Named after the John Coltrane song, Naima, Naima Mora is an accomplished singer-songwriter, model, and Cycle 4 winner of America’s Next Top Model in 2006. This wildly multi-talented inspiration was getting ready to visit her twin sister and some friends in the British Virgin Islands when we spoke. Naima comes from a highly creative family. In fact, her visit to the Virgin Islands is because of her sister, a private chef, who Naima visits a couple of times per year. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan by musician parents (hence the John Coltrane name), Naima grew up dancing to a beat, with a song in her heart. Naima’s words and thoughts flow fluidly and easily. She is sharp and grounded but free-spirited.
MR: How did you get involved with the modeling industry?
NM: When I moved to New York City, I had just turned 18 years old and I moved to study classical ballet with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. They granted me a full scholarship. I needed to find a place to live and a good friend of my sister offered to let me move in with her. She is a makeup artist and she is the first person who got me intrigued by the modeling industry. I pursued dance for a while but then decidedthat I wanted to model and America’s Next Top Model casting just happened to scout me.
MR: What do your parents do?
NM: My parents are musicians. My mother is a singer and interior decorator my dad is a drummer. They are both avant-garde jazz musicians. I grew up in a musical household. My dad was always playing records really loudly in the morning. In my adulthood, I cherish those memories and appreciate my parents exposing me to so many different kinds of music from all around the world.
MR: How did you start playing music?
NM: Music had always been in the back of my mind as a way of expressing myself. A few years after I won America’s Next Top Model, a guy asked me to be in a band with him. I said, “Okay, I know nothing about music but my parents are musicians!” So I started this music journey with a rock band in New York in 2007. After a few years, I moved to LA but I wanted to move on from rock music. I love rock and I am veryinspired by visceral rock music but at this time, people are listening to different genres. I also realized from writing that if it’s a good song, it’s a good song and you can play it as a ballad, you can play it as a pop song or you can give it to a symphony orchestra and no matter what, it will sound good.
I decided to release a single called Hourglass. It was more pop but it had a little bit of electric guitar. I toured nationally with just my one little song. As a creative person, I want to become more accessible to people and pop music facilitates that. After trying to work with producers in LA and not seeing the results I imagined, I moved to Mexico City to reinvigorate my image as a model and create EDM music. I’m from Detroit and I grew up around house music. I love EDM because it’s a form of music where people really come together and dance. It’s extremely accessible and allows me to connect with people.
MR: What have you learned from working in the music industry?
NM: Whenever I express myself and I’m just myself, people respond to it. I’ve also learned that as an artist, you cannot rely or wait on anyone to help your career. If someone promises you something, that’s great but you can’t expect them to follow through. You have to make sure you are lining things up for yourself to live your dreams and to create the vision that you have for yourself. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. People love authenticity. That’s when you’re speaking from heart to heart. When you’re being your most authentic self, people respond to it. I found that again after working with people who told me not to trust myself.
MR: What’s next for you?
NM: Touring is coming up soon. I am still working as an independent artist, booking my own tours and shows. I have a team of dancers who are amazing and I have a whole new visual look that I want to release in the New Year. I am going to write a new album while I’m in the Caribbean. I have a bunch of ideas that I’m working on. I am getting some remixes done by DJs all over the world. One of them is Divoli S’vere. He has done a few soundtracks including for the movie called Kiki and I fell in love with it because it sounded like the Detroit techno sound. I reached out to him and he was excited to work with me.
MR: What modeling campaigns have you been involved with recently?
NM: I recently moved back to New York for fashion week after I was living in Mexico City. With my aesthetic, I knew I would be more celebrated and work more in NY. I had a great season. I did Chromat. It’s a swimwear company that celebrates femininity of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. Every type of feminine archetype was in their show. As a model I sometimes face difficulty in figuring out what categories I fall into. A lot of people don’t know what my background or ethnicity is but with companies like Chromat, they are celebrating everybody and that was super fun. I also walked runway shows for Yajun, DFBK and with Project Runway designer, Richard Hallmark and I recently did a small commercial for Opening Ceremony and Hennessy. That was a fun shoot, running around Chinatown. I am the new face for La Pierre Cosmetics as well.
MR: What does nightlife look like for you?
NM: My schedule is so crazy and unconventional. My days are never the same. I’m a little older now so between building shows, writing music, and going to castings and shoots, I try to get as much sleep as I can. I like my nightlife to include the time that I am performing. But I like my nights out with girlfriends too. We like to see what’s poppin’ around the city. The other night we went to a book signing and then to the Bowery Hotel. I like to go to the Williamsburg Hotel rooftop— good vibes great cocktails. I have a few friends who work there and they just opened the water tower. It has one of the best views of Manhattan! I go to a lot of fashion events in the evening, networking parties with DJs, pop up shops… and everyone shows up looking ridiculous, dressing to impress. It’s true when they say this city doesn’t sleep. I went to 1Oak the other night and I was telling my friend I really had to go because I had a casting in the morning, but she was like, “The club doesn’t really start to get going until 2AM!” I can’t keep up.
MR: Do you have advice for people who want to pursue a career in entertainment?
NM: I went to Kentucky this past weekend to give a workshop about pursuing a career in entertainment and I think the most important thing is to remember your end goal and to cherish what that is. As artists, we have the potential to inspire people and even change their lives with the work that we do. When we remember that, we can tap into the greatest part of ourselves. If you’re thinking about who you’re writing for and you’re doing that from a very sincere place, then people will respond and you will find your voice there.
Pop music works well as a way to reach people because people gravitate towards these popular chord progressions. Then you have to think, How do I live inside those rules and how do I make myself different? You have to invest the time and energy into your career in order for people to pay attention to you We have talent and show up ready to go but at the end of the day, it’s a business and people want to see that work has been put into what they’re investing in. Develop a work ethic that matches what it would look like if you were getting paid and booked the way that you envision for yourself in the future. If I walk into a room of record label executives and I haven’t invested in myself to show them what I’ve done, they have nothing to see. It’s a humbling experience. We believe in ourselves so much when we’re young and we think, I’m hot stuff and people should give me everything! But you have to put in the work as much as any other job, if not more.
I think a lot of artists have a difficulty finding their voice, because we are told that we should look a certain way, sound a certain way, present ourselves a certain way, and the truth is, it’s easy to get stuck there and become unauthentic and lose touch with the reason why we’re artists. When we remember who we are making music for and why, we can decide to be our authentic selves within that. It’s a conversation that happens without words. Of course, you have to refine and polish who you are and how you express yourself for you to be able to be understood. But in the end, it’s a heart to heart conversation.