There were nearly 230 entries from Massachusetts to this year's NPR Tiny Desk Contest. Five panelists — Noah Schaffer, HEESU, Isa Burke, Tim Hall and Amelia Mason — were tasked with choosing a favorite. But it's hard to pick just one. So as we prepare to reveal the panel's top choice, we're highlighting a couple entries that left an impact.
Rijah’s Tiny Desk entry has a low-key start: The singer-guitarist and her band are gently grooving behind a desk with a frog and a plant. “Hello, I’m Rijah, and this is my song ‘Up,’” she says with a bright smile.
But as the song unfolds, Rijah lays out the feelings of confusion, doubt and despair that everyone can relate to — having the “self-created burdens” of “that fear that feels like a crime,” as she sings. But the song’s chorus provides a release valve, as she uses her astonishing vocal range to create a world where things are finally going “Up (up up) from here.”
WBUR’s panel of judges weren’t the only ones impressed by the video. Acclaimed R&B singer-songwriter Baby Rose selected her entry as one of her favorites in the national NPR Tiny Desk Contest, with fellow judge Sudan Archives praising Rijah’s “amazing” and “unique” voice.
“It’s basically a song about perseverance,” Rijah says. “It’s about waiting for the future and hopefully about things going up from wherever you are, even if in the moment things don’t create. It comes from being in two different places physically and emotionally, but it’s a hopeful song.”
The artist's musical outlook was shaped by growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey, which, as she proudly notes, has been named the most ethnically diverse city in the country. While “Up” reflects her strength working in the indie-soul realm, Rijah was also influenced by the sounds of Indian pop music her family listened to. “I’ve never just listened to one kind of music, and the music I make reflects that,” she says.
And Rijah doesn’t take for granted the joys of getting to collaborate with other musicians in the same room. When COVID-19 hit, Rijah, then in high school, had a studio session planned. She ended up recording the songs in her bedroom, a process that has led her down the path of producing music along with making it.
Now a second-year student at Berklee with a working band that plays at the new Rockwood Music Hall in Boston on Sept. 26, Rijah took “Up” to her group and let the song develop as each member brought in their own ideas. On the Tiny Desk Contest entry, pianist Ian Michael’s keyboards bloom through the song and then provide a contemplative coda.
The spontaneous creative energy seen in the video reflects how “we actually fully started working on that arrangement right before we filmed the video — and we filmed it at a Berklee studio at something like 4:30 in the morning,” Rijah recalls. “That’s been one of my favorite Boston memories so far. We had a full set we were going to film but I really wanted to do this song. These are my best friends and they’re kicking it with me.”
The song’s universal reach and uplifting spirit connected with WBUR’s Tiny Desk panel. “I have a special place in my heart for this song,” says Rijah. “I think there was something different about it. … The music that I love the most is honest music. I wanted my Tiny Desk Contest entry to be a song that had raw emotion in it.”
Rijah opens for Peter Wise and Marley Striem at the Rockwood Music Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m.