Tai Verdes on TikTok, Privilege, and Being the Best

Tai Verdes
Tai Verdes performed at the Life is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas on Friday. Tai Verdes/Facebook

Tai Verdes is demanding what he's worth.

It's a bold way for an artist so fresh on the music festival scene to carry himself—and it defies any preconceived notions one might have of the Verizon employee turned TikTok star turned creative powerhouse.

Verdes, 26, worked retail in Los Angeles and tried out for singing competitions seven times. He kept his voice fresh by singing in his car, for an hour-and-a-half every day, for six months. So when "Stuck in the Middle" went viral in August of 2020, he was ready for the whirlwind. It was, as he tells it, only a matter of time. Verdes is one of the greats already, 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 first-ever festival sets.

How are you feeling about your set? You're scheduled later in the afternoon—kind of a big deal for a new artist.

It's kind of what I've been trying to do this entire time. My goal is, is to be headlining one of these [festivals]. And when that happens, I'm not going to be surprised, because I made the goal. So I'm just taking it step-by-step. It's really cool that we've gotten to this stage so far.

Other outlets sometimes refer to your story as a "fairytale." Does it feel like that to you, or does it feel like the culmination of a lot of work?

I think I love music, and I have privilege, and I'm Black. And that's what this is. I think that a lot of people, when they look at me, they see somebody that...worked a nine-to-five job and dropped out of college, and they're like, "Oh, my God, he's stupid."

But in reality, I'm not stupid. And you know what's the worst? [My] song that is most popular has me saying the alphabet. You know? So everyone's going "Oh, this is simple."

In reality, it's not, and the reason why I'm winning and other people aren't winning is because I have two parents. I got to take music AP theory class. I was in private school. I did public school. I did boarding school, I did private college, I did public college, my dad's on the board of HBCUs. I lived everywhere. My family had me travel everywhere. I've seen the Mona Lisa in person. So, for me, that's what the story is kind of missing. Everyone thinks this is overnight success, when in reality, most of your favorite artists have privilege.

Does it get old or frustrating to hear the same two songs that blew up for you— "Stuck in the Middle" and "A-O-K"and have those be what people know you for?

I think you just make another one. And then another one and another one. I don't have control over the way that art is interpreted. But I do have control over how much that I make.

I want to turn to something you tweeted a while ago—"I own my publishing b*tch." You've 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've avoided that—

No I haven't.

You don't think so?

No, I think that I did the best I could do at the time. And that I am the prime example of why this sh*t is working.

When I am trying to work with a label and when I'm putting myself in a position where I have to talk to people that are older than me, not my skin color, and don't know where I'm from, and have only seen my success based off of my money.

If I just took all of the music away and said, "Hey guys, let's get in a room and you need to market this person. He's a 26-year-old Black man." Who's going to market it? A roomful of white guys? That doesn't seem like it's going to work. So I think that the reason why I've done my best at trying to create a creative story is because I've been taking ownership; of the cover art, of the music videos, of all that stuff. In the instances where I didn't have control, I did the best I could at the time. But after "A-O-K" has been where I have been really trying to push.

It's just 50 percent business and 50 percent art, and every single day it becomes more clear to me that I'm right about that fact.

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

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

I believe that I am a tastemaker. Like of all time, I'm the biggest tastemaker, me and my creative director. We are the tastemakers of who is doing it well, and who's doing it cool. And I think that people in general, that aren't in the music industry? They are the tastemakers because they don't have any emotional connection or any industry push. [They just want to know,] is the music good? Is it cool? Are they talking about something? Are they saying something?

How do you approach performing for a festival audience?

I don't even know how to talk about performing, because it's such a new thing for me. Like, in the beginning, I was performing just off of pure adrenaline. And then I had to bring skill into it, right? That's why I'm trying to be the best. I'm trying to sing like Bruno Mars. I'm trying to play guitar on stage. You know what I'm saying?

The only reason this happened is because I sang in my car every single day for six months. So I didn't stop doing that. This is the best singing voice that I've ever had, you know? And it's gonna continue to go that way. The best. I'm probably the most proficient at the most instruments that I've ever been, and it's gonna keep going that way.

And I think that that's the thing that makes you an artist: taking a chance.

Newsweek's continuing Life Is Beautiful coverage can be found online at newsweek.com and on On Beat—available wherever you get your podcasts.