Naya Ali cracks the code

An interview with the Montreal rapper, hard at work on her debut LP.

Ethiopian-born, NDG-raised rapper Naya Ali’s 2018 debut EP Higher Self begins with a confession:

 “Almost lost my faith in God,” the melody-wise talent sings. “Same time, I never prayed so hard.”

Maybe prayer works. The past year and a half saw Ali leave a marketing job and give herself a year to turn her life around into a career in hip hop, which she practised as a hobby in her teens and 20s before pursuing a university education.

“I didn’t know myself and I didn’t know my sound,” Ali explains. “So I stopped because I was starting to sound like everything else around. I took a break and focused on school, did the whole nine yards and then came back to (music) recently.”

She learned business acumen in her corporate life, but creation called her back.

“Work gave me a lot of experience, but it also showed me that I never want to be at the mercy of anybody else,” she says.

Today, she has the distinction of being one of the few anglo artists to find success inside and outside Montreal, both on the province’s festival circuit and beyond provincial borders with plays as far away from home as the U.K. and Chile.

“I’m the first — I hate this term — ‘female rapper’ from Montreal to play Osheaga. Later that day I found out I had a billboard in Toronto. I’ll never forget that day.

“Hip hop is at the forefront of music these days,” she adds. “The people who come out (to the festivals) want the hip hop experience, so it’s purposeful.”

In September alone, she played sets at FME in Rouyn-Noranda, OUMF! fest and POP Montreal. A Get Out-inspired video for recent single “Get It Right” came out at the end of August. Now, after her busy summer concert grind, Ali is in album mode with a new project that’s “70 per cent” complete.

Her style ranges from bass-driven, club-and-car accessible power anthems to ambient trap jawns, coloured by her attention to composition, with lyrical persuasions that sway from sparse, introspective poetry to aggressive chopper flows seamlessly. Collaborators include Montreal’s Kevin Figs, who has worked with Ty Dolla Sign and Jeremih and local production team Banx & Ranx. 

Ali prefers to start from scratch in the studio, crafting and composing with other beatmakers from the beginning to the end of their process.

The child of immigrant parents who came here as a toddler with her mother in the early ’90s, she’s a purpose-driven artist who doesn’t take life’s fleeting nature for granted.

“My mom is super religious, Christian Orthodox, Ethiopian. So I grew up in that. That gave me a foundation that there is spirituality,” she says. “As I grew up I learned to find spirituality in myself, as opposed to looking outward to religion. Religion isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. It’s a means to an end. But bigger than that is spirituality, and that’s something we all have, like it or not. We’re spirits embodying bodies, not the opposite.

“Higher self,” she continues, “is basically the inner you, which is more powerful than we think, which is in relation to creation and you being the driver of your own life, the best version of yourself, being created to create. So I came about that by realizing there was a better way of living and we didn’t need to follow a script. But I couldn’t crack the code, I didn’t know how to do it.

“The universe pushed me back to music as a form of therapy,” Ali has concluded. “It feels like it’s just destiny. I guess that’s what it is.” ■

Naya Ali performs as part of M for Montreal with Lydia Képinski and Prado at la Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent) on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 9 p.m., free