Photo via Twitter
For many of us, YouTube is a form of escapism. We use it to get away from our boring lives and stick our little noses into the lives of other more interesting people. YouTube was also a platform for music where I spent most—all—of my time listening to artists such as Andrew Garcia, Jeremy Passion and the Goddess of Hair herself, Tori Kelly. At that time, all three were doing impressive covers both individually and collaboratively, but it was Tori’s now extremely dated covers of 2009 and 2010 chart-toppers like Rihanna’s “Only Girl” in her bedroom that made my heart swell.
What was there not to love about Tori? Her impressive dedication to her craft was admirable and addicting enough to follow on YouTube. Kelly’s road has been bumpy and adventurous: From getting rejected by Simon Cowell on American Idol to putting out an EP independently and her discovery on YouTube all the way to a record deal with Capitol Records and releasing a debut album that hit the Billboard Hot 100. Her whispering voice, her powerful pipes, the way she even pronounced words like “cereal” or “booklet”: It all shook me to my young impressionable core. Oh, and don’t forget the innovative rap-like verses she was able to incorporate in with her music, like in “Confetti.” By the third YouTube cover, I was already convinced that she was indeed a gift. While it is argued that Drake was at the forefront of the whole rap-singing phenomenon, it was really Tori who did it first.
People listen to music for an emotional response, but when I listen to Tori I listen to her music for spiritual guidance and answers with songs like “Dear No One,” which screams independence, or “Where I Belong,” which is a song about honesty and not conforming to molds. When her voice does a run, whenever she hits a harmony, I can see the answers to life’s hardest problems. She was a YouTube siren singing her enchanting melodies, and I was just a sailor of the Internet, captivated by her songs. Little did Tori know that she would one day be selling out opera houses all over the world and singing her own original songs of empowerment and heartbreak.
I had the fortunate opportunity to watch Tori Kelly—and her signature curls—grow from a mere 8k following on YouTube to become a full-blown superstar, performing on stage to thousands of fans. I remember it like it was yesterday (although it was actually 2013.) Her first show was at the small intimate venue The Opera House where her minimal setup included only a stool and her acoustic guitar. She was nervous and audibly made some mistakes during her performance, but I understood. I understood. I was there for her, fully supporting her on every song and singing along. Hell, if you look closely in this Instagram video from 130 weeks ago, you can clearly see me cheering and frantically waving. Since then I’ve attended every show she’s ever had, which, by my count, is three.
Tori noticed me
Recently, I attended her Unbreakable Tour, which featured most of her 2015 debut album Unbreakable Smile. I found out that I, along with hundreds of other people of all ages and creed, had initially wanted to follow Kelly’s journey from videos shot in her bedroom to playing sold out shows all across the world. However, as I would come to witness, three years can make one hell of a difference.
The sold-out Massey Hall was filled to the brim with excitement as we all waited for the extremely recognizable ball of curls to come on stage. With most fans donning Tori’s merch, excited chatter and audible cries of joy could be heard all throughout to beckon Kelly to make her way to the mic. But me? I sat there in silent excitement. Merely cheering for the woman will not convince her to come out any sooner, I thought to myself. Goddesses need time to get ready. By the second song “Unbreakable Smile,” I lost all feeling in my body and fully embraced her sweet harmonious voice. Even adding an Ariana-esque whistle falsetto, Tori Kelly pushed the boundaries of her already unlimited range. Her vocal ability and humble love for her fans shook the whole venue for all of an hour and a half.
Ughh, so talented
With lyrics of empowerment, independence and sneaky disses to Simon Cowell, who called her voice “annoying,” Tori was not even close to done telling the world that she didn’t need a cosign from anyone to make it far. While belting out notes that my mortal ears have never even heard in my life—and even having a drum off-with her drummer— Kelly proved that she can do more than play instruments and sing, she can do all of it pretty damn well. Is there anything this woman can not do? With the live vocal performance of the century, Tori Kelly deserves a Grammy. The most exceptional part of Tori Kelly’s rise to fame is her ability to transition from YouTube covers to a full-fledged tour supporting an album.
As the show progressed, she made sure that she did not forget her day ones though. Namely, me. She shouted out the decade-long YouTube subscribers and began to sing a medley of her most popular covers including Michael Jackson’s “PYT”, Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” and Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You,” which now trophies 24 million views. Immediately, I felt 17 again. It’s clear as day that she loves her fans way more than anyone at her level should. Hell, she even still does “Tea With Tori”, a contest where she brings a couple of her fans backstage with her to enjoy some tea together before each show. No, I’ve never personally had the chance to experience this heaven on Earth but like most of you, I will vicariously live through it on her Snapchat. Of course, I have attempted multiple times and failed to be one of the lucky few to drink leaves with the legend. But after seeing her it is clear to me that Tori’s love and admiration for her fans is, for lack of a better word, unbreakable.
Byron Yan is a Tori-nator from Toronto and anti-”squad”. Follow him on Twitter.