17's release comes just a month after Zhavia released "A Whole New World" with Zayn Malik

By Tomás Mier
June 14, 2019 04:40 PM
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Amber Felix

From Norwalk to the world!

The Four standout Zhavia Ward released her debut EP 17 on Friday and is giving fans an inside look at her challenging upbringing, journey to fame and young love.

“I just wrote about a lot of my experiences,” Ward tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. “For me, that’s what being an artist is all about: giving your fans something that means something not only to you, but can mean something to them, and they can apply it to their life as well.”

The EP is a culmination of 15 months of success following the singer’s time on NBC’s The Four, where she reached the top four.

Since the end of the show, Ward has become a force to be reckoned with, and her EP is proof of that: the teen wrote on every track.

Zhavia Ward’s 17 EP
Sony Music

Ward describes her sound as “R&B and hip-hop-inspired,” but says she doesn’t want to place herself in a box.

“I think that’s something that people will notice when they listen to my music,” she says.

17’s eponymous single and music video delve into Ward’s upbringing in Norwalk, California, where her “mama worked two jobs” and she “used to eat popcorn for dinner with the soda pop.”

17” is a vulnerable song, which Ward hopes will become a source of inspiration for her fans.

Zhavia Ward in the “17” music video
Sony Music

“I share a lot of things with my fans that I never really talked about before,” she says. “My upbringing wasn’t always easy. I went through a lot of struggles, but for me, it just inspired me to write songs that will help my fans get through the things that they’re going through.”

The music video (à la “Becky from the Block” by Becky G) features Ward walking on the streets of her hometown — and even getting a tattoo in its honor. It narrates the singer’s upbringing from her mom Bobbi Jo Black quitting her full-time job to finally getting her own bed.

“She sacrificed a lot for my dreams to come true,” she says about her mom’s influence. “She’s always believed in me and been there for me so I really appreciate that.”

The EP features two love songs about Ward’s boyfriend Emmanuel Lateju: reggae-filled “All I Am” and throwback track “EZ.”

Ward says Lateju — who already knows all the lyrics — was “just smiling and blushing” when he heard the two tracks. (With lyrics like, “With you, I have it all ‘cause you’re a blessing to my world,” who wouldn’t?)

“He’s amazing. He supports me and my music 100 percent,” she says about her boyfriend. “He’s always helping me out and being there for me. It’s really awesome to have somebody that I trust through this process of being an artist, which sometimes can be difficult.”

Along with the Caribbean vibes on “All I Am,” the track features Bob Marley’s grandson Skip Marley.

“He’s a legend,” Ward said about Skip, who was featured on Katy Perry’s hit “Chained to the Rhythm. “I was very honored to be able to be in the same room and write and record with him.”

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The EP also features singles “100 Ways,” “Candlelight” and “Deep Down,” all of which were released in 2018.

17‘s release comes on the heels of her collaboration with One Direction alum Zayn Malik, who tapped her to join him on a rendition of “A Whole New World” from the 2019 live-action Aladdin remake.

“I didn’t really expect that to happen this year. It just kind of came out of the blue,” she says about the collab. “At first we didn’t really believe it, but when I found out that it was legit, I was really shocked. I was shocked that he even knew about me and he chose me to sing it with him.”

Since the song was released last month, Ward has gained 200,000 followers on her Instagram (where she now has 3.5 million followers).

Ward previously collaborated with Diplo, French Montana and Lil Pump to release “Welcome to the Party” as part of the Deadpool 2 soundtrack in May 2018, which helped catapult the teenager’s career. She cites Drake and Post Malone as her biggest inspirations thanks to their uniqueness and ability to be “their own individual person.”

As her career continues to grow, Ward says life is moving pretty quickly.

“Everything has moved a lot faster than I thought it would with all these opportunities coming out,” she says. “I had to learn to go with the flow.”

She says she can’t wait to go on tour (hopefully this summer) and hear what her fans have to say about her new tracks.

“I’m really excited to perform every song!” she says.