Niyoki

Rest is a fitting title for gospel singer Niyoki’s sophomore CD. The spiritually uplifting, musically inventive follow-up to her acclaimed My Everything, which featured the hit song “He’s Here,” was recorded while she was pregnant with her first child, Kedron Nero, who was born on November 3, 2007. Expectant motherhood helped to provide the Indiana-born, Tennessee-based vocalist with a peace of mind she had never before known, as did a new sense of confidence developed during her past two years as a fledgling solo artist on the national gospel music scene.

“I was so much more comfortable with this project because I’d been there, done that,” Niyoki explains. “I’m more settled in my thoughts, with my lyrics, and with what direction I wanted to go with the music. And, more importantly, my relationship with God has evolved into a place of peace.”

Rest also reflects the variety of musical styles Niyoki has experienced, including those from her childhood on the gospel highway with her family singing group, and the several years she spent on the road and in the recording studio with Prince.

All 13 songs on Rest were written and produced by Niyoki in collaboration with her four producers: Ralph B. Stacy, whose extensive credits include work with R&B artists Mario, Dru Hill, Jagged Edge, and K-Ci and JoJo; Antonio Neal, an EMI Gospel recording artist who has also produced gospel singers Canton Jones, Darlene McCoy, and Kierra “Kiki” Sheard; and up-and-comers Floyd Thomas and Quintin X. Coleman. Both Stacy and Thomas had worked on Niyoki’s earlier CD. Much of Rest was recorded at her state-of-the-art home studio in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with Clarence Nero, her husband of three years and CEO of the independent label D2G Records.

Although Rest has, in the singer’s words, “a central theme of hope and love for Jesus Christ,” the CD offers a diverse menu of musical flavors, from the traditional gospel of “Never Gave Up,” on which Niyoki stunningly navigates four key modulations, to the praise-and-worship sounds of “Come In,” the sweetly harmonized “I Will Rest,” the dance floor-friendly “Joy,” the hip-hop-infused “He’s Chosen Me,” and the rock ‘n’ roll of “I Win.” And on her reprise of the ballad “So Glad You Decided,” Niyoki sings alone, without instrumental accompaniment, showcasing the strength of her voice, as well as her remarkable contralto-to-mezzo-soprano range.

Niyoki (pronounced Nie-oh-kee), an African name meaning “serious minded and responsible,” was given to her by her mother, a high school French and Spanish teacher in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her father, the Reverend Clifford White, is pastor of Loving Faith, a nondenominational church in Fort Wayne. At age five, Niyoki began performing with her piano-playing mother, father, brother, and older sister in the White Family and remained with the group through high school. Her two younger sisters later joined the group which recorded five albums, and toured the Midwest and Southeast on weekends and during the summer.

The White Family traveled by van with Reverend White driving. “It was real tight quarters with all of us in the van,” Niyoki remembers. “Sometimes the trips were long, but mostly I remember how much fun it was.”

On some occasions, however, the group came up short financially. She saw her parents deal with business disappointments, especially concerning the finances. “I think that makes me more business savvy now,” Niyoki says.

The White Family often opened gospel programs for such established artists as Shirley Caesar, The Williams Brothers, The Highway QC’s, The Canton Spirituals, and The Truthettes. Niyoki was especially inspired by the Truthettes’ young lead singer, TuTu Jordan. “She was always so vocally strong and confident,” Niyoki recalls. “When I was small, I was still a little afraid to go up on the stage, but she never seemed to show any fear at all.”

Eventually, Niyoki and her three sisters left the family fold and formed an R&B singing group called Milenia. “A local promoter told us that we were tall and beautiful,” explains Niyoki, who at 5’8” was the shortest member of the group. “We were at that rebellious stage. We were tired of our parents managing us.”

While appearing in Minneapolis, Milenia was spotted by Prince. “You always hear about how tight harmonies can be with siblings,” Niyoki explains. “That’s what Prince liked about us. He just loved how our blend was and how tight our harmony was.”

The sisters began singing backgrounds for Prince as well as opening his shows with a 30-minute set of their own. They appeared on his 2001 duet with Angie Stone, “U Make My Sun Shine,” and on his 2003 CD The Rainbow Children on which Niyoki was briefly featured singing second lead on the song “Everywhere.” A Milenia CD titled Our Story was issued in 2005, and included two Prince-produced tracks.

Niyoki learned many valuable musical lessons during her three years with Prince. “We came from a gospel background, and he used to get on us a lot about over-singing, so I learned how to use volume as a vocal technique and not be so hard-hitting all the time,” she explains. “He showed us how to put parts together in the studio. I listened to that and watched him, and that helped me to be able to put my own harmonies together now. However, I do realize that the gift I have comes from God.”

A cancelled world tour and recordings that didn’t require background singers led the White sisters to leave Prince. “We got tired of the hurry-up-and-wait thing,” Niyoki says. “There were so many uncertainties about our future with Prince. It was a really confusing and frustrating time and it sent me into a world of depression.”

Niyoki stopped singing for a period and worked in business development at an architectural firm. And, she says, “I took time to pray, and gospel melodies kept coming up in my heart.”

My Everything was the answer to Niyoki’s prayers. The CD has sold 15,000 copies since its release in 2006 and the lead track, “He’s Here,” was named the 27th most-played gospel song of 2007 by the trade publication R&R (Radio and Records).” That is awesome for a new artist on an independent label,” Niyoki says. She and her husband purchased an RV and toured the country with her background singers, appearing at churches and on concerts with such artists as Karen Clark-Sheard, Kierra “Kiki” Sheard, and Virtue. In 2007, Niyoki also performed on Radio One’s One Love Cruise of the Caribbean, which featured, among others, Fred Hammond, Donald Lawrence, and Cheryl “Coko” Clemons, formerly of SWV, the R&B group that had initially inspired Milenia.

With Rest, Niyoki feels that her life and her music have come full circle. “I’m so peaceful with my little boy,” she explains. “I’m just really, really happy to know God more and in a closer way than ever before. It’s given me that rest that most people are longing for, and that I’m happy to say that I have.”