During the season 42 finale of Saturday Night Live, Katy Perry's musical appearance became a Twitter moment. Alongside drag queens and club kids, she staged a vogue dance battle for her “Swish Swish” performance, pulling double duty as a performer and a hype woman.
At the tail end of the performance, you might’ve recognized a familiar face if you follow Rihanna on Instagram. It was Russell Horning, a 15 year old who has built a viral following for his free-flowing dancing and deadpan expression. That night, he was all social media could talk about.
Horning got his new nickname—Backpack Kid—from this appearance. He mesmerized viewers with his stiff-armed dance move that he calls The Russell. He then did a standing worm and a variation of hitting the Quan before striking one hell of a pose. The reaction online was a mix of laughter and awe. Who was this kid? Where did he come from? Why is Katy Perry friends with him now?
Since SNL, Backpack Kid has only gotten bigger. With over 730,000 followers on Instagram, the Lawrenceville, Georgia native has appeared in music videos by Usher-affiliated dance duo Ayo & Teo (“Rolex”) and Blac Youngsta (“Hip Hopper”). In his bio, he says that he can’t dance, and makes an effort to tell his fans that the majority of his dance videos are done in jest. Still, Backpack Kid is becoming a teen celebrity, and more people from different circles are coming to him to collaborate. Roy Purdy, a YouTuber, artist, and video producer, dropped a goofy video of him Milly Rocking in New York and Backpack Kid made a cameo. The video currently sits at over three million views.
Backpack Kid's clearly been winning. Complex hopped on the phone with Horning to get the backstory on how he went viral, meeting Katy Perry, and why he wrote "ending racism" in his Instagram bio.
How did you get into dancing?
I just posted a video on Instagram just for fun, only thinking about 30 or 40 people would see it, then that video just blew up.
Were you dancing with your friends when you were younger? What motivated you to put your dance videos on Instagram?
I guess at church camp a while back in summer of 2014 in front of everybody, and they all seemed to like it, so I was like, ‘You know, why not move this to Instagram and make a video?’ Then I made a video and went from there.
Are you a self-taught dancer?
Pretty much. I took a class for about a month then left because there was too much drama. And that class wasn’t very helpful anyways.
So when you posted that first video, did you promote it on social media? How did it blow up?
I had 300 followers and the video had 30 views. Then I was sitting at my friend’s house and got a notification on Instagram saying, ‘You’ve been tagged in another account.’ And I looked and a guy with 700,000 followers had reposted the video and tagged me. I was getting thousands and thousands of followers.
Did you upload your dance video on your account or were you going by a different name?
My old username was Majestic Cat Lover. I know, it was pretty iconic. After the video blew up I knew I needed a new username. I don’t know how I came up with i_got_barzz—I think it’s because I enjoyed rapping with my friends or something. I can’t really remember exactly but that’s what my username came to be.
Last time I checked your Instagram you had around 730,000 followers. How do you grow your audience?
I’m just being myself and being original ‘cause when you think about it you can’t find any other accounts that dance for a comedy kind of purpose. Everybody else tries to dance in a good form so they can get famous that way, but I made up a new kind of genre of dancing and that’s what got me big.
I think I’m making the world a better place dancing with different races.
How do you describe your relationship with your fans?
I love them all because I wouldn’t be here today without all of them and I just love them all for that. And if I see them in public I will take a picture, talk for a little bit and then we go about on our way.
Do they notice you on the street as the kid dancing on Instagram or the Backpack Kid?
It’s half and half. Rarely it’s Backpack Kid. Not many people my age watched SNL. Some people see me as Backpack Kid, some people see me as that kid dancing on Instagram or some see me as i_got_barzz.
Are you going to rebrand yourself as the Backpack Kid?
Yeah, I’m trying to do my best. In all the videos I’m trying to wear the backpack. In public I’m trying to wear the backpack.
Do you have a favorite brand of backpack now?
Yeah, I am trying to stay loyal to one brand, it’s called Sprayground. I’m trying to get more from their business.
Would you launch your own line of backpacks?
I don’t think I am. I've known Sprayground for a very long time and I’m trying to only wear their book bags.
In your bio you say that you’re ending racism, what do you mean by that?
I have a lot of black friends and I dance in videos with my black friends and just because I don't have any white friends in my videos—even though I do have white friends—people get mad at me for dancing with them, like, "Why are you dancing with black people? Where are your white friends?" I think I’m making the world a better place dancing with different races.
I noticed that a lot of your dances are to hip-hop songs. How did you get into hip-hop?
I wasn’t really into hip-hop when all of this first started but then I started looking at all of these other famous dancers and I was like, "OK, they are all into this hip-hop form and this actually seems kind of cool." So I started to get into it myself.
Who was the first artist you remember getting into?
When I first started I didn’t really look at artists, I just looked at other dancers. Like Ayo & Teo, King Imprint, Young Swag, SheLovesMeechie. And those were my first goal of people to meet. I have met all of them and now I don’t know who exactly I’ll meet next.
Ayo & Teo put you in their “Rolex” video. Have you been friends with them for a while?
Yeah, I've been friends with them since last July, when we first met in Michigan.
Did you get to meet Usher at the "Rolex" video shoot?
Yeah, I met Usher, [but] I didn’t really talk to him. Just took a picture and left.
A lot of us know about you because of Rihanna posting your video as her mood because of her eight Grammy nods. How did you find out about that?
All the comments on my recent posts and people kept DMing me the post. I was like, "OK, what is everybody saying that Rihanna reposted me?" And then I look at her page and my video was reposted on her page getting millions and millions of views.
Where were you when this was happening?
I think I was at home and then when she posted it I told my mom. She was like, "Who is that?" And then I laughed.
A couple of months later you did the Katy Perry appearance on SNL for her song “Swish Swish.” How did she discover you?
She was just looking through her explore page and I was on there. She looked at my videos and she contacted me through there.
What was meeting her like?
She’s a really nice person, actually. She's still humble, the fame hasn’t gotten to her head yet. She’s a very nice person, doesn’t think the world revolves around her. She’s probably the nicest celebrity I've ever met.
What did she say about your dance moves? Did she have any industry advice for you?
She said, it’s not like I created dancing or she created music, we are just really good at doing it. It was pretty interesting.
Recently you were in Blac Youngsta’s “Hip Hopper” video with Lil Yachty. Tell me about that.
That was a lot of fun. My agent Russell has very good connections with a lot of famous people. He got me in that video because he had connections with them. He told me being in that video was just a sample of the things he could do for me because he’s a brand new agent.
Do you think you’ll do more hip-hop video appearances? It feels like you are getting more associated with the rap circles.
I actually hope I am in more large music videos for these kinds of songs. I really like that genre of music.
Another video that went viral was the one with Roy Purdy. How’d you two link up?
He lives in Wisconsin and I live in Atlanta and we both went to New York. I went there for SNL. He went there to do something in Connecticut or something. We kind of met up and made that video. He was a really nice kid and really funny, too.
A lot people online talked about how you and Roy’s Milly Rock is sturdy. How did you learn to Milly Rock?
Um, Milly Rocking isn’t hard.
Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you want to stick with this dance-comedian lane or do you want to be an all-around creative?
I think I see myself in the future doing the exact same thing that I am doing now. I enjoy being a comedian dancer.
There are people who have called you an inspiration for doing what you do because you do things that make you happy. How do you take it all in knowing there are people that are starting to look up to you?
Well, with this many followers people expect me to be perfect ‘cause they are supposed to see me as a role model and teach kids that want to be like me in the future. So I can’t really do anything bad. And if I do, they’ll get really mad.
What do you like to do for fun outside of dancing?
I try to maintain a normal life ‘cause I think it’s what keeps famous people their sanity to where they don’t get completely cocky and think that fame is getting to their head. I play Xbox One with my friends. I have sleepovers at people’s houses. Go to the pool with friends. Pretty much what normal kids do.