TikTok. A potentially massive data security issue for the U.S., but also a social media platform where over the span of two months, a random kid from North Carolina can introduce himself to the world, do a dance to a song he made in his bedroom, and end up with a hit record. TikTok not only democratizes the opportunity to be seen, heard, and shared, it’s also birthing careers on a daily basis, and helping new artists build massive leverage as they deal with traditional music industry structures.
North Carolina artist Curtis Waters and his TikTok-born hit “Stunnin’” act as a case study for all of this and more. After promoting the song’s stylish, self-assured message to TikTok for over two months before its release, Waters uploaded the song online in May and has since amassed tens of millions of views and streams, not to mention a spot as the background music to a new Mercedes Benz commercial, an article in Rolling Stone magazine, and to top it all off, a deal with BMG to help turn music into his full-time job. He can quit working at a Tropical Smoothie in North Carolina and he can drop out of classes at UNC Greensboro, all thanks to “Stunnin’” and the magic of TikTok.
Now, with his life flipped upside down over the span of just two months, Waters is focused on turning his viral moment into a sustainable career. The first step? Follow up “Stunnin’” with “System.” His new single is an energized, hard-nosed anthem on the opposite end of the spectrum from his glossy hit song, reflective of Waters’ experience with record labels and oriented around a simple yet effective chorus: “I’m boutta fuck the system up.”
In his pursuit of shaking the status quo, we spoke to Curtis Waters about TikTok virality, how to deal with such rapid success, mental health, being a role model for Nepali kids, and more. Read the conversation below.
A lot has been happening for you since “Stunnin’” came out. What are the most recent updates? How have you been able to deal with everything happening so quickly?
Yeah, “Stunnin’” came out in May so it’s been about two months, it’s been insane. Every day there’s so much weird, bizarre news that this must be a simulation. There’s no way that all of this is happening.
I’m in denial, bro. [Laughs] I go to the same Tropical Smoothie that I used to work at every week and tell them what’s happening. I’ll be like, “I just Facetimed Joe Jonas” and they’ll give me free food. But now when I go there, people recognize me! I need time to be human, really. I need time to go to the park, I need time to hang with my brother—just normal shit, you know?
What have you been doing to deal with everything finally happening at once?
I do breathing exercises. I bought Animal Crossing. I bought this little stone frog that I keep outside my room. I don’t know, just random shit. [Laughs] But it’s crazy because it’s all on the internet. I’m still living at my mom’s house eating baked beans in my underwear. It feels imaginary, almost.
Before “Stunnin’,” you had been making music for years. Without proof of concept that it would work out, how did your parents react?
It sucked, it was almost a secret that I was making music. There aren’t any Nepali artists like me that have done it, so I felt almost ostracized from the Nepali community for doing all these non-typical things like making music, dying my hair, getting earrings. For all those years, I just felt like this weird person, saying all these weird things on the internet. But I knew that as long as I felt that what I was doing was cool or right or important, other people would feel the same and eventually, it would make sense to my parents.
My favorite thing right now is getting messages from Asian people or Nepali people telling me I inspired them or that they feel like they can be a musician too. That’s what I always wanted as a kid because I never felt like I had anybody and I felt like a failure. I’ve always known that what I was doing was right, but the numbers are just validation for other people to see that, as well. Because no one believes in you until everyone believes in you, right?
I’ve always known that what I was doing was right, but the numbers are just validation for other people to see that, as well. Because no one believes in you until everyone believes in you, right?
With the success of “Stunnin’,” was there a moment when it clicked for your parents?
They’ve heard me on all the calls with labels for a few months now, hearing all the numbers that the labels threw around but [my parents] didn’t really believe it. I know it sounds kind of stupid, but it was just the number—showing them the piece of paper with a number and [them knowing] I’m gonna be okay.
There was one other big thing, a local newspaper posted me. My mom got a notification on her phone only to realize that it was about her son. It was just a local newspaper, but for her to check her phone and get notifications about her son was crazy. She thinks I’m a celebrity. [Laughs] When we’re outside, kids will also come up to us in their cars playing “Stunnin’.”
Did you expect "Stunnin'" to connect, even if not to this extent?
Well, I knew it was an anomaly in my discography because most of my music is about being sad. But every now and then I’ll make a song saying, “I’m the best, I’m so pretty.” I teased “Stunnin’” on my Instagram a while back and I had random kids from middle school hitting me telling me it was a hit or their mom likes the song.
Before the song came out, I was using TikTok casually, just posting random pictures of me kissing my friends on the neck and doing stupid stuff. But this time, I decided to go on it with a real strategy. I saw a pattern of people promoting their music with an introduction and a silly dance, so I thought it might work. I really stuck to the marketing of it. I went hard promoting the song for about two months before it came out. That’s a really long time to be talking about one song [Laughs]. But the thing was, I never made “Stunnin’” to become a TikTok hit, TikTok was just a good way to market it.
Some artists are making songs specifically tailored to succeed on platforms such as TikTok now. Do you think that’s a losing battle?
I think so. I mean, it’s like splattering paint. If I make a really good song one day, I almost get disappointed because the next three songs are going to be me trying to replicate that first song. For me, music is this cathartic thing. The day I made “Stunnin’,” I just wanted the song to feel like someone who owns it, who’s really confident. It comes from a really natural place. When I made “System,” I was really angry. There’s really no motive in my music other than how I feel that day, so I don’t think I could ever do that. I don’t think I could ever make a song with the mindset of, “Okay, this one’s for TikTok,” or, “This ones for the ladies.” That’s not how I work. I make music for myself.
When “Stunnin’” started to gain momentum and labels began reaching out, how did those conversations go? Did it feel like they wanted a piece of a big TikTok moment or did it feel like they really wanted to sign Curtis Waters, the artist?
It felt like a numbers game. It was research, man. People just see the song going viral on TikTok, they call you, and they say, “We’re gonna sign you today!” But what’s the name of my album? What do you know about me? The truth is, you don’t know shit about me! For me, music is so emotional—it’s tied to my personality and well-being. For people to come to me and treat it like numbers or research is kind of insulting.
On your part, did it take some self control to realize that and not jump at some of those big numbers?
Oh yeah. I’m a 20-year-old living at my mom’s house with no financial leverage. I work at Tropical Smoothie, how am I going to turn down millions of dollars? And the deals just kept getting better and better as the song grew. Labels were trying to sign me a month before “Stunnin’” came out because it was already starting to buzz on TikTok.
So I basically had to bet on myself that I could make this work, because I’ve come so far on my own and believed in my vision for so long. I knew if I did things right, it could be even bigger. With some of those label meetings in the beginning, I was thinking about how I would be able to pay off my college debt and not worry about anything, but my manager was the one reminding me, “Bro, what are you saying? You’re a star, snap out of it.”
I work at Tropical Smoothie, how am I going to turn down millions of dollars? And the deals just kept getting better and better as the song grew. Labels were trying to sign me a month before “Stunnin’” came out because it was already starting to buzz on TikTok.
Were there any moments of self doubt during the rise of “Stunnin’,” wondering how it was getting so big?
Maybe a little bit. When “Stunnin’” first went crazy, I was trying to figure out how I was going to follow it up. But then I just sort of didn’t care. In the beginning, I was making other songs similar to “Stunnin’,” and I had to snap out of it. What am I doing here? I need to be making music for myself. I don’t want people to expect anything from me because in reality, whatever the next single is, it won’t be like [what came before]. There are so many different sounds that I’m into, it would just feel limiting if I kept trying to make new versions of “Stunnin’.”
It was interesting for you to take a super digestible song with “Stunnin’” and immediately follow it up with “System,” something on the total other end of the spectrum.
For me, it was instinctive because I can’t think about really anything other than what’s going on in the world right now. It would feel weird to talk about anything else. I’m entertaining, but I’m not just here to entertain. I have real feelings and real thoughts that I want to share. Plus, now that I have this platform, I would feel like such a fraud if I didn’t use it to say what I was thinking. If I was scared to alienate people all of a sudden for something that I think is right, then what’s the fucking point of having it?
You donated all the proceeds from “System” to a local bail fund.
Yes! I matched it, too.
Your Rolling Stone interview talked a lot about your decision to sign with BMG and maintain ownership of your music instead of signing to a record label. In a lot of ways, your career has become somewhat of a case study as to how an artist can use a viral moment on TikTok to create a favorable situation, business-wise.
Yeah, definitely. I guess with me as an example, I would want people to realize they can do this shit on their own. People message me every day saying, “I don’t have this, I don’t have that, how do I do it?” I just tell them to go on YouTube and learn it! That’s what I did. The knowledge is so democratized, there aren’t any gatekeepers there to stop you. I learned how to use FL Studio on YouTube. I just want people to see what I’m doing and be inspired to do it on their own, too. I don’t want anyone to think that this only happened because BMG came along or because my manager [Chris Anokute] came along. I want them to understand that they can do it on their own.
You have an album coming out this fall.
Yeah, Pity Party! The album has been pretty much done for a while now. I’ve redone certain parts and made small changes here and there, but it’s pretty much all set. I’m glad I made the album before the success because a lot of it is about my insecurity as a person, making music, and worrying if I’ll ever make it. So it’s kind of cool to listen to it now and think, “Wow, it actually happened.”
You still go to college, right?
I’m technically still going to UNCG but I’m in the process of dropping out. I think I was supposed to graduate in 2022 but I kept leaving. I would get good grades but I was having mental health issues—I got diagnosed as bipolar, actually—so I would have to come back home.
How does being bipolar shape your life and experiences?
It’s weird, I can’t really listen to all the things that people say about me online because I don’t want to let things go to my ego. There are all these people commenting, “You’re the best” and all these girls commenting, “I love you” but I can’t listen because it will go to my ego. I don’t read the comments at all, I’d rather just hang out with my brother. I try not to internalize too much of the good or the bad because I’ll go manic.
Does music help with that?
It 100% helps, it’s so tied to that. If I don’t make music every day, I start to feel horrible. From “System” to “Stunnin’” to the album, everything is tied to my mental health. If I’m having a bad day, I just go to my keyboard, put on headphones, turn on autotune, and I’m like, “Wahhh, I’m so sad.” [Laughs] That’s basically how my album was made.
I feel so free now because I can admit that I have these struggles even if music is working out and I have a platform. In the Nepali community, it’s really hard to say that.
I think it’s important that you’re open about being bipolar, too.
100%. I think it’s really important for me to be outspoken about it because I remember first dealing with depression when I was 12. I didn’t tell my parents about it until I was 16, and what sucks is that it got worse and worse and worse and I never talked about it. Nobody in Nepal is ever talking about that—it’s not real. So one of my goals is to be a mental health advocate.
Once I make some money, I want to go to back to Nepal and have some initiative to help people with mental health issues. I wish I got that help when I was younger because I didn’t even realize I was bipolar until I was 19 years old, even though I had been dealing with that shit for over a decade. I felt so much shame about it even though I shouldn’t have, because so many people are going through the same thing. I feel so free now because I can admit that I have these struggles even if music is working out and I have a platform. In the Nepali community, it’s really hard to say that.
It’s also a weird time to blow up with everything happening in the world.
It’s fucked up, man. I’ve always wanted a Mini Cooper, but now I don’t have anywhere to drive. I’ve always wanted cool clothes but I don’t have anywhere to show them off. We started the year with the world on fire, then there was World War 3, then coronavirus, then all the sudden Katy Perry’s A&R wants to manage me?
All this shit is happening and I’m thinking we need to unplug the simulation because so many bizarre things have happened this year. Obama could call me tomorrow and I’d be like, “Dope, okay, that makes total sense.” For now, I’m just in my room, checking my email and making beats. The only difference is that I’m getting more emails now!