Hampton County singer balances international singing career with teaching

*(source: Nykki Smalls)
Updated: Jul. 27, 2020 at 10:03 AM EDT
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HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WTOC) -Many musicians grow up with a dream of leaving home for new exciting places. But for Nykki Smalls, an international music career is made sweeter by bringing that experience and knowledge back to Hampton County.

Nykki Smalls realized her love for performing by doing something so simple…opening her eyes.

“I had to do a solo,” Smalls said. “I was so nervous. I was in middle school. And I got up there, and I used to sing with my eyes closed, sung with my eyes closed the whole time. But this particular time I decided to peek, and it wasn’t as scary as I thought. After I sat back down, everybody was clapping, and I was like, ‘Ok, I think I can do this.‘”

Her career path unfolded naturally, with music already in her DNA. Her father’s side of the family is full of singers.

“But my mom, she likes singing too” Smalls said. “She was a musician and she always had advice growing up to always have an instrument in the house.”

For six years, Smalls has been performing with the Tony Washington Singers. The Charleston gospel group tours internationally for three weeks each year.

“Just coming up in church and watching him and getting old enough to have the opportunity to sing along,” she says. “He just needed good voices, and I happened to be a good voice that was around. And the opportunity came, and I had my passport.”

That morphed into a career recording her own music and singing backup for gospel records. She's always had a passion for music, but she stumbled upon another passion and her second career.

“Once I left school, I came home just trying to find a place and a purpose,” Smalls said. “I started doing voice lessons one on one. I was doing an after school program at Fennel Elementary and the music teacher position opened up. I love working with kids, and they could see that, so they hired me full time. So now I’m at Fennel Elementary and Brunson Elementary. "

Smalls says more than any other lesson, she wants her students to learn how big the world is and that not one bit of it is out of their grasp.

“We did a live taping at the Vatican with their Christmas concert, and so I showed them a clip from that and they were just like...the tv is behind me, and I’m watching the kids watch the screen, and you can see little light bulbs go off. And they may not even want to sing, but the fact that hey, you can travel, and it’s doable. I used to feel this way when I had family members who were in the service, and they would go overseas to Kuwait or Korea and come back and can tell us about different places they’ve visited and they were from right here. It almost makes the dream reachable.”

During that trip to the Vatican, Smalls not only met the pope, but also Susan Boyle and Lionel Richie.

“It hit me, like, people live their whole lives and never get to see this,” she said.

No matter what experiences she has, Smalls says she wouldn’t want to call anywhere else but Hampton County home.

“I could be doing this from Atlanta. I could be doing this from New York or L.A. I love that I can come back to Hampton County, it’s quiet, they know me. Once you get on that plane and you cross the pond, my one goal in addition to having great performances, is to come back.

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