In The Mix is a recurring series from Stem that spotlights special artists with a story to tell. This is Naji.

Naji is a bright spot in a dark world.

The Erie, PA artist has turned heads and warmed hearts for years. Above all else, he shows an uncommon resolve to learn his way through any challenge, smile through all pain. He’s turned past missteps with nascent labels into valuable lessons—”It allowed me to accept that some things that aren’t perfect can still be put out”—and considers emotional struggle an excuse to search for silver linings—”It was the natural reaction to depression.” Ups and downs aren’t binary, as Naji knows all too well.

Many will recognize Naji’s name thanks to a 2016 song, “Mona Lisa,” the Monte Booker collab that brought Renaissance art into the 2010s, repurposing a famous painting to symbolize modern joy. While the release remains one of Soulection’s best, the person singing it has much more to offer. Act 1, his first EP of the year, proves as much, showcasing a master-at-work over five lean, fine-tuned tracks that know no genre. Like a phoenix rising from ash, the project emerged from the discarded ideas of an unreleased album.

That iterative approach will add value to his new venture. Naji’s most substantial step yet comes in the form of Thousand Story, a newly minted umbrella company modeled in the vein of Pharrell’s i am OTHER. The business released Act 1, with data insights and music distribution powered by Stem. It’s a prime example of the opportunity to legitimize artist independence, and an exciting move for such a special talent. It’s not difficult to imagine Naji excelling as right-brained, left-brained hybrid. Read on to learn why in our one-on-one interview.

naji
Photo by Monty Anglade

Naji, you’ve described your childhood as nomadic. Where have you traveled?

I was born in Monterey, California. I was there until I was one or two years old. My mom was in the Air Force at the time. We went on a cross-country trip to Delaware to visit my grandma and we kind of bounced in between Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania. My dad was in New York City. Moving between cities, between families. We experienced floods. We moved to a very Amish town. In 2010, we moved to Erie. Still there, the longest I’ve been anywhere.

You saw more than most at a young age. Does your passion for stories stem from that? What storytellers influenced you?

I think it does relate to that because moving around gives you so much material to work with. A lot of my favorite stories came from Japan. I read a lot of this book called Pendragon, by D.J. MacHale. My uncles were also full of stories. They’re musicians and videographers. One of them goes back and forth to and from Japan all the time. The other uncle is a full-time musician and he’ll be here or Morocco or Abu Dhabi. Growing up with those people around me, there was always a story. I definitely got a lot of it from my dad’s side.

You glow with optimism. Does that come from him?

I think it comes out of necessity. You go through so many hardships from such a young age, you have to find a reason. For me, it was the natural reaction to stress, depression, sadness. Having to be a rock for siblings, for my own mom.

That’s real. And sad as it is, your resolve can help a business immensely, and Thousand Story feels like the start of an umbrella company.

It mostly started with me trying to get a better handle of my own career on the business side. Getting myself an LLC, handling my own accounting. I have a desire to start more businesses and help others. Pharrell’s I Am Other served as an inspiration. There’s fashion, art, design and music is included, but I Am Other is literally the “other,” and I loved that. Prior to the 2000s, most people specialized. Now, I think a lot of young people struggle with being good at multiple things and building a profitable business around themselves. I want Thousand Story to help develop entrepreneurs.

Over time, I’d think about what I experienced in the industry that a lot of my peers didn’t have. Even signing up for a PRO. I really enjoy the business side of artistry, but a lot of people don’t. Even if I get an artist to a place where they go to a bigger company, I’ve done my job. The benefit of being in Erie is it’s super quiet. It’s an optimal place to get stuff done. I want to create those spaces for more established people to just create, and I want to provide that experience. Thanks to Stem, if artists come to Thousand Story, I don’t have to build that data and distribution myself because it’s already been created by people I trust.

Act 1 releases via Thousand Story. What about the EP are you most proud of?

The initial album would have been done a year and some change back. But allowing myself to breath and come back to it a month later, that evaluation has been so helpful. The songs on Act 1 are basically brand new, so the album became this entire new thing. That trial-and-error process has been my favorite part.

Listen to Naji’s In The Mix playlist for a smorgasbord of classics from acts new and old, including 311, Esperanza Spaulding, Lily Allen and Billy Joel. Stream Act 1 right here.