To find material for his dissertation on art and politics, graduate student Adam Bahner can simply look in the mirror.
By Mary Shafer
From Australia to Omaha, they call him to learn more about the guy whose music videos on YouTube have transformed him from an American Studies Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota into one of the most listened-to songwriters in the world. And they always seem to begin their interviews by asking him, “What inspires you to sing?"
His reply: “What inspires you to be silent?"
It's a response that makes sense when you know that Bahner is a fourth-year doctoral student about to begin work on a dissertation examining the relationship between art and social and political change. He's convinced that art can make waves in a society, but he also thinks a lot of obstacles prevent it from doing so. One of them is people's failure to see themselves as artists.
“I think it's natural to sing," he says. “People sing in the car. Most people sing in the shower. Most people sing to themselves when no one else is watching. Silence is not normal. Silence is problematic."
Bahner found his own silence deafening. So with the help of amateur recording equipment in a corner of his Dinkytown apartment, he catapulted himself to fame last summer by filming himself performing original songs and uploading the finished products to the Internet under the stage name Tay Zonday. By last October, his song “Chocolate Rain"—a haunting five-minute loop of thinly veiled political commentary on the state of race relations in the United States—had been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube, elicited nearly 100,000 comments from viewers, and been the subject of hundreds of parodies and tributes.
Before long, Bahner was making guest appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and appearing on the cover of the Los Angeles Times' Sunday arts section. He was flown to Chicago to perform in the Optimus block party. Google invited him to perform at its annual Zeitgeist Party at the “Googleplex" in California. John Mayer covered “Chocolate Rain" on VH1's Best Week Ever. And in October, Bahner gave his first concert as an opener for the band Girl Talk at First Avenue in Minneapolis, the nightclub that has been the stomping ground of artists like Prince in their early years—and a stage many musicians don't see until they've paid their dues at much smaller venues.
Much of this attention has resulted from Bahner's failure to fit into boxes. He comes from a racially mixed background, and his deep bass voice seems an unlikely counterpoint to his baby face. “I'm this voice-body mismatch," he explains. “I have this gender aesthetic that people might identify as boyish at best. If I was speaking like [teen heartthrob] Aaron Carter, nobody would think twice about my appearance."
But Bahner's physical anomalies and ambiguities are only part of the story. “Chocolate Rain" seemed to strike a chord with those who are dissatisfied with how our national dialogues about racism focus on the racist speech of figures like Don Imus and Michael Richards. In his lyrics, Bahner points to the way race relations inform our everyday lives in less dramatic but equally powerful ways—a person's move to the other side of the street when she or he encounters a black man; the higher insurance rates that homeowners pay in predominantly black neighborhoods; the knee-jerk backlash black people encounter when they blame inequality on racial bias.
Part of the response, Bahner says, may come from the way his voice-body mismatch and racial indeterminacy unsettle our understandings about the categories we take for granted, like race and gender. His own characteristics make the content of “Chocolate Rain" all the more powerful and political.
By giving us access to perspectives and people who undermine, rather than affirm, our ways of seeing the world, YouTube “undermines the power of naming and branding," Bahner says. The resulting
disorientation can create backlash—and, indeed, Bahner has received racist, homophobic, and downright cruel responses to his music. But disorientation, he says, can also be a catalyst for political change.
“The question used to be ‘the ballot or the bullet," he says, invoking Malcolm X's philosophy for empowering black people. “Now it's more like the ballot or the beatbox, the ballot or the open mic, the
ballot or the play." He pauses, to catch his breath. And then he laughs.
“It's the ballot or YouTube."