. Once we add a little more songs to that set, but at least right now, no.

Are you going to do a show back in Jakarta too?
Oh, absolutely. That's like one of my biggest goals. I'd love to do gigs like that.

This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

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