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The 2021 cohort of the Youth Reporting Institute turned on their mics for our summer of storytelling! Listen to the authentic voices and diverse stories they captured over the summer.

Youth Artists Balance Passion And Social Media Presence

WUNC Youth Reporter Surafele Sintanyehu reports from Raleigh, capturing how two local artists are balancing their passion and maintaining their authenticity.

I consume art all the time, whether it’s listening to music for hours on end, or scrolling through TikTok just to laugh. The creators I follow are ones that put pieces of themselves into their art.

You could call it content, but it’s deeper than that.

Rayan Rao is showing me how many steps it takes to put drawings on TikTok. He started drawing in the third grade and now he’s a high school junior. He made his TikTok account to post drawings in the summer of 2019 for fun, but in 2020, something crazy happened. He blew up and gained 20,000 followers in just two days.

Artist Rayan Rao shows youth reporter Surafele Sintanyehu his most recent and favorite sketches
Kamaya Truitt
Artist Rayan Rao shows youth reporter Surafele Sintanyehu his most recent and favorite sketches

“TikTok is huge," Rao says. "I mean, the first video that blew up, I got like, I think it was 18,000 likes, and the biggest video I've had was 395,000 likes. I mean, the most the most likes I ever got on Instagram was like, maybe like 400, 470 around 500…. I mean, it's crazy and it's because TikTok shows your content to completely random people — people that are across the world."

Rao’s account has grown, but making TikToks takes a lot, and it has turned into a job instead of a hobby.

“I used to be so excited to finish a drawing. I would be ready to start the next one. But now it's like, you know, I feel pressured," Rao says. "I feel like there's checkpoints that I have to reach, like I have to finish this eye and then record a video of me doing the eye, and then finish the forehead, and then record a clip of me doing the forehead. You know? I can't just go straight. It sort of messes with me.”

This pressure causes Rao to draw more to keep his followers entertained, but while he is keeping them engaged, he loses the passion for his art.

“Before I got TikTok, I feel like I didn't really care about what anyone thought about me. You know, I never really thought about how I looked, how my art looked," Rao says. "And now I feel like there's so much attention on that. And I'm overcritical of myself.”

Artist Rayan Rao adds the final touches to his Loki Sketch
Allison Swaim
Artist Rayan Rao adds the final touches to his Loki Sketch

Rao is trying to find the balance between pushing his art on social media and maintaining his love for creating.

But it’s not easy.

Maasho, a musician from Raleigh, can relate.

“I think one of the hardest things that comes to music is finding the self actualization without having to worry about validation from other people," Maasho says. "Because at the end of the day, if I'm making my art for myself, I'm making my art for myself. I'm putting it out for other people, but I'm making it for myself.”

Abel Maasho — better known as simply Maasho — is a 19 year-old rapper. The validation he’s talking about comes from his Instagram and Spotify platforms, where he has more than 4,000 followers and more than 150,000 monthly listeners. But just like Rao, his love for art is more than the likes.

“I think a lot of people get caught up in the idea that art is self expression. But I really feel like art to me is self extension, because I want to be my most unapologetic and intentional self. "

Maasho recognizes the pros and cons of social media, which is why he describes his music as genre-less.

He blends in different sounds, ranging from the likes of Willow Smith to Tyler the Creator to Travis Scott, to create an extension of himself, and an easier way to package and market his art.

Youth Reporter Surafele Sintanyehu stands in the crowd while artist Maasho performs at the Summer in da Carolinas music festival
Allison Swaim
Youth Reporter Surafele Sintanyehu stands in the crowd while artist Maasho performs at the Summer in da Carolinas music festival

“Okay, I'm going to make Maasho a character of sorts, or I'm going to utilize Maasho and the platform that I have as Maasho as a social media platform to push the music, just as Maasho," he explains. "Because it's really like a roller coaster of validation vs. no validation — like external validation is still a very real thing.”

Turning Maasho into a character gave him a way to preserve his artistry without the public influencing what he creates, but that doesn’t mean that he completely blocked them out.

I was at the music festival called "Summer in Tha Carolinas" and from my spot in the crowd, you couldn’t tell this was Maasho’s very first performance.

It was exhilarating. Maasho screamed, “Much Love," and we screamed, “More Life.” The sound resonated through everyone's ears. The crowd was going wild. You could feel the influence he has over the audience. I wondered how his fans affected him, and so I asked him.

“They don't necessarily have an impact on the kind of music that comes out. But they definitely have an impact on the way that the music comes out, with understanding social media and understanding trends and things and the best ways to try and get my music to as many ears as possible," he says. "Because at the end of the day, even though I love this art so much, I love it so much that I want to make sure that it's getting heard by others.”

Maasho knows more listeners means more pressure, but he’s not willing to compromise his art. The same goes for Rao.

“You can’t  stop doing what you love, even if the pressure is on,” Rao says. “I'm not going to stop drawing. I can't, because I'm addicted to drawing. Like, no matter how much I feel like I don't want to do it, sometimes I can't not draw sometimes.

"So, I'm still going to do it. And I'll just see where it takes me.”

Surafele Sintayehu is a rising junior at Panther Creek High School and runs Track and Field at school.
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