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New York City-born Vali Porter actually got her big break at a nursing home. She was three years old and visiting her Alzheimer’s stricken grandmother. To lift her spirits, she broke out into dance moves while her mom played piano. "My grandpa was like, ’Whoa!’" the urban-pop singer recalls. "’We have to get her into dance classes.’"

Grandpa’s talent-scouting proved prescient. These days, Vali is a triple threat: a dancer and an actress–but first and foremost, a singer. Her R&B-inflected tracks are an assortment of stories with sticky hooks. For instance, the soulful "Polaroid," produced by Sap (Mac Miller’s "Donald Trump"), is muses about the paparazzi, while "Roxanne" retells the Police song from the protagonist’s view. "I love characters," she says. "It’s the theatrical side of me." Her work abounds with humor and heart–a nod to her love of Stevie Wonder and The Beatles, as well as to her hardscrabble upbringing, which she’s always taken in stride.

Vali was raised by her single mom in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. "There were a lot of gangs, a lot of drugs’" she says. "I was not a kid who got to go out. Music was... safe." And she was surrounded by it: Her mom was a clarinetist, and her dad, who lived nearby, a symphony conductor. Vali threw herself into classical piano, tap-dancing, and ballet, shepherded around in an old Buick by her grandfather, himself a ballroom dancer.

Vali wrote her first song, "Autumn Leaves," on the piano at age 2. ("Pretty sure my mom named it," she notes, laughing.) In elementary school, she sang in church, and in junior high, she toured the East Coast with her school choir. By the time she entered LaGuardia high school–the storied performance-arts establishment depicted in Fame– she announced her devotion to urban over classical music by forming her own girl pop band, Platinum Angels. "I was around kids who were singing, realizing their dreams," she says of the epiphany that she could actually do this for a living. "And I thought, Oh my god, that’s possible!"

While working on a music–theater degree at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, Vali shifted into hyperdrive. "I was doing everything," she admits. "I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do." She took time off from classes to star in the touring cast of "West Side Story" and "Hairspray" in Europe. She also joined rapper Nitty’s entourage as a back-up dancer. "I flew out to Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and went right back to school," she explains. "I told a lot of my teachers what was happening, and they let me do it cause it was performing. I was tired a lot. But I just loved it too much." She sang back–up for Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh. She even managed to squeeze in a session recording her track "Fast Car" with Wiz Khalifa during a stop while touring as a singer with the Trans–Siberian Orchestra. Music became her only mission.

So for the past year, Vali has been recording tracks with producers such as Mark Baston (Alicia Keys, Beyonce) and Tommy Brown (Black Eyed Peas) for a 2012 debut. "This industry is not easy," she says with wisdom beyond her years. "When you are a kid, you’re like, ’I wanna be President!’ As you grow up, you realize a lot of people want to be President. Music is like that: You have to do a lot more than just say you want it."