There’s always been a silent, yet strong, force between artists from the United Kingdom and fan bases in the United States, particularly for black acts. Artists like Sade, Billy Ocean, Seal, and countless others have all enjoyed careers that have extended across the Atlantic ocean. With many UK-born artists having roots in the larger African diaspora, many of the musical stylings draw from a similar musical well; a well that has built much of what has become American popular music.
Over the course of the past decade, there’s been a reintroduction of black acts from the UK into American music. Artists like Jorja Smith, Ella Mai, and Nao, have built wide ranging fan bases in the United States. In particular, Nao, who spent much early portion of her career singing background for other artists, has carved out a niche, yet sizable, audience. Nao’s debut album, For All We Know released in 2016, put on display her talent as a vocalist and songwriter, as well as her tasteful reimagining of late-90s soul music, and served as a major entry point in building her fan base in the United States.
Following the release of her sophomore album, Saturn, Nao set out on the Saturn Tour. On Monday, February 4th, NAO paid a visit to Philadelphia’s Union Transfer. After the show, Kevin and I talked about Nao’s incredible performance, the blackness that oozed out of the walls at the end of the show, and more! Here’s our conversation:
Stanley: What are some of your immediate reactions to the show? The big picture takeaways?
Kevin: Insert maximum fire and explosion gifs! Wow. Nao & Xavier Omar (and bands) tore the building down brick by brick. I’m still kinda in shock at how disrespectfully good the show was. I walked in and Xavier Omar was already in progress. Throughout, he illustrated clear growth from when we saw him last. Stage presence, confidence, voice, talking in between songs..he had the full package on display. Nao proceeded to then up the ante. Her energy, band and show(wo)manship were top notch! She had the crowd eating out of the palm of her UK hands. Sorry I’m delirious as I type this lol. I’ve never heard Union Transfer that loud—Isaiah Rashad came close. The big picture takeaway is that both artists seem to be trending up. Nao was wayyy more popular than I expected. No Monday night show should have been that good. Wow.
You gather enough thoughts yet on the show to put it into words?
Stanley: My thoughts are still a bit scrambled, honestly lol. But let’s see — so, I wasn’t event supposed to be at the show. I literally didn’t have a ticket an hour before the doors opened. I wanted to go, but knew I had a ton of work to do, and Monday’s are usually a pretty busy day for me. But, Tifanie and David (shoutout to the Deedz Podcast!) came through with some extra tickets, so I went!
To start the night, Xavier Omar absolutely killed his set. I actually wanted an encore, but I don’t think an opening act can do an encore. Like you mentioned, we saw him last year, but he didn’t have his band with him, and wasn’t as developed as an artist, so seeing him with his band and more confident took his songs to a new level! I really liked the new music he featured too.
Now, Nao. Wow. I mean, from the very beginning she just had it. We’re waiting for her to come on stage, the band’s playing, and all of a sudden she pops up in the middle of the audience!!! Like, how did she get there??? She starts singing Another Lifetime (a cappella) and just rips it. The first 15 minuets were SUPER high energy. Incredible. The surprise act at the beginning buys you some time — i.e., the surprise factor — but she maintained that energy the entire night.
I thought there was a stark difference in the sound quality coming from the TLA where we saw Mick Jenkins a couple of weeks ago to Union Transfer. What did you think about the night, as far as sound goes?
I’ve heard cars driving through Philly streets with better speakers and sound than what TLA had for Mick.
Kevin: Stark difference in sound quality is an understatement. I’ve heard cars driving through Philly streets with better speakers and sound than what TLA had for Mick. It makes a world of a difference. Union Transfer made you feel the music. Of course the artists and styles being compared here are different, but the sound quality needs to be there regardless. I still hear Nao’s music in my head as I type this. It was that impactful. And I remember being at Oddisee’s show at TLA and the sound was great. So idk what to make of it...
Stanley: Yeah, it’s truly a mystery what happened at the TLA that night. We’ve been barking about things most people wouldn’t care about. That said, the equalization in the room at Union Transfer was incredible. Nothing was too loud and there was great clarity. The drums especially. Good lord, Josh Greene, Xavier Omar’s drummer, played every fill with so much precision and you could hear it all. Nao’s voice, which is already pretty high pitched, cut through the mix nicely. And even when she went into her lower register — I was pleasantly surprised to hear this — she still came through clearly. Sonic bliss all around.
The audience! Going strictly off the eye test, it looked like the room was mostly black. Nao also didn’t shy away from mentioning that her music was rooted in a tradition of black music. What did you think about that? Is that something you noticed?
Kevin: Man...we talk about this a lot when we go to shows. We are in 2019 so music, like a lot of other things, have been integrated and all races, genders, etc. have access and enjoy every style/genre. There is something special though about black music being appreciated by black audiences. There is a certain sense of pride that other groups of people won’t understand or feel when it comes to this. To hear NAO talk about her musical influences, like D’Angelo, and keep that tradition going in her music, really did make me smile a little during this here Black History Month.
But can we talk about the blackest thing that happened after the show? It turned into a full-fledged cookout. Electric slides and other line dances that I never seen before. Is this the best and blackest show you ever been to? You went to school in Atlanta so you are the authority here lol.
Also I had a theory lol. Is this the inverse of American goes to Europe thing that happened with Nao? You hear stories about an American artist going to Europe, etc. and receiving so much love. I’ve now seen it with Tom Misch and Nao. The love they received here is next level.
What is it about foreign acts coming across the pond that gets the audiences even more juiced?
This was certainly one of the blackest events I’ve ever been to where the institution itself was white.
Stanley: This was certainly one of the blackest events I’ve ever been to where the institution itself was white lol. Just when I thought the night couldn’t get any better — after she came back and did a second encore song, Bad Blood — the DJ puts on Luther Vandross’ Never Too Much, and all blackness broke loose. Electric Slides everywhere. Amazing.
To your theory, I’d agree. It has some legs/validity. It seems like if an artist, from another country especially, comes to the States, that artist/their team has to know there are fans there. So, I think the baseline is going to be high as far as fans go.
We’ve liked Nao for a while, and known how talented she was, but I did not expect to see such a ravage fan base. Like, when she finally finished her first set of songs, and stopped to talk, there was a roar in the room lol. So, maybe when an artist from another country comes there’s like a built up sense of anticipation, as in, “we don’t know when she’s coming again, so we gotta turn up!”
What’s your theory and suspicion?
Kevin: I think we are in the agreement here on this one. Foreign artists rarely come stateside and when they do the people will flock. It's like coming to see a unicorn. You never know when you will get the chance to see it again so you jump at the chance to do so. Nao said see you in 2020, so let's keep our fingers crossed.