Feature music interview: Nikki Hill at the Hot Times Community & Arts Festival

Andy Downing

Growing up in Durham, North Carolina, Nikki Hill, as with many Southerners, got her start singing in the church choir.

“It's one of the prerequisites of growing up in the South,” Hill said, and laughed. “You do it because you have to.”

Regardless, the singer absorbed plenty in those years spent shaking the rafters, most importantly the ability to let go and let the spirit overtake her, which she does to masterful effect on the soul-spiked rock 'n' roll tracks dottingHeavy Hearts, Hard Fists, from 2015.

“You learn to let the energy and passion of it all guide you, and I took that from church more than anything,” said Hill, who headlines the main stage at the Hot Times Community & Arts Festival on Saturday, Sept. 9. “As a teenager listening to a lot of punk and hardcore and rock 'n' roll, I saw a lot of similarities [with gospel]. Here's this group of kids, and while they're kind of [making music] out of angst and confusion and anger, it's still the same thing: putting your whole body into it. That's what I'm drawn to most in music.”

Hill gravitated to rock and punk as a teenager in part to distance herself from the 1960s and '70s soul and R&B she absorbed via her parents' record collections, as well as the comparatively modern hip-hop and R&B artists introduced by her older sisters, including Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross and Salt-N-Pepa.

“I think it made me feel like I was discovering something on my own,” she said.

At age 13, Hill started attending all-ages punk shows, and within several years she was sneaking into clubs so regularly that many venue workers assumed she was of legal age. But even as Hill started to find some sense of community within the small Durham rock scene, she couldn't help but feel like an outsider, owing to an environment where she resembled few audience members and virtually no one onstage.

“You're connecting with people, but at the end of the day it was still like, 'I'm a black woman going to these shows. And now I'm an outsider again because I'm the only one like me,'” she said.

Attending concerts by black-led punk acts such as Bad Brains and Fishbone started to shift this mindset, as did delving deeper into music history, turning up rock originators ranging from Little Richard to Bo Diddley.

“That was when it all started to really connect,” said Hill, who has made her home in New Orleans for nearly four years. “Before, I would think, 'Man, if I ever thought about wanting to sing or play like this, would it seem weird?' It was great to look back and see that, no, people have been doing this for decades, being themselves and breaking barriers. There was a realization that if I ever want to do this, I could do it. People who look like me have done it before.”

Hill's interest in music history has also led her on various pilgrimages, including a visit to Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, widely regarded as the birthplace of Delta blues due to famed residents such as Charley Patton, Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson. During an Australian festival performance earlier this year, she recounted the visit to Mavis Staples, whose father, Pops, grew up near Dockery.

“The backstage, I've called it rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. Mavis Staples is hanging out back there. Patti Smith is walking around. You see Santana pass through with his bodyguards,” Hill said. “When I ran into Mavis ... we were chatting, and I told her we had stopped at Dockery Farms just to absorb the vibe of Charley Patton and Pops Staples. We even dug through the woods to find the stage Charley Patton would sit on.”

This Staples spirit — one of speaking up for civil rights and for general human goodness — is likely to bleed over into Hill's next release, as the singer hinted that ongoing national events have started to seep into her songwriting.

“I never steered away from writing about something I was feeling strongly about … but on the next release, there are things I've been writing about [because] it's impossible to avoid what's been going on,” Hill said. “But I've never been afraid. At the end of the day, I'm a black woman in 2017 singing in a very niche market. I can't really say I'm afraid of anything.”

Hot Times Community & Arts Festival

240 Parsons Ave., Olde Towne East

Friday-Sunday, Sept. 8-10

Nikki Hill headlines the main stage at 9 p.m. on Saturday