Nakia doesn’t look like a TV pop star. He’s a grizzly 36-year-old bluesman, heavyset and openly gay, with a slight lisp and large Ray-Ban sunglasses that suggest Elton John’s Captain Fantastic. He might be a hit at the International Bear Rendezvous. But a primetime broadcast like NBC’s The Voice?
But upending expectations, Nakia has leveraged Twitter to turn a possibly fleeting turn on television into the start of a lasting online audience. The test of this social media-driven singer comes tonight, as The Voice shifts to a live format and a new voting system.
It will be the ultimate test to see just how successfully Nakia can rally his online fanbase. With each new follower, he gets one small step closer to the brass rings, a win for all the underdogs who have joined what they call #TeamNakia.
To date, The Voice has veered away from American Idol’s visual, popularity-driven formula. The four celebrity coaches – Cee Lo Green, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, and Adam Levine of Maroon 5 – selected Nakia and other contestants through a blind audition phase, where their backs were literally turned away from the stage.
There’s another stage where looks hardly matter, and Nakia is winning fans, there, too: on Twitter, the global messaging platform where wit and charm come 140 characters at a time.
Where Simon Cowell’s creation was driven by mass-market text-message voting, The Voice has worked towards making more intimate, passion-driven social media links a core part of the show. The program spotlights contestants’ Twitter and Facebook accounts -- and Nakia has taken every advantage of that.
“To me it’s all about how can I look ahead and figure out how to get those people that watch the show to stick with me,” says Nakia, dressed in gray Adidas sweatpants and flip-flops at a Starbucks in his hometown of North Austin, not long after posing for a few photos with new fans.
“I chose ‘Forget You’ not because I knew Cee Lo was in the audience but because I wanted to make a big impression on America,” he continues, referring to his May 3 debut on the program. Clips on Hulu and other video sites got tens of thousands of views in less than 24 hours.
“What if no one turned around?” Nakia asked, referring to the show’s practice of having a judge turn around to show his approval of a blind audition. “I still needed a good moment on television, something that people would remember.”
In every possible regard, the soul belter, born Nakia Reynoso, has attempted to leverage what may still be a proverbial 15 minutes of fame—or 3 minutes on YouTube—into a long-term career, primarily through social networking.
Just as Lady Gaga spawns Little Monsters and Chamillionaire enlists his Chamillitary, Nakia is steadily building #TeamNakia, a devout support community on Twitter. Since the show first aired in late April, he’s jumped from roughly 1,200 followers to 6,072 at last check.
Will they be enough to sway the vote?
His Twitter persona is a natural extension of his bombastic stage presence and off-screen charisma. He’s slightly dramatic, an offshoot of his musical theater schooling at Northeast Alabama State Community College, and sincerely gregarious. After a recent gig at the Saxon Pub with his band the Blues Grifters, he waited around for two hours to meet every single fan that came to the show.
He’s been relentlessly proactive in his online approach, developing what he calls “Tweeple Tunnel syndrome” by live-tweeting the episodes and promotional appearances; engaging with other contestants and the coaches online; retweeting and responding to comments directed to him by users; making calls to action, the most effective being his push for users to help him reach 3,000 followers; and hosting creative contests for which the prize is Nakia following the user on Twitter -- a “follow-back.”
Nakia tweets so much that he needs a portable Mophie Juice Pack Air battery to recharge his iPhone 4.
For example, he encouraged his followers to tweet a photo or graphic with the hashtag #TeamNakia on it and later to retweet the iTunes link to buy his duet with fellow Austin contestant Tje Austin on Ne-Yo’s “Closer” from the battle round. One fan even made a Nakia doll to get followed back by the singer.
“You know what my most favorite thing to do is?” Nakia asks with a sly grin, in between checking the charge on his iPhone. “I call them ‘tweet-bys.”
First he searches for mentions of his name on Twitter. He’ll then personally respond to every mention of him, with or without his signature handle, even the negative commentary, as a means of creating engagement and plugging @NBCtheVoice, the show’s official account.
Then there are those comments about “Nakia” that obviously have nothing to do with him. He’ll respond to those too. And since his name—traditionally masculine and of Native American origin—has been adopted by Japanese and African-American women, the results are entertaining. The naturally long-locked singer once traded sympathies with one Twitterer about her weave, he says, and sent regrets to others that he couldn’t attend a party because he was flying to LA to tape a show.
“Hopefully when they see that, they’ll follow my because of the personal connection,” says Nakia, “Or they’ll at least retweet my comment.”
Those random connections to people are what motivates Nakia, he says: “That’s the whole reason I auditioned for the show. I always knew I could sing. That’s all I’ve ever done well, but I’ve never had a platform to connect like this before, and that’s what I felt like I always needed.”
Nakia’s no stranger to the role of the dark horse. He spent his youth as a constant outsider – inadvertently out in a small Bible belt town in Alabama – and retreated to his two passions: music and technology. In sixth grade, he taught himself how to program on a Commodore 64 and soon became the computer lab technician at his school. While he sang in his Southern Baptist church, his allegiance had already been pledged to the Kiss army – the first song he ever learned was Destroyer’s “Beth” – and the UK’s New Romantic movement.
He’s slowly worked his way up through the music industry, turning a chance meeting with mega-producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan) at a record store in 1996 into a marketing internship position for the Sony imprint 57 Records and later a job with Aware Records in Chicago. A trip to South By Southwest in 2002 took him to Austin, where he finally met his now-longtime partner, Rob Rankin (@robby_therobot on Twitter), whom he encountered in an AIM chatroom.
Ever since, Nakia has hustled in the local clubs, first in a Reno-themed side project called Small Stars, then as the leader of his own thunderous soul revue, Nakia & the Southern Cousins.
Despite notching a minor local hit with the title track to his 2009 album, Water to Wine, and lending background vocals to Alejandro Escovedo’s 2010 album, Street Songs of Love, Nakia’s success has never translated to a national level. He appeared at the Lollapalooza last year not as a performer, but as a food vendor for MasterChef Graham Elliot, slinging gourmet lobster corn dogs and truffle popcorn.
That changed, of course, with one growling rendition of Cee Lo’s “Forget You,” a feat that led to an on-screen bidding war between Sheldon and the Lady Killer himself. His voice – a gruff baritone equal parts John Fogerty’s Southern choogle and the Solomon Burke’s soulful reverence – then carried him past his teammate Tje Austin in the battle round, a performance that earned kudos from Elton John and led to promotional appearances on Access Hollywood and Today.
“The number one thing in my life right now is connecting with the people that I’ve met through this show,” Nakia says. “Everything else can be put on hold, because these are the people that are going to be putting food on my table for the next 20 or 30 years, coming to the shows, buying the music, whatever it is. I may never have another opportunity to be this connected to these people.
“I’m not just some guy on TV. I want to connect with you.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Nakia's age. He is 36, not 38.