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In 2007, a college-aged Niia Bertino appeared from the ether as a featured vocalist on Wyclef Jean’s global hit “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill).” Though still a musical neophyte, Niia shared the track with hip-hop heavyweights Akon and Lil Wayne, and also made a cameo in the song’s music video which was shot on the grounds of a refugee camp. In fact, Wyclef was so impressed with her talent, she was given extra camera time and invited on his tour with Akon.

For the classically trained pianist and jazz vocalist, meeting Wyclef Jean – who soon became her mentor – was just the kind of auspicious career start she’d dreamed of. Yet the clear-cut path soon gave way to twists, turns and road blocks as Niia struggled to find her signature sound and figure out who she wanted to be as an artist.

In 2013, after parting ways with Wyclef, Niia self-released “Made for You,” a sultry, simmering ballad with an accompanying video shot by American History X director Tony Kaye. A year later she found Danish Music Award winning producer Robin Hannibal whom she worked with on her first EP, Generation Blue. 

Despite creative setbacks and career uncertainty, Niia continued to produce music, filtering her experiences into what would later become her debut album, I. We sat down with Massachusetts-born crooner for a candid discussion on the long road to completing her first studio-length project.

Press play to watch “Then & Now” with Niia. Also stream or purchase the I album through Apple Music here.

Get acquainted with more of our music features like our roundup of the top 10 worst hip-hop tattoos here

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