Plenty of artists, from Cardi B to Justin Bieber, have used social media to boost their careers. Yet even by today’s standards, Queen Naija’s path to the top of the R&B charts is an unconventional one. In 2016, she and then-husband Chris Sails launched a YouTube channel on which they documented their lives as a couple and young parents, posting absurd pranks and viral challenges that often reached over 1 million views. When their marriage fell apart over Sails’ infidelity, Naija (born Queen Naija Bulls) channeled her heartbreak into the slinky single “Medicine,” which debuted at No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2018 and led to a deal with Capitol Records. Now the 23-year-old mother of two is up for top R&B female artist alongside Ella Mai and H.E.R. “I remember when I was working my 9-to-5 job and walking around, I used to be listening to Ella Mai in my headphones,” she says. “It’s crazy that now I get to be nominated with her.”
How did you attract a YouTube fan base loyal enough to follow your music career, too?
I was transparent and wasn’t afraid to show my personality, and now people feel close to me. Not only are they waiting on music, but they’re still waiting on more content from me behind the scenes, just more of me. I have been a little more private about stuff, but I’m still going to throw up content so that people can still get a hint of me.
And why do you think you were ultimately able to transition to mainstream success?
Some people got it and some people don’t, and I’m just one of the ones that got it. I feel like God ordained it that way, like it just fell right into my lap. God trusts me with this gift, he trusts me with this platform, and he knows what I’ll do and how many people I can have an impact on.
What do you want to bring to R&B right now?
I feel like our generation is so hooked on the trap-soul and the trap-R&B vibe. When they grow up, they’ll have nothing to tell their kids. I just want to bring back that early-2000s/late-’90s feeling that people don’t have anymore. But I would also like to do other kinds of uptempo [tracks]. Maybe a little reggae, maybe another kind of genre that people wouldn’t expect from me. I want to show my versatility.
You collaborated with A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie on his “Come Closer.” Any other dream duets?
Definitely A Boogie again. It would be a dream if I could get Cardi B, because I love me some Cardi B. Some other R&B collabs with women like Ella Mai and H.E.R. And I would love to work with someone from Detroit, my hometown, like Big Sean or Kash Doll. I was thinking about doing a Detroit record with people that came from Detroit. That would be dope.
This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.