Beyond the crown: Nia Franklin's ongoing advocacy for arts education

On Sept. 9, 2018, School of Music alumna Nia Franklin was crowned Miss America 2019 with a platform of “Advocating for the Arts.” In the years since being crowned, Franklin has made a name for herself globally as a composer, which has included three different composer-in-residence appointments, her compositions being performed by major national orchestras and a collaboration with choreographer Sidra Bell for her work “The Gardens That Were Watered for Us” premiering at UNCSA Winter Dance 2024. 

In addition to her music compositions, she has continued her tireless work as an advocate for the arts across the country; sits on multiple arts-focused boards; runs her initiative, Compose Her, which works to empower women in music; and actively seeks opportunities to introduce others to the benefits of artistic education. 

As her career continues to reach new heights, Franklin reflects on her journey, the obstacles she's faced and the motivations that kept her going.

An arts education

After graduating high school in Lexington, NC, Franklin headed to East Carolina University in Greenville, NC to study music composition. Her education plan was nearly derailed when her father was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma — she was her father’s stem cell donor, essentially saving his life. Franklin entered and won a campus pageant that emphasized service, scholarship and talent. Family and friends urged her to enter the Miss North Carolina competition for additional scholarship money. She competed as Miss Capital City in 2016, establishing music education and lymphoma research as her service priorities.

After graduating from ECU, Franklin enrolled in the UNCSA School of Music graduate composition concentration, studying with Lawrence Dillon. As a Winston-Salem native, Franklin says that when selecting a graduate school, UNCSA was the obvious choice. “I needed to be close to my family during that time in my life and I had always known about UNCSA and its impressive reputation,” she explains. “As soon as I stepped on campus, I felt welcomed and that everyone around me believed in me.” 

“Dr. Dillon …was so inspiring to me,” she told the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). “His thoughts about music were very similar to mine, so I felt as though I was on the right track in a lot of ways because of that.”

Nia Franklin pictured in Watson Hall on UNCSA's campus during her Homecoming visit after being crowned Miss America.  / photo: Raunak Kapoor

Nia Franklin pictured in Watson Hall on UNCSA's campus during her Homecoming visit after being crowned Miss America. / Photo: Raunak Kapoor

While at UNCSA, Franklin’s passion for music education and her drive to serve led her to ArtistCorps, an artist-driven program that places UNCSA students in public schools and community-based institutions to work with high-needs populations.

Franklin believes every child should be exposed to music from a young age. “Music fosters creativity and enhances the development of motor skills at a young age,” she explains, “and builds confidence and a sense of community.

“With ArtistCorps, I was going into different sites teaching music in schools and preschools that didn’t have it,” she says, adding that during her time in ArtistCorps she was able to help children advance their vocabulary through the use of music education. 

“It was in that year that I knew I really had to go farther with my love for music.”

Miss America 2019

After graduating from UNCSA in 2017, Franklin was awarded a Kenan Fellowship at Lincoln Center Education. In New York, she collaborated with Success Academy Charters Schools and as a cultural partner with Sing for Hope to reach as many students and communities as possible. She competed in the Miss New York competition as Miss Five Boroughs, winning preliminary competitions in swimsuit and talent for her performance as a classical vocalist. 

Franklin then went on to compete in the Miss America competition in the fall of 2018, singing "Quando m'en vò" from the opera “La bohème” for the talent portion. She won the competition and became the seventh Miss New York to win the Miss America title. Along with Franklin’s win, 2019 marked a pivotal year — for the first time ever, Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe were all Black women

Miss America

2019 title holders Miss America Nia Franklin (left), Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi (center) and Miss USA Cheslie Kryst (right). / Photo: CNN

As a lifelong musician, the platform of “Advocating for the Arts” came naturally to Franklin, who has been surrounded by music throughout her life, even composing her first song at the age of six. “I participated in choir throughout my school years. I was fortunate that my parents could pay for lessons,” she said during a panel discussion at UNCSA in 2019. “There are children who don’t have art in their schools simply because of where they live.”

After winning the Miss America crown, Franklin said music also helped her find herself as a young Black woman. “I grew up at a predominantly Caucasian school and there was only five percent minority, and I felt out of place so much because of the color of my skin,” she said. “I found my love of arts, and through music that helped me to feel positive about myself and about who I was.”

Advocating for the Arts

After winning the Miss America title, Franklin took full advantage of her platform by undergoing a publicity tour that included being interviewed on talk shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Live with Kelly and Ryan” and on countless media outlets and organizations like NAfME. Her tour also included speaking engagements at a gathering of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; a host of elementary schools; and participating in a panel discussion at UNCSA titled “Women Power the Arts, the Arts Empower Women.”

“In the last three months, one of the biggest highlights of being Miss America has been being able to use my voice to share the importance of arts in education, from speaking in schools across the country to performing at the Lincoln Center and to taking every media opportunity to continue expressing just how vital the arts are in schools,” she said in a social media post in December 2018.

In the last few months of her reign, Franklin traveled with the United Service Organizations (USO) to visit and perform for troops at various U.S. military bases in Europe and Africa. “Touring with the USO was very special to me because I was able to see who was fighting for and protecting our country and thank them personally,” she says. Additionally, Franklin had the opportunity to be the emcee for a New York Philharmonic charity concert that provided $5 tickets for first responders and their families. 

A rising star

Just after Franklin was passing on the crown, the 2020 pandemic hit, and she found she had nothing else to do but “stay home and compose.” This focused writing time led to the creation of several new pieces that would premiere in 2021. 

Though she had worked on projects prior, Franklin’s composition career truly kicked off when she became the second-ever composer-in-residence at the Festival Napa Valley in 2021. At the festival, she premiered several works and was awarded the Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Classical Music.

Later that year, Franklin debuted her first EP titled “Extended” under the artist name Nia Imani. The album featured an assortment of all-original R&B songs, and her orchestra piece, “Chrysalis Extended,” which has 3.7 million views on her TikTok profile.

@niaimanifranklin Relax 😌 #musicforfilm #neoclassical ♬ Chrysalis Extended live version by Nia Imani - Nia Imani Franklin

Going viral on TikTok was very meaningful to Franklin — she explains it was many young people’s first realization that composers who are women of color existed. “I know those moments can be very powerful because I remember being in high school watching a documentary of ‘Shrek: the Musical’ and learning that the composer was a woman,” says Franklin. “People think composers all look like Mozart or Bach so anything I can do to show that anyone can be a composer is important.” 

In July 2022, Franklin premiered her choral piece, “Polaris”, which celebrates Juneteenth being declared a national holiday in the United States. Festival Napa Valley commissioned the piece and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City performed it live. In 2023, Franklin composed for the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, where she premiered her work “Tides,” which was commissioned by the Academy.

In her first musical composition for dance, Franklin has worked with acclaimed choreographer Sidra Bell for many months on a piece that will premiere at the UNCSA Winter Dance 2024. Franklin describes the piece — titled “The Gardens That Were Watered for Us” — as “a celebration of Black culture, women and sisterhood.” The Winter Dance 2024 program is unique in that it highlights Black creatives, inspiring both Bell and Franklin to dive into themes of community and the balance of strength and delicacy. 

Franklin’s most recent exciting announcement is that she is the inaugural composer-in-residence at the American Library in Paris in March 2024. The Library explains that the “residency will be granted to trailblazing figures who operate at the intersection of music, literature, the performing arts, and philanthropy.” 

In addition to this residency, Franklin will also perform with the Winston-Salem Symphony in May 2024 in a program featuring Gospel and R&B favorites.

Continuing to advocate

Since her service as Miss America concluded, Franklin has remained dedicated to being an advocate for the arts in as many ways as possible. In 2019, she founded Compose Her, an initiative with an ongoing objective to empower women in music. She also sits on the board of Opera On Tap, which is a nonprofit organization based in New York City dedicated to making opera accessible to all.

These organizations are important to Franklin as she works to build awareness of women composers. “I want to be the voice and advocate for young girls and women that had no idea that they could even write compositions and notate music,” she says.

I want to be the voice and advocate for young girls and women that had no idea that they could even write compositions and notate music.

Nia Imani Franklin

In 2022, Franklin announced that she was selected as one of four inaugural co-chairs of the White House Historical Association’s Next-Gen Leaders initiative. The program is dedicated to “young professionals representing a wide variety of fields, bound together by a passion for history, civics, and education.” This appointment led to the opportunity to sing the national anthem at the unveiling of the official Historical Association’s portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2022.

In 2023, she was appointed to be a member of the UNCSA Board of Trustees and currently serves as Board Secretary. Franklin calls this appointment “rewarding” because she “enjoys seeing how the other side of arts higher education works” as well as giving back to the UNCSA community.

At the time of her appointment, former Board chair and Dance alumnus Mark Land said, “Nia, in particular, has shown herself to be an arts entrepreneur who is interested not only in the arts as creative expression and innovation but also as a game-leveler in social and economic justice.”

by Lauren Whitaker, updated by Melissa Upton-Julio

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Originally published February 03, 2019, updated February 28, 2024