April 22, 2007. It was a landmark day for YouTube as University of Minnesota graduate student, Adam Bahner — going by the moniker “Tay Zonday” — decided to upload an original music video titled “Chocolate Rain.”
Ten years later, “Chocolate Rain” has garnered over 112 million views and still receives comments every few hours.
His video was quirky and hypnotic. Zonday’s baritone voice belied his young appearance, and he bobbed in and out of frame like he was dodging something or someone.
And then there are the lyrics.
Every second line of the song refrains “Chocolate Rain,” which Zonday has confirmed is a metaphor for institutionalized racism. In between, there are some serious references to the GDP (“dirty secrets of economy”), genetic predestination (“the bell curve blames the baby’s DNA”) and something about how “Chocolate Rain cleans the sewers out beneath Mumbai.”
Popjournalism found out how serious Zonday remains when it comes to his viral masterpiece. He took some time this week to move away from the mic to breathe in and discuss “Chocolate Rain” in celebration of its ten-year anniversary. Where did the name Tay Zonday come from?
I invented it. In early 2007 I wanted to create an artist name. I entered “Tay Zonday” in Google. It got zero results. I knew, then, that it would be mine if I claimed it. So, I did. When you uploaded “Chocolate Rain” that fateful day, what did you think the outcome would be?
I uploaded “Chocolate Rain” with the same motive as all of my YouTube content in 2007. I wanted feedback on my music. I didn’t know what would happen beyond an opportunity to receive feedback. The lyrics to “Chocolate Rain” are poetic and political, but the overall effect of the video was unintentionally hilarious. Did it frustrate you that you weren’t taken seriously?
Is any artist taken seriously? What does that even mean? Most artists who create art about serious topics are not received in that light. Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us” didn’t catalyze massive criminal justice reform. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” didn’t catalyze structural reform to obliterate poverty. If everyone who heard John Lennon’s “Imagine” voted to support pacifist international utopianism, the world would have very different political leaders. No song is taken seriously. The artist just makes the song like a parent makes a child. But in this case, the child is immediately put-up for adoption by the world. The world raises that child. How the world raises the child is not the artist’s job — it’s the world’s. I can’t worry about how the world does its job. I can only worry about how I do mine.
What was it like for you as a grad student on campus after “Chocolate Rain” hit?
Minnesotans are very non-confrontational and modest. Sometimes people would acknowledge my public life in chance encounters, but it was seldom disruptive. When you appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live as part of his Internet Talent Showcase in 2007, there was a clear division between being “internet famous” and “mainstream” famous? Do you think that still exists?
No. What is “mainstream” anyway? “Mainstream” is a category the media invented to talk about itself. It’s a baptismal anointment by journalism’s religion. It’s an effort by self-nominated cultural critics to matter by enforcing the way something else matters. The internet has become media. It’s the string-theory behind our cultural physics of mattering.
Tell me about the biggest troll you’ve ever encountered.
You keep trying to bait these reality TV answers! You want me to disclose a memorable freak-out or moment of dramatic tension in my life, like a Kardashian. You want a highly-quotable “train wreck” moment. People love to watch and click train wrecks. Unfortunately, I’m a bad train wreck. If I was a better train wreck, I’d probably be more successful in entertainment. There’s no train-wreck story here. You’re generous with licensing “Chocolate Rain” and other works under creative commons. Are you hoping to set an example?
This is hard to answer briefly. It’s also hard to answer accessibly. I immediately nerd out in nuanced academic considerations, like Derrida’s insights on rupture and repetition or Chomsky’s insights on generative grammar and cognitive studies. But let me get my head out of those clouds. Broadly speaking, I find all legal processes that take information out of free circulation to be suspect and deserving of rigorous scrutiny. That includes trademark, copyright, corporate personhood, libel and other constraints on discourse. Unfortunately, civilization as we know it is so constituted by these constraints that it’s hard to avoid embracing them on some level. To the extent that creative commons licensing can therefore operate in a counter-hegemonic way, that’s not a bad thing. My original intent was probably less noble. I just wanted exposure. What have you been up to lately?
I continue to create music and other content on social media. I hope to release a new music album this year. I’ve had some fun acting opportunities to which my IMDB can testify. My friends started a company called SocialBlueBook that connects brands with social influencers. SocialBlueBook is doing very well. Finally, what would have happened if you hadn’t moved away from the mic to breathe in?
If I had not moved away from the mic to breathe in, the recording would have captured more of the sound of my breathing. This sound is easy to remove in post-production. However, I thought it would be easier to move my body. Of course, this became part of the meme of “Chocolate Rain.” That consequence was not deliberate.