“By not giving up on your dreams, you never know who you may inspire.”
AN AMERICAN DREAM
MUSICIAN/MISS AMERICA 2019 NIA FRANKLIN
NIA IMANI FRANKLIN is used to making history.
She did it as a child, in a fluffy white dress and matching patent-leather shoes, knocking out a hymn at a school talent show that brought the audience to its feet.
She did it a few years later as the first teenager at her church to direct a song the children’s choir was performing.
And she did it again this year – in spectacular fashion – when she was crowned Miss America 2019. For the first time ever, all three reigning national pageant title holders – Miss America, Miss U.S.A., and Miss Teen U.S.A – are African American.
But here’s what Nia readily admits: she almost didn’t compete at all. That last achievement, the title and the position she proudly holds today, may not have happened if she hadn’t given it one last chance.
“You never know, by not giving up on your dreams, who you can inspire.”
Nia began a lifetime of inspiring others when she was just a child, growing up in a close family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. An appreciation for the arts, especially for music, ran deep in her blood.
“My mom was always singing,” she remembers. “And my Dad was a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Motown and jazz and R&B. It’s been amazing to have them as role models.”
Nia used to tell people she wanted to be a famous singer, “just like Whitney Houston.” And by the time she was in third grade, at a school talent show, she knew that’s what she would do.
“I received a standing ovation that night and I will just never forget that,” she says. “I will never forget drilling it with my mom, getting the words just right, getting the melody just right. That was the moment I knew I wanted to perform and bring people together through music.”
Performance may have been the entrance ramp to her music career, but composition is where Nia truly excels. Notating music is no easy feat, even for a seasoned artist. But by the time she was a sophomore in high school, Nia’s true passion as a composer was coming into view. She’d already been writing music for years, since she was a 5-year-old girl, sitting on her grandmother’s couch, swinging her legs and humming a tune, creating a song she would one day professionally record. Not only could she perform music someone else had written, she could be the one putting the notes on paper. It’s a revelation that sticks with her to this day.
And just as soon as she’d learned how to do it, she wanted to pass it on. Nia knew early that another part of her life’s mission was to make sure children everywhere had the same access to art education that she had growing up.
“I didn’t understand the lack of arts that some students had. I wanted to do more. So, when I was in grad school, I became part of the Artists Corps, which was part of AmeriCorps at the time. I met children who’d never seen or touched piano. And I saw the difference it made for me as a music instructor.”
At 22, Nia snagged the opportunity of a lifetime. She was chosen for an honor at New York City’s Lincoln Center, called the William R. Kenan Jr. Fellowship, a six-month residency for select graduates of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Without hesitation, Nia moved to New York City.
And here’s where we go back to the “chance-taking” part of Nia’s story. It’s safe to say things didn’t go quite as planned for the budding composer, singer, and performer.
“I competed for Miss North Carolina twice, two Junes in a row. And I lost,” she explains. “That second June I lost is when I moved to New York City. Plus, I had aged out of the program.”
Nia had left pageant life behind her. Or so she thought, until the day she got a phone call alerting her that they’d changed the rules. Turns out, she had aged back in. There she was, in New York City, focusing on music like she’d always dreamed of doing. The last thing she wanted was to halt the momentum she’d been building in her music career. But there was one nagging thought that just wouldn’t go away. Despite having lost in previous competitions, she felt compelled to try again.
“My goal right now is to try to get World Animal News on a BBC or CNN platform, as the first-ever animal news show on television. I’d love to host it and produce it. CNN’s Anderson Cooper will do a story on the ivory trade, and that’s wonderful. But we need something on a more regular basis, something to really educate people and start a conversation,” she says. “We are destroying the planet. Extinction is happening so rapidly, and we’ll be the last species to go. It will happen.”
In 2014, Katie was the impetus behind the documentary Give Me Shelter, a “labor of love” she personally funded and produced. The film ran for two years on Netflix before being purchased by National Geographic. She’s at work now on a follow-up documentary We Are One. Katie also notes that Peace 4 Animals is working together with her partner organization, Social Compassion In Legislation to change laws in California. It’s an ongoing battle, but she’s not showing any signs of slowing.
“This is a mission. And a gift. A higher power comes through me. I’m being used to bring a message,” she says with zero hesitation in her voice.
That is not to say that Katie doesn’t take time for herself. If she’s not at home – taking care of the 3 dogs, 9 cats and a horse that are quite possibly the luckiest pets on the planet – you can probably find her near the ocean.
“One more chance,” she said slowly, defiantly, as if remembering that rising ambition that lived in her core all along. “It seemed like a miracle that the age changed at just the right time for me to compete. I never wanted to look back and wonder, ‘what if I had competed?’”
Soon, Nia was crowned Miss Five Boroughs. From there she went on to compete for Miss New York in Buffalo. And by now, we all know what happened when she made it to Atlantic City, New Jersey earlier this year. Nia Franklin is the ninth African American woman to wear the sash and crown in a program that didn’t even allow black women to compete in its first 30 years.
“It is amazing to see how far we’ve come. We can’t ignore our country’s, or this organization’s, history. It’s great to see any minority making such great strides, being recognized for more than their skin color.”
“I have aspirations to do orchestral work and be in the film composition world. I’m also very interested in supporting women in the field of music in general. I have a great support system, but so many people don’t. And it can be tough, in a male-dominated field, when you don’t feel like you have someone to help you navigate the industry.” You can learn more about her vision for when her Miss America year is through at ComposeHer.org.
In the meantime, Nia Imani Franklin is loving life in the spotlight, being her authentic self, living her dream not only for herself, but for the countless young people of all colors who are most certainly watching.
“Even though I am a black miss America, I’m also the Miss America who composes. I’m the miss America who sings opera. I’m the miss America who cares about her community and the arts. It’s important to celebrate that that’s who I am, my heritage, the culture I come from. Our differences make us special and we should celebrate them.”