These are the rules:
You come on stage.
You take a shot.
You show the fuck out.
This is Trap Karaoke.
I stood in the front row of the crowd at the NYC December show drenched in sweat, swag-surfing, linked arm-in-arm with strangers who, after three shows, had begun to seem like friends — feeling something different. There was something brewing in the front row of Trap Karaoke.
A feeling of freedom hung over the crowd like a fog. I felt appreciated, like somehow everyone in the place had endured a day just like mine. Somehow, everyone there shared the same frustrations about the past, and the same worries for the future. I felt connected. In that moment, I allowed real to recognize real. What I was feeling was something that I, a New York City transplant from a small town in South Carolina, had not felt in a while.
What I was feeling was community. With the assistance of hip hop and a karaoke machine, community had been born in a Brooklyn bar. In just a matter of a few months, Trap Karaoke had become much more meaningful to the culture than I ever thought it would when I bought that first ticket.
I sat down with one of the founders of Trap Karaoke, Jason Mowatt, to discuss his original intentions for the event.
Mowatt was in a meeting with his partner Dela. The meeting itself was pretty formal, but afterwards they stood around shooting the shit. Dela mentioned an idea to Mowatt. The idea: a hip-hop karaoke party.
At the time this sparked Mowatt’s interest. For about a year, he pitched the idea to everyone he knew. Nobody thought it was cool, but Jason and Dela decided to move forward.
Jason continued, “One day I hit up my bro Jon on Twitter (@imfromraleigh), and asked him about the idea. I asked him, What if you could do karaoke but the selection included songs by like Future and Migos?”
Jon’s response, “You mean like trap karaoke?”
A name that stuck
Mowatt started testing the name “trap karaoke” out with his friends. Something as simple as a new name had completely changed the minds of his former naysayers. He and I laughed about that for a while, then he said to me, “An important skill I think you should learn when chasing a dream: ignore everyone’s opinion.”
A year later, there is nothing typical about the Trap Karaoke scene. Here, there is no VIP. There is no bottle service in sight. There is no need to pretend to be anyone but yourself.
You can survey the room and find a wide variety of occupations and identities — from Harvard Law students and mid-town service workers, to interns from Seattle, and those who have lived in Brooklyn their entire lives. Everybody is connected by one thing: a love and appreciation for the theme of the event.
Trap Karaoke has also created a space where those who may consider themselves “young black professionals” can loosen their ties, let their guard down, and just be.
My good friend Jonathan Wall remembered a conversation he had with Mowatt, “I went to my law firm’s karaoke night and was left disappointed by both the selection of songs, and the fact that my coworkers wouldn’t have liked or recognized the few songs I wanted to perform,” he said. “For people like me who spend the majority of their time in environments that don’t value the expression of blackness — it’s therapeutic.”
“The beats and the melodies surpass your subconscious.”
Trap Karaoke has worked to completely shatter the elitist standards normally associated with nightlife by placing the music at the forefront of the social experience. Mowatt and I talked for a bit about where we believed trap music fits into the family that we know as hip hop. He told me he thinks trap is emotional.
“Yeah, the content can be problematic, but the beats and melodies hit you on a very visceral level. I’m a fan of Young Thug. I think it’s cool that people don’t know what he’s saying. I think that was part of the magic with James Brown and Michael Jackson too. I mean, even think about jazz and scatting. You can hear BABIES singing trap melodies. The beats and the melodies surpass your subconscious.”
The only thing frowned upon at Trap Karaoke is not knowing the words. When it comes to performances, black creativity is at an all-time high. No two performances are alike. Some involve the use of backup singers and dancers, while others rely on their raw emotional connection to the song to carry them through.
On December 17, I watched the Trap Karaoke stage break gender boundaries. The host, Lowkey, announced that the next performance would be a Beyonce hit and as you can imagine, the crowd lost it. Right after their names were called, two guys stormed the stage and began to rip a “Bow Down/Flawless” performance to shreds. Here we have two guys performing a Beyonce crowd favorite, and a song that many do not associate with traditionally aligned views of masculinity.
Minutes later Darius Soler waded through the crowd to the front row. He was very intent on performing “Bow Down” for a second time. Darius is a singer and performer by nature, who also identifies as a gay man.
“I needed to get up there so I could kill it,” Darius said. “I wanted to kill it, and then I heard the host tell two girls before me that the same song couldn’t be performed twice. For me that sucked, because I wanted to get up there and sing and do the choreography. I was really gonna kill it.”
I asked him if he was nervous about getting up on the stage.
“There’s always some level of nerves when you’re getting in front of people, and I’m always nervous before hand. I’m a big black guy that looks like a football player, but I’m also a teddy bear with a high voice. I’m sweating. It’s hot as hell. But I told myself — you know what? Let me do this.”
Darius mentioned something that the host of Trap Karaoke said helped ease his nerves a bit. Right after the first performance of “Bow Down/Flawless,” Darius tells me he remembered Lowkey grabbing the mic and saying,
“For everybody who is uncomfortable, just know that we are creating a safe space. If you can’t handle that, you can leave.”
Darius told me over the phone, “You’re standing on that stage, but the minute you start performing, you feel like everybody is up there with you. It feels like community. In the black community, sometimes it feels like there is a lot of homophobia. I was surprised how the guys there were cool about it.” I asked him if he would perform on the Trap Karaoke stage again.
His response, “Hell yeah.”
A place of solace
What I figured would be a tough cultural experience to navigate was met with much love and support from the audience.
I won’t inflate the truth by suggesting that there weren’t members of the audience who were visibly uncomfortable. What I will and must say, is that in that moment, the conscious audience members and hosts of Trap Karaoke did not allow hate to permeate the atmosphere. The audience tends to act as a forcefield surrounding the vulnerable karaoke participants. Trap Karaoke set a standard that night, the message moving forward: “leave the hate at home.”
“We don’t see ourselves as party promoters. We are community organizers.”
I asked Jason Mowatt how he felt about the presence of people like Deray McKesson — a prominent figure in the Black Liberation Movement — showing up at one of the shows in DC. “I thought it was awesome man. It ties into the bigger mission of this thing,” he said.
As an avid tweeter, I will never forget the morning I woke up and saw Deray tweeting about Trap Karaoke. I asked Mowatt more about this “bigger mission” that he mentioned, and I could tell he was glad that I brought it up by his reply.
“We love to align ourselves with groups like BLM. Activists are allowed to be multi-dimensional people, ya know? We want to break those stereotypes. You have people who want to do events and avoid social good, and you have people who do social good but want to set these strict parameters around it. Context is everything. There are ways to finesse these kinds of things without forcing them.”
In the last stretch of our conversation, I asked Mowatt how he intended to ensure that Trap Karaoke remained an inclusive space for everyone. His response was simple.
“We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing. Lowkey has said — and will continue to say it at every show — if you aren’t down for creating a safe space, you can leave.”
“The music is already problematic as shit. We don’t want women to feel like they have to dress a certain way to be accepted or feel safe here. We won’t promote homophobia. If you have hate in your heart, don’t come. We are aggressive about keeping it that way.”
It’s important to remember that we are not as far removed our great-grandparents’ days of speakeasies and juke joints as we would like to believe. We are not as far removed from our grandparents’ days at the disco as we would like to believe. We are certainly not that far removed from our parents’ days of Freaknik either. We, a new and budding generation of Black people in America, find ourselves in the midst of a movement that is demanding that black lives be treated with the same consideration as the others that have been valued for hundreds of years. We are in the midst of a movement that is calling for ALL black lives to be considered worthy of this ask.
What do we do to maintain our sanity? Is it fair to sacrifice the things that make us happy in our continuing fight for equality? Your grandparents did not. Your parents did not (see: picture of your mom with the gold tooth in ‘86 that’s hidden under the living room table). As our generation continues to grow more and more “woke,” spaces that work to create a culture that removes the boundaries of respectability, politics, misogyny, and homophobia are becoming increasingly more in demand.
Is Trap Karaoke a 100 per cent perfect space? No. But there is much to be said about an event with the kind of appeal that it has amassed, actually concerning itself with being better for the culture. While the movement still has much work to be done, it is important to consider the progression of both the society we live in, and the spaces where we spend our spare time, for history has shown us — there is no separation of the two.
Curious to know what’s next?
— jason (@amznjsn) April 28, 2016
Trap Karaoke is currently on an international tour, uniting communities around the world. To learn more, visit trapkaraoke.com.