Hundreds of North Carolina musicians set up a desk and camera this spring for their chance at NPR stardom. The annual Tiny Desk contest gives unsigned musicians the chance to perform behind Bob Boilen's desk at NPR's Washington D.C. headquarters.
The NPR Music team typically invites established artists to perform, the videos garnering millions of views online — including some familiar North Carolina names like The Avett Brothers (2009 and Scott Avett in 2020), The Mountain Goats (2010), Rhiannon Giddens (2019 and 2020) and Daughter of Swords (2020). But every year, one underground artist takes over the desk.
Many of the local musicians who submitted to this year's contest broke from public radio's dominant guitar-toting singer-songwriter type. The lineup featured hip-hop, grunge, experimental classical and plenty of genre-benders.
The inaugural North Carolina Tiny Desk showcase was judged by Carolina Waves Founder and K97.5 Personality Mir.I.am, Blue Ridge Public Radio’s arts and culture reporter Matt Peiken and host Anita Rao, with help from WUNC Music.
MT: "He merged so many genres. It's like pop-electronic-dubstep, but he's jamming like he's Liberace or Beethoven."
Mir.I.am (MT): "He's one of those artists who sits in the pocket — like an Anderson.Paak — where he can seamlessly navigate between singing and rapping. So I think it was a nice organic moment, small rooms, small desk and he definitely was vibing out with his band."
Matt Peiken (MP): "[Natural Born Leaders] were featured on the national Tiny Desk website ... and they're still riding on that coattails from that today. Their vocalist Mike Martinez has a solo entry in this year's contest."
Anita Rao (AR): "The song is really like a merger of a couple of different genres. ... It's just a super sexy vibe to that whole video, it's just very aesthetically pleasing and fun to watch."
MP: "There's some really interesting chording that she's doing in her guitar playing, it's very unconventional. She has this really dreamy aspect, but she's not making any eye contact with the camera, she's performing in sort of a soupy fog."
AR: "It's set in a record shop and there's this guy in the background just picking through vinyls, and there's so much energy in this video. It's amazing."
MP: "About halfway through, the vocalist just rises from this chill vibe and you get a real urgency and angst in his voice — a real edge. And, boy, just on that alone, I thought it was a real welcome addition to Tiny Desk and the North Carolina entries in this competition."
MP: "Nikki, unlike Claire [Hoke], is staring right at the viewer. Her presence is magnetic, and just on that alone, she captivates you."
AR: "One of the requirements for NPR submissions is that there's a desk in the video, and he goes through this amazing explanation at the beginning of his talking about how he has the stool [which is actually a desk], it's from Marshalls and he bought it for his dorm room."
AR: "My heart broke watching this video and just noticing obviously the passion that he has for music and sharing his music and his connection to festivals which were displayed all around the walls behind him."
AR: "We've just got to talk about this video for a second, because there is a snake in this video. And I missed that the first time I watched it, and it was the only thing I could focus on the second time I watched."