On September 22, the scene outside of New York City's Sounds of Brazil nightclub wasn't too unusual. Squads of young blacks dressed in their freshest gear congregated in a line down the block. Selfies were taken underneath flickering florescent streetlights. And you could hear the muffled cadence of a rap song bumping through the walls. Everyone was ready to let loose. But the patient patrons waiting for over an hour for entry weren't there to see a headliner. Trap Karaoke was back in town, which meant it was time for the folks who would usually be in the audience to take center stage.
If Soul Train was the "hippest trip in America," then Trap Karaoke is its ratchet heir apparent. The traveling "user-generated concert experience" offers only the most energetic and well-versed hip-hop fans a chance to rock the mic with party staples like "Knuck if You Buck" by Crime Mobb and new classics like "Jumpman" by Future and Drake. Unlike Showtime at the Apollo, where an audience member's boos and jeers can get a performer swept off the stage, there is no hateration in this dancery. Instead, MC Lowkey may call out college graduates to be applauded, while DJ Austin Millz cues up "The World Is Yours" by Nas.
While the evening may not be spent two-stepping to your auntie's slow jams and the Soul Train line has been updated to the swag surf, the communal spirit and unapologetic blackness remain the same. For those who catch the holy ghost listening to Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam," they are met with open arms by the likeminded congregants at Trap Karaoke. In fact, the event's founder, Jason Mowatt, says, "It's like going to church, but instead of 'Amazing Grace,' you're singing 'Back That Azz Up.'" And like a church, Trap Karaoke serves as a refuge when your spirits are down. At the recent show in SoHo, a collective exhaustion cascaded over the club after the MC reminded the crowd of the latest black lives lost at the hands of police. That pain transformed into pride the moment the audience chanted back, " We gon' be alright."
As the Trap Karaoke team recently celebrated the event's first anniversary, I caught up with founder Jason Mowatt and his tour manager Helena Yohannes to discuss the power of group synchrony, the need to bring hip-hop back to gentrified neighborhoods, and why millennials love taking their talents to the night show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Where did the idea for Trap Karaoke come from?
Jason Mowatt: One night, I hit up my friend Jon, and he said he was going to karaoke with his co-workers. I said, "Wouldn't it be cool if you could do Future?" because I know he's such a big Future fan. He said, "Like a trap karaoke?" We laughed, and he dared me to create it. The first event was September 29, 2015, in New York, and it was pretty wack. There wasn't much of a set list, but I saw a glimmer at the end. This girl named Belise Thomas did "Back to Back" by Drake. That was the summer that Drake was beefing with Meek Mill. He had that incident at the OVO Fest where he showed the memes and people went crazy. So I recreated that at the event. At first, I was just projecting lyrics on the wall. Then the chorus came up, and I started showing the memes, and people started losing their fucking minds. I thought, OK, I can build an experience around this .
You define Trap Karaoke as a "user-generated concert experience." What does that mean?
It's a fan-first experience, where you have regular people going up there channeling their favorite artist. I think people underestimated how engaged people would be around a concept like this. But we're packing really big concert venues. You would have thought the artist is the one up there performing. At Trap Karaoke, the whole point is to close that by putting fans at the center of the experience. It's like the people's concert. We've been bringing out the artists who perform some of these songs. People get up onstage and maybe 20 seconds in we'll cut the music and say, "You don't really know the words! We're going to get you someone who knows these lyrics a little bit better."
Helena Yohannes: In LA, a woman was performing "Down in the DM." And during her performance, Yo Gotti came up behind her and performed. You get to live out a fantasy of performing with your favorite artist. You can't let that go.
What draws people to Trap Karaoke?
*Mowatt:* There's a focal point for everyone's attention, so the impact is that much deeper and stronger. Some [fans] sign up, some of them we pull out of the crowd, but it's really an experience that's generated by the people in the room. We have a host and a DJ, and I think that definitely contributes. The audience response, to me, is a tremendous part of what makes it special. There's this concept called "collective effervescence," which talks about how humans are predisposed to get pleasure out of participating in group activities. Naturally, we devolve, seek out group cohesion—group synchrony—because it ensures our chance of survival. But you see this when people go to church. It's that sense of community and togetherness. At a space like Trap Karaoke, we try to create as many moments like that as possible.
Yohannes: You get some sort of high when you're performing because everyone is so supportive. It's a real sense of community. They're cheering for you, and you get to feel like Beyoncé or Bryson Tiller or Future for 15 seconds of your life. That sense of community at times can be lost online, it can be very fragmented. But Trap Karaoke is that step to forging real friendships and creating a real community.
So one can expect to hear "Swag Surf" and other songs that bring people together?
Mowatt: Exactly, it's like going to church, but instead of "Amazing Grace," you're singing "Back That Azz Up." Everyone knows "Back That Azz Up" the same way everyone knows "Amazing Grace," but the context is different. I feel like there's such a big social media aspect of this. Millennials are really into experiences because it provides social currency. At Trap Karaoke, it's like [getting] likes in real life. It's not just you posting something on your Snapchat or your Instagram. You're in front of a crowd that's actually responding to you and giving you that validation in real life and the intensity is that much greater. But I think there's this natural desire for people to feel accepted and show who they are.
Yohannes: With Trap Karaoke, it's an equal playing field. We're all here. We're all humans, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, being in a place where people who look like one another can interact with one another, there's almost a commonality of pain. But then in turn, it's a commonality of joy with the music. The audience is the congregation, and you become the focal point, and you feel that love.
What should someone expect when they get onstage, and what's the prize?
Mowatt: I tell people, "This isn't Tuesday night at the karaoke bar." It's all love, but I recommend if you're going to go onstage and do a song, make sure you know all the words. Do not depend on the prompter to save you. The best performers we've ever had are people who go up there and don't use the prompter at all. They just do songs they know because they can make it more of a performance.
Yohannes: You want people to come back and feel good about themselves. It takes a lot of guts to go up there. So if a performer is not that great, they're perceptive enough to know that they need to get off the stage. The music will slowly dissipate.
Describe the typical Trap Karaoke performer.
Mowatt: We have some really unassuming people that get onstage. There was this one guy in DC. We got himon stage and asked him to introduce himself. He's like, "Yeah, I'm from Nebraska. I'm just here visiting." And then he did Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," and let me tell you, he went H.A.M. I think that's what makes Trap Karaoke magical. People bring props. They bring back up dancers. They bring their squad up there with them. They've got dance routines. Some people really go all out.
Yohannes: I've traveled from Detroit to New Orleans, and the average [performer] is a woman. That says something. They feel so safe that they can perform, [and] you wouldn't think they would. That's how safe you feel and not judged when you're up there. They do "Jumpman," "International Player's Anthem." But they do, do Beyoncé. Don't get it twisted. They do "Sorry." I swear to God every girl just goes, "Oh my gosh! Middle fingers up!"
What feedback have you received?
Mowatt: Some cities, when you announce the date, it sells out almost immediately and you think, What is the driving force behind this? The Bay area sold out pretty quickly. But it wasn't until I started talking to people [who] said, "You brought water to the desert because we don't have events like these out here." The same day I landed, there was a protest on the Bay Bridge—a Black Lives Matter protest. I had a friend who was taking me around the Oakland area and telling me how the space was being gentrified and showed me where the new Uber building was going to be. So it seems like this recurring trend in every city we go to where there aren't spaces for people to get together because there's so much change happening. I think one of the things I've become a lot more aware of is just the context in which these events are happening. Every city has a story and something we're going to be doing going forward is try to document that.
Yohannes: We get thank you emails, and the venue [managers] have commented on how great the audience is. The only criticism we get is [the audience] wants it to be longer. Really? It's four hours! Most people lose their voice. Time and time again, venue managers say, "I have never seen this. I've never seen anything sell out so quickly."
Was the intention of Trap Karaoke to fill a void?
Mowatt: I've always said, "We're not party promoters. We're community organizers." I think that's one of the reasons we didn't just go to New York, LA, Atlanta, and the primary markets. That's why we brought Trap Karaoke to like a Boston and Raleigh. We want to go to these places and create a community with these people. We want to get people together and create this shared experience. So to be true to that promise means that not only are we going to these cites, but we're also telling their stories.
Yohannes: There's a really good line that Jay Z says. "Build your fences. We digging tunnels." We're creating our own brand. We have a black founder, black host, black DJ—and I think on a subconscious level that says a lot. If a person of color is winning, then we all are. It shows that we can do it too. We can be successful. That must do so much for the confidence of people in the black community.
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