Tai Verdes on TikTok, Privilege and being the best

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Tai Verdes demands what it’s worth.

It’s a bold way for an artist so fresh on the music festival scene to behave — and it defies any preconceptions one might have of Verizon employee-turned-TikTok star-turned-creative powerhouse.

Verdes, 26, worked in retail in Los Angeles and participated in singing competitions seven times. He kept his voice fresh by singing in his car, an hour and a half a day, for six months. So when “Stuck in the Middle” went viral in August 2020, he was ready for the whirlwind. It was, as he says, only a matter of time. Verdes is already one of the greats, in his book; so the question becomes “what’s next?”

Newsweek spoke with Verdes on location at Life is Beautiful 2022 ahead of one of his very first festival sets.

How do you feel about your set? You are scheduled later in the afternoon, which is quite important for a new artist.

That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to do all this time. My goal is to headline one of these [festivals]. And when it does, I won’t be surprised, because I scored the goal. So I’m just going to do it step by step. It’s really cool that we’ve gotten to this point so far.

Other media sometimes refer to your story as a “fairy tale”. Does it feel or does it feel like the culmination of a lot of hard work?

I think I like music, and I have privileges, and I’m black. And that’s what it is. I think a lot of people, when they look at me, they see somebody who…was working nine to five and dropped out of college, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, he’s stupid.”

But actually, I’m not stupid. And you know what’s the worst? [My] song which is the most popular makes me say the alphabet. You know? So everyone goes “Oh, it’s simple.”

In reality, I don’t, and the reason I win and others don’t is because I have two parents. I have to take an AP music theory class. I was in a private school. I went to public school. I did boarding school, I did private college, I did public college, my dad sits on the board of HBCUs. I have lived everywhere. My family made me travel everywhere. I saw the Mona Lisa in person. So, for me, that’s what’s missing from the story. Everyone thinks it’s an overnight hit, when in reality most of your favorite artists have privileges.

Does it get old or frustrating to hear the same two songs that blew up for you – “Stuck in the Middle” and “AOK”and is that why people know you?

I think you just made another one. And then another and another. I have no control over how the art is interpreted. But I control how much I earn.

I want to pick up on something you tweeted a while ago—“I own my editing female dog.” You talked about your healthy relationships with labels and the creative process, and it’s very easy for young artists to be taken advantage of. You avoided that—

No, I didn’t.

You do not think ?

No, I think I did my best at the time. And that I’m the best example of why this shit works.

When I try to work with a label and I put myself in a position where I have to talk to people older than me, not about my skin color, and who don’t know where I’m from, and who have only seen my success based on my money.

If I took all the music off and said, “Hey guys, let’s go to a room and you have to promote this person. He’s a 26-year-old black man.” Who will market it? A room full of white guys? It doesn’t seem to work. So I think the reason I did my best to try to create a creative story is because I took control; cover art, music videos, all that stuff. In cases where I did not have control, I did my best at that time. But after “AOK”, I really tried to push.

It’s just 50% business and 50% art, and every day it becomes clearer to me that I’m right about that fact.

Do you think we’re getting closer to a point where it’s 60% or 70% business, and music is in danger?

The music still has to be good. People don’t like a carbon copy. I think if you’re trying to do something – and like, I completely understand the vibe of a pop princess song, completely clean production. It may be one of the greatest songs in the world. But I also believe that a guitar guy like Steve Lacy can also make one of the best songs in the world. So letting things be as they are is also a judge.

I believe I am a taste maker. As ever, I’m the biggest taste maker, me and my creative director. We are the taste makers of who does it right and who does it cool. And I think people in general, who aren’t in the music industry? They are the taste makers because they have no emotional connection or industry push. [They just want to know,] is the music good? It’s cool ? Are they talking about something? Are they saying something?

How do you approach performing in front of a festival audience?

I don’t even know how to talk about performance, because it’s such a new thing for me. Like, in the beginning, I was playing just off pure adrenaline. And then I had to bring skills to it, didn’t I? That’s why I try to be the best. I try to sing like Bruno Mars. I try to play guitar on stage. Do you know what I’m saying?

The only reason this happened was because I sang in my car every day for six months. So I kept doing that. It’s the best singing voice I’ve ever had, you know? And it will continue like this. The best. I’m probably the most proficient in most instruments I’ve ever been, and it will continue to be that way.

And I think that’s what makes you an artist: taking a chance.

NewsweekContinuing coverage of Life Is Beautiful is available online at newsweek.com and on On Beat, available wherever you get your podcasts.



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