Why Twitter’s viral ‘trap covers’ of pop hits resonated
Behind the funny videos is a real critique of disrespect for black artists, says creator James Kirk
Last Thursday night, with Super Tuesday less than a week away, #GOPDebate captured the top spot on Twitter’s chart of national trending topics. It was one vision of America: a nation transfixed by three amped-up middle-aged guys (plus the quieter, lower-polling Kasich and Carson) insulting one another and insisting that they, not their opponents, would be more warlike, economically conservative, and tough on immigrants.
But if you clicked on the topic that briefly sat in the No. 2 spot, #TrapCover, you got a very different view of the nation. In response to cheesy covers of current black pop hits — think Beyoncé’s “Formation,” sung passionately by a white guy with a piano — a coterie of mischievous black artists had started making 30-second videos of covers of the whitest songs possible, in the style of the grungy, aggressive Southern hip-hop subgenre known as trap music. The covers and ecstatic reactions to them had been piling up since midday.
It turns out that “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Hey Jude,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” all make fantastic, hilarious trap songs. You can also rap convincingly over a beat to the children’s song “Skinnamarink,” “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” #TrapCover is clearly a joke — in some videos, the performers themselves are barely keeping it together — but the fragmentary songs are also surprisingly good, as if a generation reared on YouTube, karaoke, and laptop song-mixing software had finally found its métier.
Twitter took notice — first Black Twitter, and then everybody else. The hashtag filled with praise, retweets, emojis laughing till they cried, and Black History Month shoutouts. “Listen/watch: #TrapCover,” tweeted Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s cofounder and CEO. If #GOPDebate was a portrait of angry xenophobic America and the appalled and delighted audience for it, this was America as sly, young, diverse, funny, politically incisive, culturally omnivorous, and endlessly able to create new art out of scraps of the old.
Not all memes have a clear founder, but this one did. “this was @ILLCapitano94’s idea we all boutta do this in retaliation to the white covers turnin party songs into elevator music, prepare,” tweeted @NathanZed, whose “Hey Jude” cover was the first #TrapCover to appear and has since been retweeted more than 13,000 times.
@ILLCapitano94, at the moment #TrapCover hit, was at school. In real life, he is James Kirk, a junior majoring in social work at the University of Memphis. He is also a musician and comedian known as Captain Kirk — “my stage name, I guess you would say.”
The night before the meme blew up, he said in a phone interview on Friday, he had come across some of the irritation on Twitter about uncool acoustic hip-hop covers of “Formation” and Rihanna’s “Work” — what Kirk jokingly calls “Pumpkin Spice R&B.” “There are lyrics in “Formation” that are like, “I love my Negro nose,” and stuff like that. You see these white people who are like, “I love my Negro nose,”’ he said, laughing. But some musicians were shrugging off the criticism, “like, ‘It’s just a song. Anyone can enjoy it however they want.’ ”
The debate stuck in his mind. On Thursday, Kirk sent a text to an ongoing group chat he participates in “with other popular Viners and Twitter people,” including @NathanZed and a number of the other original video makers, saying he wanted to do a trap cover of Vanessa Carlton’s 2001 piano ballad “A Thousand Miles.” Everyone wanted to do one. They agreed on a hashtag. By the time Kirk got home from school to record his Carlton cover, #TrapCover was already off and rolling. “The universe really set us up,” Kirk said.
Probably, though, part of what set them up was the sophisticated politics behind the idea. Kirk describes himself as “very big on social justice” and mentions “intersectional feminism” in his Twitter bio. “I love knowing that everyone feels safe,” he said. “And the fact that everyone doesn’t feel safe, because we have a system that’s proving that everyone isn’t safe, it disturbs me.” Like many of his peers, he has been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
#TrapCover, as goofy as it is, grows straight out of that sensibility. “It’s definitely one of the less serious parts of the movement,” Kirk said, laughing. “But it’s rooted in a more serious issue, and that issue is the feeling of disrespect that we tend to get for black artistry.” To white people covering “Formation,” the song may be just a song, he said, but that’s just it. “When you have images and songs in the media where you’re represented every day, everything can seem like just a joke or just a song to you. Black people need songs that say ‘I love my Negro nose,’ because we live in a world that doesn’t.”
That’s a sharp point, but the trap covers feel like a gentle way of making it, in part because they also underscore the huge amount of popular culture that Americans share. Beyoncé’s “Formation,” after all, is being widely covered because millions of people of every race spent Super Bowl weekend with the video on loop and can’t get it out of their heads. And if young black American musicians can instantly produce faux-aggressive riffs on the “Golden Girls” theme song, it’s because we all grew up with the same TV reruns. Kirk, for instance, says one of his own favorite trap covers was @RexTestarossa’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “It was so perfect! I loved it,” he said. “And I’m a huge Queen fan. I own every album Queen’s ever made.”
As of early this week, the #TrapCover hashtag (now also appearing as #TrapCovers) had faded as the country turned its energy toward Super Tuesday. But Kirk, who said he planned to support Bernie Sanders — “I feel like he has a good head on his shoulders” — was already saying on Friday that he didn’t want the meme to overstay its welcome. He was happy with the unexpected work it had already done.
“It’s really beautiful that a situation that was pretty much annoying everybody on Black Twitter and making us mad, it made it into something funny,” he said. “It’s not aggressive. The tone of voice in a trap song, maybe, I don’t know. But it’s their song. We’re just singing it differently.”