When you hear the word "karaoke," the first songs that come to mind might be along the lines of "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey or Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." What do these things have in common? White people. They made these songs, and they love these songs. People of color—black people, in particular—are typically goaded into joining in, and wind up feverishly following along with on-screen lyrics to songs we just didn't come up with. (There are some unicorns out there who did grow up listening to classics like these—no disrespect to y'all, keep rocking.)
Until recently, people of color have not been inherently centered in the karaoke experience. Jason Mowatt is the CEO and founder of Trap Karaoke, a movement that flips that dynamic on its head with a string of—you guessed it—trap music-focused karaoke events across the country and world. If you've never heard of it, the About section on the Trap Karaoke website describes the event series as follows: "Trap Karaoke is like going to church... but instead of 'Amazing Grace,' you're singing 'Back That Azz Up.'"
Trap Karaoke has made so much noise that it's led to a number of unprecedented partnerships: Trap Karaoke and HBO teamed up this summer to offer fans of Ballers and Insecure the opportunity to view double screenings of the premiere episode of each show's latest season, then participate in the Trap Karaoke experience. Additionally, the Trap Karaoke crew teamed up with 2 Chainz as the opening act of the Atlanta rapper’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music Tour. On top of that, Mowatt and co. just wrapped up a trip to Beijing, China earlier this month, that saw them collaborating with LeBron James and Desiigner.
Complex spoke with Mowatt about the origins of Trap Karaoke, why the experience is crucial to communities of color, and how the brand works celebrities and artists into the equation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How was Beijing?
It was really, really awesome. Trap is really big in Asia, especially China. But it's a different type of trap, like the Higher Brothers. Desiigner is huge in China because of "Panda." It's interesting to see how people are embracing the culture. We kind of felt like cultural ambassadors: to be able to bring the Swag Surf to Beijing. We went to the Forbidden City, and saw the Great Wall of China, and we had a Beats Pill with us. I just had a thought like, “Do y’all realize trap music has probably never been played in this space?” Something about that felt special. I've always felt like black culture is popular culture. Black people are inclusive when it comes to our culture.
How did y'all link with LeBron?
Every summer, LeBron does a tour in Asia. I think he's been doing it for 12 or 13 years. Asia is a big market for Nike, so he typically hosts basketball camps or exhibitions. This time, he wanted to find a new way to engage with his fans in the various cities. The idea came about to do something based on music because of the Beats partnership. I don’t know the internal workings of how conversations went, but apparently LeBron was really ecstatic about it.
How did Trap Karaoke first come together?
It started out as a joke. Around that time, Future released DS2. "Fuck Up Some Commas" was big. So I first had the idea to create a browser plugin for "Fuck Up Some Commas" to play on a web page. I made progress, but I had a friend who was a huge Future fan. We were working on testing the latest version and he said, "Wouldn't it be hilarious if you could do Future and Migos, like a trap version of karaoke?" I kind of laughed at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought I could make it something.
A month and a half later, we had the first event. It rained, 40 people showed up, the projector broke the previous day. There weren't any standout moments. I was trying to figure out the format. But there was a glimmer of hope: one person did "Back to Back." It was the height of Drake's Meek Mill beef, he had just done the memes at OVO Fest. Unbeknownst to the person onstage, we were projecting the memes behind her and the crowd went wild.
I came up with the idea of user-generated concerts, putting fans at the center of experiences, and bringing social media into the concert experience. We had our first show in the Lower East Side. We did a few more in NYC, then we went to D.C.
We're not party promoters; we're community organizers.
Do you have any favorite shows?
In Feb. 2016, we took it to All-Star Weekend in Toronto. Drake and LeBron were having a private event with Beats, so that one is up there. Also, our first show in Atlanta, because it's the home of trap. Our biggest show was 700 people, but most are around 300. Once you get to a certain scale, the experience becomes something different. It's a difference between a few people in the room versus a full room.
I've been to a Trap Karaoke event in D.C.—a couple, actually—and I had a blast. What's your favorite part of putting this together for fans?
There's a science to it, then there's an art to it. The science part is that it's a user-generated concert where, to date, trap music is really popular. There's momentum around the movement. It's where you go to lose your voice. There are also lower barriers of participation. It's easy to join in, and one of the most interactive experiences.
The art side of it is, it's a community. It's vulnerable to be on that stage, performing in front of an audience, likely for the first time. Usually, you're in your house or car. So we created a community where people are really nice, so you don't have to worry about getting booed. It's a safe space for people to connect. A big part of why it works is the fact that it celebrates black joy. We encourage people to express themselves and some people come with different shirts and slogans customized for the event. It's a human connection. The science part is participation. You're not just a casual observer, but a cultural participant.
What does your team look like?
I'm the founder and creator. Nile Ivey a.k.a. LowKey is the host; he's also a personality on Beats 1. Austin Millz from Fool's Gold is the DJ. Our general manager is Helena Yohannes, Jay Tovar is our photographer, and Jacob Liden is our videographer. It's like a band: the guitar is Jay, he has the camera. LowKey is the lead singer. Everyone working together is a crazy experience. We're posting live photos while the show is going on as people are performing and in the crowd. It's a whole ecosystem of these talents coming together. It's special when you can work with smart people. This is the first time I've felt like everyone on the team is a genius.
What surprise guests have you had? Any favorite ones?
My favorite has definitely been 2 Chainz, for sure. Any time you can get an artist or celebrity is fun. That one happened in early June. For our show in Atlanta, we brought a group of girls onstage who were fans of 2 Chainz. They started performing, and 20 seconds in we cut them off, like, "Nah, we need more energy. You gotta feel it in your gut, start over." So they perform again, and don't notice when he comes out. The crowd sees him and goes crazy, and the girls think it's for them, then they see him.
It's about bringing fans closer to the artists whose music they love instead of paying $500 for a VIP meet-and-greet and a signed shirt. I sound a little cynical, but it's just more meaningful when you create an experience. It's something on their bucket list. Those girls will never forget when they were on stage with 2 Chainz. The people in the crowd see themselves in the people onstage.
How did that first 2 Chainz appearance even happen, and how did it turn into a tour collaboration?
It was around the time his album was about to be released. He had seen what the event was like before. His manager knew what Trap Karaoke was, so he brought him in. They were both amazed by the response. The next week, we had another show in Atlanta and a thought popped up like, "How cool would it be to be on a tour? Instead of seeing an opener nobody knows, why not have the Trap Karaoke to get everybody hyped?" I thought 2 Chainz would be perfect. He did the Pink Trap House, where they also held community meetings. I told Kevin Storey at Epic Records, and he thought it was cool and innovative. So he connected me with 2 Chainz's manager. We were on the phone for two minutes and he was like, "Let's do this, 2 Chainz is excited." That was it. We worked out the logistics of the dates—we didn't wanna do the whole tour because we already have our own. So, kudos to 2 Chainz for seeing the vision and realizing how this could enhance his tour. Because a lot of people don't get it. He totally got it.
How did the HBO tour go?
We did a three-city tour to promote the new seasons of Ballers and Insecure. It went really well. One of the best partnerships we've ever done. The events included screenings, so people got to see the first episode of Ballers and Insecure first. So it was the screening, then the Trap Karaoke experience. It was cool to see the characters from the shows going in. We made it work.
What's been the biggest challenge of running the event?
The hardest part is moving fast enough. There are so many cities I want to visit. That's what brings me the most joy, bringing the experience to different places. We're not party promoters; we're community organizers. I've noticed that in smaller cities, the response is more gigantic than major markets. Oftentimes, these people see it on the internet, but don't think it'll come to their city. They feel left out. So, we're bringing them into the family. It's a common touchstone where they can all connect. That's the really special part, but the hard part is how to move quickly and spread the experience.
Where are you taking Trap Karaoke next?
This 2 Chainz partnership is an indication of things to come. Hopefully, it'll spread to other artists. It's a win for artists and fans. Like, Travis Scott will bring fans out to rap his verses and hype them up. At a Nike Air Max event, he brought a kid onstage who knew all the words. The kid was an electrifying performer on his own, and Travis was jumping from where he was, he couldn't control it. With 2 Chainz, this could be a new model for the concert experience. It's about finding new ways to bridge the gap between fans and artists. As much as it is about innovating, it's about community—especially as it pertains to people of color. We have a Black Lives Matter tribute at every show. It's also about black joy.
We have a coffee table book coming out soon, featuring photos. We captured people in a way that makes them seem larger than life. It's almost like Humans of New York: people have assumptions about people who like trap music, who go to trap shows. The people who come to our events pull from both sides. In everyday life, you can't be your whole self. In the office, you have to dress, talk, and behave a certain way. At Trap Karaoke, you can be your whole self. You can have a college degree and like trap. You can be Cardi B and Coretta Scott King. Especially with Trump in the White House, and police brutality... black joy is under attack. So to come together as a family is really important. Our book pays homage to that. We're adding to the historical record; it's a document for people to go back in time. The book will include essays and letters about how Trap Karaoke changed people's lives. Who would have thought trap music could change people's lives?
What are you working on next?
It's an idea I actually had before Trap Karaoke called the Million Swag Surf. I want to set a world record for the biggest Swag Surf ever. It's to raise awareness for blood cancer and bone marrow donations. It largely affects people of color, black people. Charlie Murphy passed from blood cancer. It's really difficult to find a match: it has to be the same ethnicity. Caucasian people have a way higher possibility of finding a match. If you're mixed, it's even harder.
It first came on my radar in 2012; my friend's niece had blood cancer. She was on Broadway as Nala, at 12. Because she was on Broadway, people wanted to help raise awareness. But they didn't find a match in time, so she passed. Me and her had the same birthday. I saw my friend posting, and I'm looking at this kid, thinking of myself at that age. What would happen if my clock stopped at that age?
People focus on the social good aspect instead of thinking about creative ways to do it. The more I thought about it, the more I was like, "Why has no one created a Swag Surf world record?"
Our first one was actually on the lawn of the White House in Oct. 2016, at SXSLawn. It wasn't a ton of people, but a bunch of people participated. We did it again at Broccoli City Fest in May. We had close to 8 or 9,000 there. The goal is to keep doing these, and keep raising the ante every time. We want to reach one million cumulatively. We're educating people on blood cancer, then creating an experience by bringing it together. Someone can say, "I just participated in a record-breaking Swag Surf," instead of just being detached. It's about creating something they can connect to and remember when they leave.