Follow the Cinderella carriage east up Nichols Road and you can’t miss a large, happy crowd that grows bigger by the minute. In some places, it is 10 bodies deep and completely fills the courtyard next to Apple Country Club Plaza.
This is an average Saturday night for AY Musik’s Battery Tour, a social music movement that is many things at once: dance party, open mic night, concert in the streets. The performers have fan mail suggesting they might even be The Future of Music.
Car batteries power speakers blaring Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” though the voice belting out the lyrics is something new, fresh.
“Welcome! That is not Michael Jackson, that is Christian Robinson from the Battery Tour,” says the man behind the keyboard, an urban hipster in red and black, his fedora tipped casually to one side. He shoots a megawatt smile to a group of starry-eyed teenagers who scream their approval. “My name is AY, and this is my tour.”
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AY, as in Aaron Young, the 25-year-old driving force behind AY Musik, is a Kansas City-born performer, songwriter, social media master and aspiring pop star.
Robinson, 26, spins and slides across the concrete sidewalk, smooth moves inspired by the King of Pop himself. He lowers himself into backbends and splits, while Young drums and sings backup, a high-energy performance that attracts people walking past.
The crowd is hooked, from the youngest among them, babies, truly, to the boomers in the back who have stopped for a better look. This strategy is key: catch people with songs they know, then captivate them with originals.
“To have this many people coming to this show all day long is a beautiful thing. You all fuel this tour,” Young says to more applause, then breaks into a funny, upbeat song, “I Might Steal Yo Girl,” with easy lyrics and a catchy melody. Members from the audience — Young calls them Outlets, a reference to the power of connection and also the logo on his concert shirts — break free from the crowd and join Robinson and Young, all dancing together as if they do this often. Which AY Musik does, six to eight hours a day, six days a week.
This show is clearly interactive, and the audience seems grateful. Young weaves through with a silver bucket perched on top of his head. Some people throw in dollar bills, others capture selfies or video to show off on Snapchat and Facebook Live.
One could argue this is what power looks like in a new age of entertainment: talent that attracts interested people like magnets, every moment caught on glowing screens to blast across a host of social media platforms.
No record deal or music industry support required.
On a quieter summer evening, Young and Robinson sit on the couch in Young’s childhood home, a modest house near 38th Street and Highland Avenue in Kansas City that, during his youth, he recalls, had four crack houses nearby.
The second-youngest in a family of four children, Young was home-schooled, kept busy with basketball, Boy Scouts and strong parenting. By the time he was 16, Young was questioning unfair social structures based on race and income and writing about them.
“I would tell my mom I wanted to change the world because I didn’t understand how things are so different if we are all human,” he says. “Why do people look at me differently because of my skin color?”
Robinson listens patiently as Young recounts how those questions inspired his first line of music, a spoken poem, set to rhythm.
“I was raised on gospel and church music, so I didn’t really know what rap was,” Young says. He remembers his brother, AJ — whom he calls his introduction to music — playing the guitar the first time a line came to him. Lost in the memory, he starts to rap.
“Ain’t it funny how you can be in the ‘hood one minute, drive a couple blocks, it like chameleon hit it. Colors stay the same but the races changes.”
The line turned into a song, “Stick This Thing in Your Pocket featuring AJ Young,” produced in his parents’ basement with a free version of FL Studio, the music production program Young works to its fullest potential, even today.
To give music priority, Young turned down opportunities to play college basketball. Instead, he worked construction and performed at night. He has opened for Shaggy, T-Pain and Aaron Carter and has been featured on MTV’s “Made” and Fox’s “X-Factor.”
Still, the artist, whose biggest inspiration is not at all the current rap genre, but bands such as Twenty One Pilots and The Lumineers, has yet to land a record deal. He blames what he calls the Establishment, gatekeepers who decide whether an artist is relevant, worthy of the financial investment required to pursue new creative projects.
Which is why Young and Robinson are sidestepping those gatekeepers, taking their music directly to the streets with the Battery Tour.
“We have talked for hours about this,” Robinson says, on why the pair perform full time and capture nearly everything on Snapchat, a DIY approach to building a following. “Look where the music industry is headed. We don’t have a chance. Even the algorithm in Facebook is so complex, you have to boost it just to get seen and even that is just getting seen by people who liked your page.”
As they discuss the intricacies of taking a street show on the road, independently powered by batteries, it is clear that the pair is deeply connected by a common dream, despite only recently meeting.
Robinson, a talented dancer and vocalist who grew up in Overland Park frustrated with the slim opportunities available to him, met Young at a street show a year ago. The original members of AY Musik had just split up; the timing was perfect for the two to join forces and perform together.
Now, though buoyed by Robinson’s support, Young is solemn, the high energy of his performance persona set aside for a moment of seriousness. “Let the people decide whether we are relevant, whether they want to hear more. That is the future of music.”
A few days later, on a quiet Thursday morning, Young and Robinson are in full-out publicity mode to promote AY Musik’s new album, “Above and Beyond,” released Sept. 1, and to invite key players to the album’s launch party.
Their first stop of the day: KCPT and 90.9 the Bridge, just a few blocks from the tiny apartment they share on the Paseo.
They are dressed in Battery Tour shirts, Vlado high-top sneakers, suspenders. Robinson’s Afro is perfect; their energy sky-high. As they open the front door, one of them says something funny, and they exchange identical honking laughs that sound like duck calls, contagious and endearing.
“We’ve been waiting for this our whole lives,” Young says as they snap and dance their way into the building. When they enter the front reception area, an airy, open-space atrium that could accommodate dozens of waiting guests, it is possible they are too large for the room.
The receptionist greets them like an old friend.
“Boom! Guess what: a card!” Young presents her with a full-color invitation to the album release at the AC Hotel in Westport. “We are official artists, real music, real stories, grassroots!”
It just so happens that Nick Haines, executive producer for KCPT, is standing at the reception desk as this happens.
“Have you got matching shoes?” he asks.
“Why yes, we do!” they say and look down at their feet.
This gives Young and Robinson an opening to talk about how they saved for months to buy the shoes, quite the rage on the West Coast. A Snapchat video of their audience hollering “Vlado!” led to an endorsement deal from the California-based shoe company, along with free pairs of new shoes in metallic red and silver.
It’s a single instance of how well they understand and use social media.
“We can connect with this generation of people, and the marketing implications of that are endless,” Young explains, and then the conversation leads back to the music.
“It was so hard to get deals, and labels don’t want to give you anything unless you have a platform and your numbers add up.” Young is earnest in his explanation. Robinson is nodding big time now. “But my talent adds up. My music is good, but that’s irrelevant. So I said, ‘Fine, I will take my music straight to the people.’”
The next thing you know, Robinson is singing to Haines, his voice rising up to the rafters, hitting the ceiling and then settling down around them like stardust.
Haines is duly impressed.
“I will go to your website and take a look at this. You are both extremely talented, you have a joyful presence. You guys do a great job, and I think there are ways of positioning you,” Haines says.
Young and Robinson are beyond excited and thank him over and over again.
“But you’re not really brothers?” Haines asks.
“Nope, just two dudes who’ve come a long way,” Young says.
This exchange has powered them up with hopeful enthusiasm, and they run out the doors and back to Robinson’s car, a 2007 Buick Lucerne CXL, packed to capacity with all the equipment required to power the Battery Tour.
“This is gonna be a fun day. Are you ready?” Robinson has his phone out, catching the moment for Snapchat.
“We wanted to show you that we are a big deal, America,” Young says to the camera.
“No, we’re not really a big deal, we’re just two guys … and we’re excited,” Robinson says.
In seconds, nearly 1,000 followers on Snapchat will open the video, along for the ride as always.
Every exchange is posted to Snapchat except for this one:
As they pull up to the stop sign in the KCPT parking lot, Robinson puts the car into park and gets out, climbs up on the trunk, all 6 feet, 3 inches of him, and begins to dance and spin. With the sky behind him, a backdrop of rolling clouds makes it appear as if his stage is set in the stratosphere. When he’s done, he laughs his big laugh, squeals with excitement and gets back into his car.
After weeks of two-hour-a-night sleeps, promotional visits and back-to-back shows, Young and Robinson are clearly tired. The launch party at the AC Hotel opened to a full house of more than 100 happy Outlets amid a flurry of social media activity, thanks to a bevy of teenagers and well-placed friends who caught it all on their phones.
They sit at a sunny table at Café Gratitude, the Crossroads restaurant where they go to treat themselves on special days, a true pleasure when many of their meals consist solely of peanut butter. Today, they find something to celebrate in order to justify the expense of the meal: the release of a new single, a sultry frolic called “Snap Queen.”
The celebration is in name only. Gone is the enthusiastic laughter that has become their trademark, replaced instead by a stark and honest view of how hard it is to truly “make it.” In Young’s case, the struggle is compounded by a fierce desire to provide for a young son, of whom he is trying to get full custody.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, I just need to get there,” Young says, his voice low and strained. He talks about the launch party, how key industry people were missing, about the financial realities of bringing art into the world. “I feel like there wasn’t enough people in the building to make the party matter. I feel like people don’t know we’re driving this little crappy two-seater that doesn’t have any insurance. I feel like I gotta get out of here while the weather is warm, and to keep this story going, I needed sponsorship, finances to operate. That’s what I need.”
Young and Robinson have given up material comfort, relationships, ideas, all to focus on making music. In a month, they will load up the Buick and head back to California for the second time this year, performing at stops along the way. They hope their farewell show at the Buffalo Room at the Westport Flea Market on Oct. 28 will help boost their meager savings so they don’t have to sleep in the car every night while on tour.
At the end of lunch, the conversation perks up again, as the two look through Snap replies and discuss how excited they will be to return to creating music instead of trying to sell it, all with a focus on connecting and encouraging Outlets everywhere with a simple yet universal message.
“I just want to say to people, ‘Be you,’ ” Young says. “Say hey. No matter how old you are, no matter what your shoe size is, it doesn’t matter. We’re all human.”
“I’m with him on that. That’s it,” Robinson adds. Duck honk laugh.
It’s the kind of rags-to-hopefully-riches, Cinderella story about a two-man party that includes everybody, fueled by Yerba Mate tea and determination to spread their message of love and acceptance to a world that may be just starting to listen.
To contact Jennifer Mazi, email firstname.lastname@example.org.