Everyone from binge-watchers to casual viewers is talking about Amazon Prime’s dark comedy Swarm. The new series, created by Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, stars Dominique Fishback as Dre, a young stan obsessed with a fictional pop star named Ni’Jah (played by Nirine S. Brown). While viewers have been raving about Fishback’s performance as well as stellar cameos from Chloe Bailey and Billie Eilish, the unsung hero and backbone of the show is the voice actress who plays Ni’Jah.
KIRBY is a singer-songwriter raised in Mississippi who has an extensive résumé in the music industry. Since the early 2010s, KIRBY has made a name for herself writing some of the most popular songs in music, including Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney’s 2015 hit “FourFiveSeconds” and Demi Lovato’s 2017 single “Tell Me You Love Me.” In addition to her writing creds, KIRBY has also been nurturing her solo career as an independent artist.
“When a Black woman is given freedom to create what feels right to her, something really amazing can come out of it.”
The story of how she booked the crucial role on Swarm was somewhat serendipitous. The show’s producer, Michael Uzowuru just happened to bring her name up during a discussion on who would play the voice of Ni’Jah. And the rest is basically history. “In this industry, it’s weird because a lot of times you have to fight for those spaces, but this was one of those instances that was off the strength of a good person saying your name,” KIRBY tells Complex.
In addition to being a voice actress, KIRBY worked on the Swarm EP alongside Donald Glover. While she describes the creative process as very collaborative, she also notes that she was given a lot of creative freedom. “When a Black woman is given freedom to create what feels right to her, something really amazing can come out of it,” she explains. “And working for Donald, that freedom continued. It was very liberal. He wasn’t coaching me as a character. He was like, “The verse is open, KIRBY. Go in.” So I respect him for giving me space to be creative and trusting me enough to share musical space with him. I was nervous, but the fact that he trusted me to do my verse with him made me confident enough to just like, “All right, KIRBY, just do you.”
During a phone interview, KIRBY spoke in depth about becoming the voice of Ni’Jah, creating the dark tone of the show and EP, and how Donald Glover and the rest of the producers created a safe space for all of the Black women involved.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
How did you come to be the voice of Ni’Jah on Swarm?
I really can’t take credit at all. First of all, God is amazing, but Michael Uzowuru put my name [in the conversation]. They were looking for a girl that could write and really sing. He did the music for the show and was like, “I think KIRBY could do it.” He introduced me to the great fam, and that was it. It really was a matter of having good friends speaking very highly of you. And mind you, me and Michael hadn’t worked together in a couple of years, but for some reason, he just said my name. And when we finally got into the room to work on the project, it was so fun and natural that they didn’t kick me out. But in this industry, it’s weird because a lot of times you have to fight for those spaces, but this was one of those instances that was off the strength of a good person saying your name. I’m really grateful for that.
Can you share some details about your experience as a voice actress for those who are not familiar with how it works?
Yeah, it’s one of those things where I had so much freedom, and I think you might look at the show and feel like they give you briefs and they’re like, “We want this song to feel like this and this.” We really just got in a room and did what felt right. There was no sense of, “All right, we need a Beyoncé ‘Crazy in Love’ vibe.” Those were not the conversations. We created the character, created her music from a very free place, and there were no rules. I didn’t have anyone saying, “OK, KIRBY, we need her to sound like this.” I was actually shook because I was like, “Wait, do y’all want her to sound like this?” And they were like, “Yo, just do you.” After I asked that question about six times, and they really weren’t changing their response, I was like, “OK, fuck it. I’m just going to do what I would do if I had no judgment.” I just wanted to make her as opposite of me as possible.
How would you describe Ni’Jah as an artist and how does her artistry differ from KIRBY’s?
For me, I be saying sometimes it’s between GloRilla and [Erykah] Badu. On any day I feel like I’m very much in my Badu bag, but I’m Southern. I’m from Mississippi, born in Memphis, so Three 6 Mafia, God rest her soul, Gangsta Boo. I grew up on that. So I feel like I got the chance to really lean into that side of me that I would never do as an artist. A song like “Agatha” [on the Swarm EP], that one doesn’t even have my name on it because I was kind of nervous. I was like, “Yo, am I ready to have this conversation with my mom, talking about fucking the niggas in the Honda?” I just needed to be a little anonymous. But that’s also very much a part of my personality because of what I love in music. So I think the Ni’Jah character, she’s more bold. We have a similarity in us for both being Southern women. But I feel like with her, I could say whatever I wanted to say, and she was a more edgier or wild version of me. These are the songs I would write if I didn’t have any fear.
It sounds like with anonymity came more creative freedom.
Absolutely. Not only did the character give me that creative freedom, but also much respect to fam and Michael, they gave me the creative freedom not to feel like [Ni’Jah] had to be one thing. So I think it was a very liberal, creative experience. There were no rules, and I didn’t put any rules on myself as far as what she could say.
Seeing conversations about the show online, it seems the tone of both pieces are both scary and comedic. How did you capture that feeling on the EP?
Oh man, I don’t know. I feel like “Sticky” really hits the nail as far as the show, because with the show, you find yourself laughing and then being scared at the same time. Mind you, I’m sitting on Episode 1, but from the scenes that I created, I knew that shit is dark, but [we] want y’all to laugh too. So I feel like the tone of the record, there’s this eeriness, like you about to go into a haunted house. But for some reason, you look at a clown, and it kind of make you laugh. But you’re scared. It’s a mixture of those. None of this sounds heavy, but you’re a little uncomfortable, whether it be in the chorus that we choose or having this weird harp sound in “Sticky.” I feel like there’s a little tension that makes you like, “OK, I don’t know about this, but I get with this.” So I would say that the music probably has that little sense of uncomfortability in it.
What was your experience working with Donald Glover both on the EP and on the show?
To see [Donald Glover] in person, his ear and the way that he’s also very much involved in production, I learned a lot just by being in the room. I appreciate him just letting me go in and freestyle my verse [on “Sticky”]. That’s the really cool thing that I want to emphasize is that when a Black woman is given freedom to create what feels right to her, something really amazing can come out of it. And working for Donald, that freedom continued. It was very liberal. He wasn’t coaching me as a character. He was like, “The verse is open, KIRBY. Go in.” So I respect him for giving me space to be creative and trusting me enough to share musical space with him. I was nervous, but the fact that he trusted me to do my verse with him made me confident enough to just like, “All right, KIRBY, just do you.”
You mentioned freestyling your verse on “Sticky.” Is this typical of your process?
Yeah, that’s how my personal process is. We made the beat together. Everybody was in the room when we made the beat, but as far as the top line, I always go in and scat and freestyle right in the booth. So yeah, it was a matter of just going in and just freestyling after [Donald]. He already laid down his verses and everything. Then, I went in and followed up.
“We went in to make great music, and when it came down to the music, we definitely weren’t trying to make sure that we made a song that sounded like the great Queen Bey at all.”
You describe having “everybody” in the room when it comes to creating the beats on the EP. What was that collaborative process like?
It’s all Michael Uzi [Uzowuru]. He’s the guy with the ear. His taste level is so great. He would pick a sound, and we would build a song off of that, and then later add drums. There really was no rules. That’s the only thing I could really emphasize. Each song was made differently, but a lot of the time, and when it comes to production, it was all Uzi and what he felt would work in that scene. And once he gave that track the green light, he was like, “All right, this is a song I think that we should use for this scene,” I would go in and get into Ni’Jah mode.
Speaking of “Ni’Jah mode,” did you find it challenging to switch out of being that character?
Girl, no, because secretly, all I want to be is a Southern rapper at this point in my life. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to that lifestyle, but I’ve been waiting for somebody to give me a chance to let me get these bars off, let me say some crazy stuff. So once I realized that they would let me talk shit (for lack of a better phrase), on these records, I was like, “Let’s go!” I know they were really looking for somebody that was a singer, so I was prepared to go in and make sure I could do the runs. But once I sat down and we really started to build the sound, it was a little bit of singing, but it was also a lot of playfulness and melody. So once I got the green light that I could kind of be a little edgy and get that side of me out, I didn’t have to pick between myself and her.
There has been a lot of talk about Ni’Jah and the show being inspired by Beyoncé and her fanbase. What are your thoughts, and is there any validity in that?
I would say there was never a conversation where we were trying to make a Beyoncé… Like no, “KIRBY, we need a ‘Crazy in Love.’” I think it’s all open to interpretation. We went in to make great music, and when it came down to the music, we definitely weren’t trying to make sure that we made a song that sounded like the great Queen Bey at all. That wasn’t the conversation.
Being an independent artist is both rewarding and tough. Why do you think this is a big moment for you as an indie artist?
Man, I feel like it’s a huge moment because I was so glad that they chose a dark-skinned woman to be the face of Ni’Jah [played by Nirine S. Brown]. I feel like that was important to me. I’m glad that they had me as a Black woman writing her songs. Black female songwriters, sometimes we have to be paired with a man, or we have to be paired with a non-POC producer to get our shots. But in this room, when I looked around, I had so much creative freedom and respect as a Black woman, and I felt very safe. And so, as an independent artist, you’re never really the obvious choice. There’s bigger artists than me that they probably could have chosen. But when you’re independent and you’re not signed, and you get to use a platform that is supported by a huge record label and a company as big as Amazon, it does nothing but lift up your independence. You’re able to continue to feel that independent journey through the marketing and buzz of a project that is fully supported by the music industry. So that’s a huge win because it’s going to help me stay independent. I’m getting exposure. But even more so than that, I will stress that to have Ni’Jah look the way she does, to have the songs written by a Black woman, to have to have Michael, a young Black man scoring that show, I just think when you look around and see that the creator is a Black woman, those things are very important. And Dominique herself, being a Black woman, it was incredible the amount of representation.
“I had so much creative freedom and respect as a Black woman, and I felt very safe.”
I’ve never done music like this and had the safety of a Black man in the room. That has not been my experience. So I just think having that really created by us and protected by us and to have the final say, the final yes or no be by people who look like you, that was a huge win for me. I wrote those songs and when I looked across to be like, “Is this cool?” I didn’t have somebody who didn’t look like me giving me the answer. I have 1 somebody that I believe is a part of culture, and I respected them giving me the green light. So it wasn’t me becoming a caricature or anything like that. It was really authentic.
What else are you currently working on that you can tell us about?
I got a single with Rapsody coming out in April that I’m super excited about. I think I have one of the best Rapsody features that anybody has ever gotten. Her verse is incredible. I’m excited to put out my project entitled Miss Black America, which is short for Mississippi Black America. And honestly, just continuing to run it up in 2023. I love TV and film, so I’m just excited to start getting my feet wet in that arena.
What’s the most important thing people should know about you right now?
I would just say, you don’t have to be anybody’s first pick to still win. I’ve been on this journey for a long time. I’ve been writing songs for 10 years. And she’s still young; don’t get it twisted. But I’ve been doing it for a long time. So if you are planning to follow my life, I would want people to know that if it doesn’t happen in the first 10 years of you trying something, you still got to continue. I just hope it inspires people to keep going because it’s inspiring me. And also, you don’t have to give away your masters and your copyright in order to do things in this industry. I’m big on that.