How Nyla XO Used Her 'DIY Queen' Skills to Win the Samsung NXT 2.0 Competition, And Finally Take Cen
In a northeastern suburb of Los Angeles, a devout Radio Disney fan played tween pop's most successful songs on repeat - and then, queuing up her cassette player, she tried to create her own track that would outshine them.
Balancing two separate Record buttons while the radio played, Nyla Hammond synchronized the tracks by artists like Vanessa Hudgens with the recording of her own vocals harmonizing along. With one take, she reduced Disney's brightest stars to backup singers and unwittingly cut her first cover. At that moment, Nyla XO was born.
"I was a hacker," the singer-songwriter remembers. "I found the way."
Nearly two decades later, in a small trailer in southwest Hollywood, Nyla was 20 minutes away from performing another cover - though this time, the stakes were a lot higher. Established stars Tinashe, Eric Nam and Natti Natasha would be assessing her delivery. A voting audience would determine her artistic potential. Extended family would watch a livestream in Puerto Rico and beyond. The 32-year-old was one of three finalists in Samsung NXT 2.0, a nationwide competition to discover the next unsigned music superstar, and she was having a panic attack.
Nyla's mother, a classically trained singer, was greeted at the trailer door by a face streaked with tears. "Sing a song you know like the back of your hand as many times as you can," she advised her daughter. Together, they sang Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" until Nyla began to breathe easier. "I hope you get your dreams," the mother-daughter duo sang, over and over. "You're going to find yourself somewhere, somehow."
And she did: That night, Nyla XO was crowned the Samsung NXT 2.0 champion during a finale that was musically rousing and personally gratifying. "I have a saying: 'If there's anyone who can figure it out, it's Nyla,' " says Henry McDaniel, her husband, business partner and producer, known professionally as H.A.N.K. "She doesn't quit until she finds the answer to whatever it is she's searching for."
H.A.N.K knew that Nyla - a descendant of Puerto Rican immigrants who was named after the birthplace of her mother (New York) and her own (L.A.) - was destined for stardom long before the NXT competition. When the pair met at Musicians Institute in Hollywood in 2012, Nyla was already multidisciplined: a classical pianist-singer who was also a graphic artist-designer. Soon thereafter, she became a director-video editor. She left college in 2013 after accepting an opportunity from *NSYNC star JC Chasez to join the lineup of an in-the-works girl group. But when the act disbanded a year later, Nyla began searching for musical work and fielding a slew of requests as a keyboardist.
In 2016, she performed in the house band of America's Got Talent, and her hands plinked across the big screen as Nina Simone in the Zoe Saldana-starring biopic Nina; the following year, she hit the road on Betty Who's Party in the Valley Tour. Nyla committed to finally pursuing an artistic career full time in 2018, and with the newfound freedom to indulge her creative impulses, her technical prowess took center stage.
"I call her 'the DIY queen,' " H.A.N.K says. "I have watched her make full-blown music videos with a camera and piece of cloth where the result will give you the impression she spent thousands. I have seen her living room photo shoots turn into some of the most beautiful album artwork that I've seen. Even today, I rank the quality of my content on the scale of, 'Would Nyla approve?' "
To that point, Nyla recalls the one request she had for her 16th birthday: to record a song, for real this time. Writing poetry as a reprieve in between hours dedicated to classical piano, she decided to try her hand at composing music, so she booked studio time, designed album artwork on Microsoft Word and distributed her debut single as a party favor to her classmates at her sweet 16 party. "For Who I Am," a heartfelt coming-of-age track, was visually represented with a Clipart icon of a pink handprint.
"This is who I've always been," she says with a laugh. "When I have the vision, I want to see it through."
As comical as the earnestness of "For Who I Am" now seems to Nyla, the song hinted at what would become her songwriting signature: unflinching vulnerability. She'll willingly divulge her darkest moments as a means of connection, lyrically disrobing to reveal depression or plaguing self-doubt. During the pandemic, she personally reached out to each new Instagram follower to thank them for their support, often receiving perspective-shifting feedback about her artistry in exchange. While performing her original song "Perfect View," a genre-blurring love letter to her symbiotic relationship with her husband, Nyla paused and addressed the audience at the NXT finale. "Let's get intimate," she said.
"For me, music is a conversation," she explains. "Saying, 'Flaws and all, here I am.' It does not matter how big I get. I always want to maintain some kind of relationship with people. That's a core value for me."
"Lyrically, she has always had this innate ability to paint vivid pictures through her musical storytelling, and the pictures have only become more and more clear," adds H.A.N.K. "You feel as though you were there alongside her when she wrote the song."
With a penchant for sonic spontaneity, Nyla is reluctant to define her sound. At one point, she says, it was "Popsical" - a pop-classical amalgam. Now each original track is more of a melting pot; jazz, R&B and bubble-gum hyper-pop are all anchoring ingredients, but at any given moment, she might sprinkle in an octave-spanning vocal run or melodic rap. "Perfect View" was the result of significant "trial and error," says H.A.N.K, resulting in a 28-hour session in the lead-up to the NXT finale. "I wouldn't say 'obsessive,' but it's borderline," he quips.
But such perfectionism often comes at a personal cost. For Nyla, that was heightened pressure - and a perception that it could possibly all be for nothing.
"There are so many different pathways to success that it can be overwhelming," she says. "I've always loved creating, but you reach a point of, 'Is all this in vain? Does any of this actually matter? Am I supposed to be releasing more music or do more live shows?' It can feel discouraging to feel like no one is seeing the work you're putting in."
After five years of drip feeding her artistic persona, NXT forced Nyla to open the floodgates. With the defined parameters of each challenge - from 10-part a cappella covers with heavenly harmonies to self-styled and -edited music videos, all using the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip4 - serving as springboards, Nyla delivered a masterclass in capturing the attention of social media users in 60 seconds or less. Her online presence became synonymous with scroll-stopping content: "I Iike this version of the song so much better!!" reads a top comment on Nyla's performance of BTS' "Butter."
In the weeks leading up to the NXT finale, Nyla often visualized being named as the winner; the concept was so all-consuming, she says she would "tear up" at the thought. However, days prior to flying to Atlanta to meet her assigned artist mentor, rising Alabama rapper Flo Milli, Nyla's grandmother died. She had been a beloved high school math teacher in Pasadena, Calif., until she was 89 and watched 26 former students become teachers themselves. Consequently, Nyla eschewed the questions she might once have had about Flo Milli's inspirations or the industry and instead asked her if she had considered her legacy.
"We talked about how all this is great, but it can't be what defines me as a person," Nyla says. "My legacy will be the things I say and the music I create, the person that I am - that's what's going to matter the most."
Hearing her name called as the winner of the competition, Nyla felt a sense of solace: that all those many late nights were not in vain, that her sound resonated in spite of all of the sonic experimentation and that the aspiring singer-songwriter - patiently waiting for the perfect beat before hitting Record all those years ago - had realized her dream on her terms. She knew that somewhere, another little girl would be singing over the radio, and maybe someday sooner than later, the song playing would be from Nyla XO.
"I feel relieved," Nyla says of her win. "But mostly, I feel seen."