As your classmate at UW-Milwaukee in the dance department, I remember there were a couple people that I always watched, thinking, “That person is going to do something really incredible.” You were one of those people. I would always watch you, and you just shined. You still do. And then, you got pregnant right at the end of our last year, and I was like, “Oh no. Does this mean this is going to change Naima’s course?” Yeah. It was my last year, and I was performing with Nalani in my belly.
I don’t know if you and I were really very close at the time. I know that we had this bond because we were the only ones who knew the tunes that the accompanists were playing in modern dance class. Yes. And you were one of my favorite people to watch, I think because you were so grounded. Your movement was just really organic. It was wonderful to watch you move. I think that was probably part of our connection, because I definitely had the same mutual respect for you.
Yeah, that was probably because I didn’t have any real training before college! That’s right! And I was this hip hop, African dancer. I remember crying through the entire ballet audition when we were auditioning for the dance program. I was like, I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how to do it, and I’m not going to make it!
What was it like for you, getting pregnant while you were still in school? It wasn’t like me and Dwayne, their father, planned it. We definitely didn’t plan it, but there was this time, honestly, when I was young when I was feeling that I was never going to have kids because I was going to be a performer. I would live in New York, you know, all the stuff. And then I met him and something shifted, and I could actually see myself having children with this guy. Then it became real.
What was really interesting was that there was never a point where I was like, “Oh, my career is over.” I didn’t really get to that point. I just thought, “Well, you know what? This just means I need to grind harder. I’ve got a life that I’m going to be responsible for, so I need to make some things happen.”
“There was never a point where I felt my career was over or my dreams had to be put on hold.”
I remember being yelled at by people because I wouldn’t stop moving. They would say, “You need to stop. You’re pregnant. You can’t be dancing.” I remember I was dancing and touring with Ko-Thi African Dance Company, and I actually did have a moment where I fell in a performance, but I was still doing cartwheels and splits. People were like, “What is wrong with you?” And my answer to that was, my legs aren’t pregnant. My arms aren’t pregnant. So I literally danced and performed my babies down. Up until they were born, both of them. There was never a point where I felt my career was over or my dreams had to be put on hold. I did feel like there was a lot more responsibility. It gave me more drive to make things happen. I almost felt like my timeline needed things to happen quickly, so I kept going after it. I started the reggae band and was still teaching African dance and stepping and hip hop and was still performing with Ko-Thi.
At that time, luckily, Dwayne was in a place where he could support me, so he could be home with the girls while I was out performing, but it was definitely a challenge. Abiola, my second child, refused to take a bottle. I ordered all kinds of nipples from all over the world. I’m talking about the one that looked and felt like a boob. She wouldn’t do it. She would not take it. And she was very clingy. She needed to smell me, needed to be around me. And if she wasn’t, she was freaking out.
I remember the very first time I tried to leave her with my mom for a performance. We were performing at 10 o’clock and I got to my mom’s house at the latest possible time. I got there at like 9:40. We were performing at the Up and Under, and I raced to the show, and my phone died during the performance. So after the performance I got into the car and charged my phone, and I had like 11 voicemails. I started to listen, and it’s my mom, and all I could hear was screaming in the background. And my mom is like, “Naima, something is wrong. We have to take her to the hospital. There’s something wrong.” And I remember getting to my mom’s house, and I could hear Abiola crying from outside the house. She was still crying and her voice was hoarse, that’s how hard she had been crying. And the second I walked in the door, her voice went quiet and she looked up at me and she smiled. And my mom was like, “You little devil.”
It was challenging, because at that point I had to take her to my gigs. I would hire somebody or have somebody come with me to gigs to watch her in the dressing rooms or in a booth or something, and then on my breaks I would feed her. I tried freezing milk, and that didn’t work, because she refused to take a bottle. It created a crazy challenge, but it was nothing that would stop me. It is what it is. Accept it. As much as you can, be in the performance realm and as much as you can, be a mother. You just have to put one foot in front of the other at that point. But it was challenging for sure.
That’s incredible that you just pushed through. You found a way, and made it happen. Isn’t there also a sense of guilt? If you’re going to leave this baby with somebody else and they are so attached to you? I think there is always this space of guilt or doubt in the back of your head. For any mother. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Honestly, you could be the best homemaker in the world and a stay-at-home mom, but still question yourself as a mother. I think that for me, that first time was slightly terrifying when my daughter had been crying for four hours and I didn’t know it. I knew that I couldn’t leave her with anybody, so I just had to manipulate what I was doing to be able to accommodate her, and be the mother that I needed to be to her.
Fast forward a little bit to being on American Idol. The girls were really young. They were like one and three when I went out to L.A. But when I first started the auditioning process, Abiola was like six months old. I think that was probably the most challenging part for me when it comes to being separated from them at such a young age.
I remember one specific point when I was in Hollywood week. At that point we were still flying back and forth. There’s a whole process to it. It doesn’t happen all in one day. There’s a full week of you being out there, and then you fly back home, and then once they have chosen the top 40, you fly back out, understanding that you may not come back until the end of the season.
I was in Hollywood week, and it had only been three days, but it was the longest that I had been separated from them. It got to the point where people couldn’t ask me how my daughters were doing because I would just cry. It was crazy. It hadn’t even been that long at that point. Thank God at that time Skype was happening. FaceTime was happening. So I was able to at least communicate with them and see them and let them hear my voice. But there’s nothing you can exchange for a hug from your child. There’s nothing that will make you feel better.
When I came back, I kind of resettled and was like, man. How do I do this? I couldn’t afford to bring them with me. And then I found out I was going to be in the top 40, which meant that I was going to L.A. and I wouldn’t be back until I was kicked off the show, or win it, or whatever.
But at that point, you have to stop and think, “Ok. What I am doing could absolutely transform our lives. I am doing this for them. This could change their lives. This has the potential for me to give them the things that I did not have.” In those moments of feeling like, “My God, what am I doing? I’m leaving my children. I can’t be with them,” I had to be like, no. What you’re doing is laying some foundational blocks for the ability to provide them something better.
Backing up a little bit, I did not want to do American Idol. It was not for me. I am not that person, necessarily. I like my privacy like you wouldn’t believe. It was just not my thing, a talent show competition.
How did that happen? What was the catalyst for you to go audition for American Idol? Funny enough, the first time I actually auditioned I was prompted by a woman who I call my “second mom,” Susan Henzig. She was like, “Naima, you need to audition for this show.” At that point, I was just bright eyed and bushy tailed, like, ok. Let’s do it. I hadn’t really come into my own voice at all. I wasn’t really sure about it. And I went in, and I sang this super depressing, motherless child song. And for the first audition, you’re auditioning for producers from radio shows, local people. And they were like, no, no.
Then I went back with my brother when I was pregnant with Abiola. I went back and did the audition, and they were like, no. Later I found out on the show when I was talking to the producers that the reason they told me no was because they knew how challenging it could be, being pregnant and trying to be on the show. They loved my talent, but they said no. And I didn’t know that until the next season.
When I auditioned again, I had had Abiola and was in a nowhere place in my life. Full disclosure, I was a starving, struggling artist. I was on food stamps, and I was struggling to provide, and I was just like, this thing could change my life. So that’s what drove me to do it. It was literally my family. That was the intention from Jump Street. For me, it was never to be a famous person. It honestly wasn’t even to win the competition. I had already been performing. I had a band. It was just to create a platform that would allow me to gain more people to buy my music when I choose to do original music, or come to my concerts, or whatever the case is. If that was the case, then I would have more money to be able to provide for my family. That was really the catalyst. It was a little bit of a breaking point. Do I get a nine to five, or do I keep striving for my artist thing? And I was like, well, if I can do this American Idol thing, then maybe I can continue to strive as an artist, and still make money. I almost didn’t even go, literally.
They pass out armbands initially, and you have to go the day before to get an armband to audition the next day. I was the last one to get an armband. And I just moseyed into the Bradley Center and was like, “All right, I’ll try it,” because I had had the audition experience the year before.
They keep you out there at four o’clock in the morning, and it’s cold, and people are screaming, and I’m like, “Why are you screaming? We need to use our voices to sing!” But they are prompting you, “The camera’s on, scream as loud as you can!” I’m like, no. I was totally not having it. I was just standing there with my mouth wide open. I was not going to scream.
It’s crazy because I had a friend that called and said “They’re passing out armbands.” I didn’t even know they were doing it that day. In my opinion, it was some God stuff. The universe aligning things and saying, this is the way it’s going to go.
Incredible. So then you make it to the top 11 right? We’re all watching. So excited for you. What happened to your life after that? How did that influence your career and the ability to make certain choices? It’s not as glamorous as it seems. One of the big things they said in Hollywood Week, and I held on to it, impressed in my soul. It made me strive. They said in Hollywood Week that if you make it to the tour, by this time next year you’ll be able to buy your own home. When I heard that there was no stopping me. I was like, “I’m going to the tour. I don’t care.” You can even look back at the footage when I made it to the top and the first thing I did was put my hands on my heart like a triangle [in a house shape].
So I made it to the tour and I was like, “Ok. We’ve got something here.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of money that was talked about. I think that we signed contracts before we were even on the show that locked us in, and that’s what it is. You will either sign this contract or you won’t be on the show, and that’s just the reality of these shows. They need guarantees right out of the gate.
As a hungry artist, you’re thinking, “I can’t not take this opportunity.” So you sign. And I made it to tour. We did the tour. I got a record deal after that. And with that record deal, things were not as transparent as I would have liked them to be. It didn’t end up being a great fit. They wanted to market me as an urban artist, and I wanted something a little bit broader than that. I was still developing as an artist at that point. American Idol is not a place to develop as an artist. It’s a great platform if you know who you are as an artist and where you’re going and what you’re doing.
You were coming into it with so many influences in the way that you grew up. You grew up dancing with an African dance company. Your mother is a jazz singer. You studied modern dance in college. That is right. I was doing reggae at that time as well. I had started a reggae band. I love soul music. I love pop music. It was hard to figure that out. I had some of the worst performances of my life on American Idol, in my opinion. But I was trying to pull everything in, you know? Honestly, what it does is make you look like you don’t know what you want to do as an artist: What is she doing? What is this? What is happening here?
Then I was bought out of that record deal. I met a woman named Cindy Owen who completely transformed my life. She opened up my mind in so many different ways that I can’t really even explain. She was like, “Look. You should start coming to Nashville to write for your record.” At that time I was trying to write for a release, and Nashville is where I fell in love with country music. I started writing with these country writers, and the way the songs were written, you could taste and touch and feel the things in the songs. The lyrical integrity was everything that I wanted to be able to sing, but there was a conflict. I’m from Chicago originally, concrete jungle, and then moved to a nicer hood in Milwaukee. I’m not quite out in the fields with straw in my mouth. That’s a terrible generalization; country is so much broader than that, but I don’t quite have the “country” upbringing. It wasn’t my cup of tea. It wasn’t what I got up and sipped every morning.
But I fell in love with it. I was like, “Oh my gosh. Where has this been? What have I been doing? Why have I not been exposed to this music?” So I started to write for my record there. They felt like I had natural country sensibilities as a writer, and offered me a publishing deal. I became more of a songwriter than anything. I moved my family to Nashville, and was like, “I want to chase this, because I love it and I want to be immersed in it, and Nashville is known as the songwriting mecca.” So I came here and dove in and just started writing and writing and writing and then released Beautifully Made. It’s kind of soul/pop and was about very empowering things.
It was really important to be able to write things that my daughters could sing. Things that I would love for another mother to sing to their daughters or to their children. That became a big part of my writing. Then I started to feel like, “Ok. I’ve got the empowerment messages. They’re out there. They’re pushed out there.” I wanted to write about more realistic things that were happening in my life as well, different stories, and what captivated me about country music was the storytelling. My mother was a storyteller as we were growing up. That was a part of my life. It’s probably why I was so connected to country music.
“It was really important to be able to write things that my daughters could sing.”
There were challenges there as well, because I came from the African American community. There is this misconception, in my opinion, of country music, that it promotes racism. A lot of people in the African American community believe and feel that, because there are different artists that wave the confederate flag, or because some of the lyrics don’t really speak to people as a whole. There is sometimes a very specific group that is spoken to. But for me, I could always hear through that stuff. I’ve always been able to connect to any human being. It doesn’t matter where they’re from, what their culture is. And that’s thanks to my parents, Songodina Ifatunji and Adekola Adedapo. It is because of them rooting us down in world culture that allowed me to have a broader perspective about many different cultures.
I would get in the room with some of these country guys…One guy, I love writing with him, he comes in in overalls and boots up to his knees, like, just finished feeding the cows. Like, mountain man. But we sit down and we start the songwriting sessions. It’s like speed dating sometimes. You have to get to know a person pretty quickly and see where they’re at. In these sessions, I would be sitting down and talking to a “mountain man,” and we would have so much more in common than not. People that are in the hood in Chicago have so much more in common with this mountain man than they actually think they do. For me, it was like, here is an opportunity where I’m writing about different experiences that different country artists or country writers have had. Listening to these stories and being able to craft these songs made me fall in love with it.
However, I still had to have a nine to five. We joke a lot of times that most artists have five jobs. There are so many different hustles, even to this day. I’m blessed because I am able to provide for my children. We have shelter, we have food, we have one another. But I’m a yoga instructor. A lot of my income comes from that. I drive Lyft and Uber part time, just to supplement our income. Just to be able to manipulate my schedule so that I can songwrite so that I can be an artist. If I’m trying to come up and perform at Summerfest in Milwaukee, I can’t tell my job, “Hey, I’m going to need seven days off.” We have to find these jobs in places where there’s flexibility. But it’s hard work.
When I came off of American Idol, people were like “You made it!” There’s this thing that’s like, you’ve got money now, and it’s a huge misconception. Fame does not equal success. Fame does not equal financial stability. It just means more people know you. It just means you’re more confused when somebody across the street is yelling, “Hey, Naima!” And you’re trying to figure out, “Do I know you?”
Another one of our classmates, Cedric, was on So You Think You Can Dance. I think those experiences probably change who you are and make you think about your voice as an artist. Cedric’s back in Milwaukee, just making a big difference with the youth of our city, which I think probably came out of that experience too. And with you, you wouldn’t be where you are now without that experience on American Idol, and having decided what your voice is and where you want to go with your art. But it doesn’t mean that you’re rich and famous. Right. I even have a song called “Rich and Famous.” What it talks about is that being “rich and famous” could be the fact that you’re rich in family, you’re rich in laughter and love. If you’re famous, you’re the guy who is the greeter at Wal-mart. Everybody knows his name because he’s there. He’s famous in his own right. Sometimes I just tried to shift the perspective because we all have this idea in our heads of what rich and famous is. It’s these diamonds and flashy stuff. But the reality is, if we could grasp it, we are all rich in many different ways.
I’m rich in motherhood. Let’s be real, there is nothing better. It’s the most challenging thing in the world, but it’s so rewarding. As you watch these little lives blossom and their personalities come out, or you see bits and pieces of yourself in them, you just have to sit back and laugh. And then you sit back and imagine who they’re going to be when they grow up. In Africa, a lot of times, your wealth depends on how many children you have. If you have an abundance of children, then you’re a wealthy person. It’s just about perspective, which is why I was drawn so much to the yoga realm. Yoga is about this space of acceptance of where you are, who you are, what your circumstances are, and knowing that you’re okay inside of them. You don’t have to have specific material things. You don’t have to have a certain house or a certain car to be happy. It’s really about our connection to one another as human beings that makes us rich, period.
“I’m rich in motherhood. Let’s be real, there is nothing better. It’s the most challenging thing in the world, but it’s so rewarding.”
It’s been really interesting because for this past year, maybe a little less, I stepped away from music altogether. I was still performing in different places here in the area, but I stepped away from songwriting every day and the constant hustle of “What’s going to happen next?” I just dug into becoming a yoga instructor, because I experienced so much healing inside of it. I’m talking about mentally, physically, emotionally, energetically, healing. I’m talking about childhood traumas that just spilled out of me and then I was able to let go of. The yoga space was something that had offered me so much healing to me that I felt that it would almost be wrong not to learn how to offer this space to other people. If I could in any way, shape, or form create a space that would offer healing, understanding or any of the stuff that I experienced as I was practicing yoga, if I could provide that to anybody, then my God. Outside of motherhood, it has been hands down, one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done in my life.
You know that every day when you’re in a classroom, you can impact someone’s life changing. Sometimes it’s just a line. I almost took my singing voice and my songwriting and the messages that I say in songs and turned it into my yoga teaching voice. There are things that I would say in my songs that I would say in class when somebody was in a difficult posture or when they’re in a hip opening posture, and they’d come up after class and say, “Oh, my God. I’m just bawling in class.” That was totally me. I would be sitting in a posture like, “Why am I crying? I don’t know what’s happening!”
Are you working on any music right now? Or are you still on a break? I am an artist, and my soul is in the music room. I feel like I have grounded down enough now to begin to step back out a little bit. I’m going to start taking some of the meetings people have been asking for. I made that very tough decision to walk away from my publishing deal, because there were some personal things, and it felt like a space where my growth was kind of limited. I needed to move away from it. So I stepped away from that deal to step out into this journey of self worth.
Ultimately I’m in a space now where I miss songwriting. I miss being in the room with the writers and the guitar and this organic process of writing songs. It’s like having children. You’ve got this seed that you planted that begins to grow. And then they’re seen by the world and they develop and they turn into their own things. These songs are like your babies. So I miss that, and I miss the connection with people from the stage. It’s one thing to perform in an arena with thousands and thousands of people. It’s an incredible experience, right? But there’s something to be said about sitting with a guitar in a really intimate space with people and connecting that way. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. So I’m about to start stepping back into that.
I’ll be performing a lot more this year and stepping back into the songwriting realm and back onto the music scene a little bit more. But I really wanted to ground down into my yoga instruction and really begin to develop that part of me as well, because that’s something that I think is crucial and has played a role in allowing my creativity to flourish a little bit more.
What does it mean to you to be able to be this role model for your girls? Now that they’re becoming a preteen and a teenager? I think that’s a part of the decision making for me. There are times when I’ve been like, “Do I do this? It will take away from my time with my girls.” You have to weigh it. You have to be like, “Do I not do it?” I don’t want to not do it because I don’t want to be that example. I don’t want them to feel like they have to give up on a dream or have to give up on something that they love doing because of circumstances.
Honestly, I’ve been told several times: When you’re a mom, you can’t do certain things that other people do. Actually, that’s not true. It’s really not. You have decisions. You can make certain choices now. You may feel guilty about a decision later if you choose a specific thing, but the reality is that everything happens for a reason. I’ve always had this thing in me. Here’s an example:
When I came out of college, I was offered a $45,000 salary job to run a new art program in a high school. For somebody coming out of college, as a dancer, I was like, “Here’s some stability, and it’s going to be great. I can make money.” I walked into that space and they took me down to the basement where it was that I would be working with the children, and would be pretty much all day. There were no windows. And then I thought about the hours that I would have to be there. I have to take these things into consideration. I am somebody who needs sunlight. I need vitamin D. I need connection to the sun. So I looked and I thought to myself, “My God, I’m going to have to turn this opportunity down.” I thought, I have to be here at six o’clock in the morning, and at certain times of the year the sun hasn’t even risen yet. And then in the winter it’s dark by four p.m. and we’re in school until five. It’s not going to happen. I turned it down.
Money has never been the driving factor for me, and I think it’s always been the best decision. I’m allowed then to follow my heart, follow my spirit. Because I know I would have been a mean teacher. I would have been nothing nice in a basement cooped up with some teenagers. Oh no. I would have been a hot mess. I made the choice to work at Summerfest as a groundskeeper, and that was right. I was around music all summer long. I was cleaning toilets, and it was some pretty disgusting stuff. Some of the jobs were really harsh, but I got to move around in space. I was on the lakefront in Milwaukee in the summertime. Music everywhere. That was better for my soul than sitting in a banking job or whatever.
I’ve always tried to be very cognisant of those kinds of decisions when it comes to my spirit, my soul, and I want my girls to be able to come from that same space to make those same decisions. My 12 year old Nalani is an incredible visual artist. She has always had impeccable motor skills, since she was like two years old. Part of me is like, “No!” But the other part of me is like, what are some ways that she can express her creativity through artwork and maybe still make a good salary? This is just the mom in me, because we know the struggle of being an artist and we want a little better for our children, so they have a little more ease in life. So I’m like, well, what about architecture? You get to draw and create. So she started watching YouTube videos and Googling stuff and now she’s hardcore into it. She’s done her floor plans for her home that she’s going to build. It’s incredible.
“For me, it’s really important that they are making decisions from a place that satisfies their soul and satisfies who they are.”
My 10 year old Abiola, she’s a phenomenal little artist. She can sing her butt off. She’s a great dancer. She’s witty. She’s hilarious. She’s everything that a Disney kid is. She could totally kill it. Part of me is like, “No!” But if it’s what she chooses then all I can do as a mother is really support. I can offer my suggestions, but she’s a little human being. She’s her own little soul. And every child that comes here as an individual soul came here to do what they’re going to do. So as a parent, as a mother, step back and sometimes just try to ask, “What do you want? What do you need? What do you feel?” If we can sit back as parents and listen, we can actually learn some things from them. For me, it’s really important that they are making decisions from a place that satisfies their soul and satisfies who they are. They came here as the little divine lights that they are. So yes. I try to be an example that way.
I’m still doing my music. I’m still going to do this. I’ve never gotten to a point where I’m not doing anything related to music. I still do performances. I still sit up with my guitar and sing and write a little bit or come up with ideas. I sing my daughters to sleep every night. I use them as my test dummies just to practice and ask what they think about songs sometimes. I’m blessed, ultimately. I’m not in some huge mansion. I’m not some huge famous person. I’m not being followed around by paparazzi, and honestly, I don’t care to be that because that stuff doesn’t make you happy. It’s just where you are in life, how you can be present, in the moment.
Be grateful for the small things, like waking up in the morning and being able to see your daughter smile. There are so many things to be grateful for. One of my favorite things to play at the end of my yoga classes, is this track called “Exit (With Burgs)” by Mt. Wolf, and the biggest takeaway from it is that we have really basic needs, and as long as we have food, shelter and companionship, we are able to access happiness. It’s just that basic. It’s phenomenal. It’s incredible.
“Ask the universe for what it is that you want, because it will come. But you have to sit down and create the time to ask for it, really tap into yourself. And then you can be the best person you will ever be for your children.”
What advice do you have for other Mother Makers? I think the biggest thing, and something I had to reckon with myself as a mom, is: Don’t look at self care as selfishness. A lot of times we start to take on guilt. We start to say, “I can’t do this for myself. I can’t buy this thing for myself, because I need to be buying it for my children. I have to do this for my children. I can’t take this away from my children. I can’t go on this vacation because I need to be present for my children.” And we feel guilty for leaving. But the best thing you can do is take care of yourself. Iyanla Vanzant is one of my favorite people in the world, and she presents it as being self-full. Not selfish. Self-full. you have to fill your own cup. You have to come from a space of self love, caring about yourself, knowing what your needs are, how to meet them, how to get them out, how to express what your needs are to your partner or to other people. From that space, you can fill your own cup. They say your cup runneth over when you can fill your own cup. Everything in your cup is for you. What runneth over is for everybody else.
Find that self love, that space to create, whatever it is, even if it’s five minutes. What got me addicted to yoga, honestly, was savasana at the end of class. When there’s silence and nobody yanking at me and nobody needing anything, no emails, no texts, no calls. Take five minutes, ten minutes, to write the things down that you want. Write goals down. Ask the universe for what it is that you want, because it will come. But you have to sit down and create the time to ask for it, really tap into yourself. And then you can be the best person you will ever be for your children. It’s not selfish. It’s self-full.