Indonesian singer, songwriter and record producer Nicole Zefanya was born on January 24, 1999 in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she was also raised. She is professionally known as NIKI.
NIKI was steeped in both traditional and contemporary music from a young age. The first lady of Asian hip-hop collective, label and cultural juggernaut 88rising spent weekends rehearsing for and singing in Sunday chapel and her free time listening to her mother’s ‘90s R&B records by TLC, Destiny’s Child, and Boyz II Men.
Despite her musical upbringing and the feeling that she would eventually become a singer and a producer, it was not until her mother allowed her to watch TV in the fourth grade and she watched an E! special on Taylor Swift that she realized this dream was within her grasp.
“I fell in love with songwriting because of that documentary, and I asked my mom for a guitar,” she says. “I realized music is a viable career option for some people, and maybe I could be one of them.”
From kindergarten to twelfth grade, NIKI attended an international Christian school, where she was recognized for her talents and asked to lead weekly mandatory chapel. “I would arrange all of our sets,” she says. “I loved being up there and leading with music. That fueled my fire, because I felt the need to live up to those expectations.” While studying English literature and the poetic lyricism of indie folk, NIKI decided she wanted to get her songs out there and began posting videos of herself singing and playing the guitar to YouTube. One day, while using GarageBand to record her vocals and guitar, the then-15-year-old NIKI found the program’s built-in sound library. “That’s when I discovered all these loops and one shots and samples, and there were drums and bass. There were just so many instruments,” she says. “It just kind of manifested into a whole career in production.”
Rich Brian, a foundational member of 88rising, discovered NIKI through her YouTube channel, and initially bonded over their fluency in the English language. After occasionally hanging at his studio and emailing demos back and forth, he introduced her via Skype to Los Angeles-based 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro, who released her sharp-tongued kiss-off “See U Never” on his rapidly ascendant imprint in 2017. “The rest is history,” says NIKI.
Her career took off shortly after she went to college in Nashville, where a friendsgiving trip to LA turned into a “very hustle and bustle week full of work” once Miyashiro found out she was there and put her in the studio. “They were like, ‘Let’s do a video shoot, let’s put you in sessions,’” NIKI says. “By the end of that week, they were like, ‘We want to sign you, so you better talk to your parents.’” Knowing the conversation with her dad would be difficult, she told him at Christmas that she had signed with the label and would be leaving college. “I was like, ‘Surprise, Dad! It’s not really a hobby. I actually kind of want to pursue this,’” she says. After seeing that she had hundreds of thousands of streams on Spotify and a feature on Billboard, his skepticism dissolved. “Now he’s practically my Indonesian business manager,” says NIKI.
It wasn’t long before she needed one. After touring Australia with Rich Brian in May of 2018, NIKI released her first EP, Zephyr, wrote a number of tracks on 88rising crew album Head in the Clouds and “Little Prince” on Rich Brian’s LP Amen, and was invited to tour southeast Asia with Halsey in the August of 2018, which she calls “the best experience of my life.” Halsey dispensed industry wisdom over breakfast in Singapore, and identified with NIKI’s career trajectory, since both of them began performing on the big stage at age 19. And NIKI’s performance in Jakarta was a triumphant homecoming: While she was busy building her career in the United States, she had unbeknownst to her become a huge star in her home country, where most Indonesian celebrities are almost unheard of abroad. “Everybody knew my lyrics, and people were singing along and at one point, I dropped the mic to hear them sing my songs,” she says.
After racking up 113 million streams across platforms to date, NIKI starts the year strong with another EP due in May, wanna take this downtown? Sumptuously produced, with cutting turns-of-phrase salting her rich, sweet vocal delivery, the four-track effort precedes a forthcoming full-length from NIKI, who recently moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her 88rising family. After releasing a bedroom demo “lowkey” as the first single, NIKI gives us another taste of the EP with the effervescent “move!”, produced by Jordan Palmer and John Hill and written by Sarah Aarons, whose credits include “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris.
More importantly, wanna take this downtown? provided a reprieve from a brooding period in NIKI’s life following the tragic sickness and death of her mother from cancer. After recording the collection of introspective songs that will be on her full-length later this year, Moonchild, NIKI yearned for solace in the effervescent but powerful R&B that had become her signature. “This EP came out of nowhere. It was born out of this dark time in my life but it kind of flipped around and saved me, honestly,” she says. “I know that sounds dramatic but it really did.”