Phone propped on a shelf, we’re looking over the drummer’s shoulder at lead singer Velencia Giles, flanked by bandmates on both sides. She greets the viewer, both hands up, with a reverb-laden “HI!” The band cracks up.
NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest is beautiful for its lack of polish. Giles, a Garner singer-songwriter who performs as Lenci, submitted a video for the first time this year. Entry requirements are straightforward: a performance of an original song with a desk featured somewhere in the video. The annual competition is an open call for unsigned artists that offers a single golden ticket to the highest throne of indie music: a performance by a cluttered desk—and exposure on a YouTube channel with 7 million subscribers.
This year’s winner will be announced on May 9.
The Tiny Desk bookshelf backdrop is a collage of mugs, stuffed animals, an Emmy, and a “sounds of the rain forest” smoke alarm. Despite the maximalism, Tiny Desk wants the cramped stage to encourage simplicity. Behind this desk, T-Pain sang without autotune. Mitski played solo, howling into her guitar.
For Giles, the open call merited a shoulder-shrug “sure,” after J’Pierre, her collaborator in Atlanta, urged her to enter with a hodgepodge group of other underground artists. Giles figured it wouldn’t be too much work and it might be a good way to build a network. Beyond exposure, the contest emphasizes a community of independent artists that celebrate and support each other.
Last year’s winner, bilingual singer-songwriter Alisa Amador, wrote on NPR, “I entered every year for five years because it always introduced me to fantastic artists. It reminded me that I actually wasn’t alone.”
Growing up in Garner, Giles found her voice at Lucky Tree, a Raleigh café with open mics and performances in a myriad of genres. The supportive community helped Giles find her own unique country style as a teenager.
“There’s this stigma that country music is a white thing,” she says. That style flows subtly in her contest entry, “Mistakes of Youth,” with her bandmates carrying an R&B groove that alternately lurches and sways. It’s a blend that just might be the thing to catch the ear of NPR Music producer Bobby Carter, who, in an email interview, gives a shout-out to Charlotte’s Anthony Hamilton before doubling down on his love of Southern music.
“These young musicians are coming to the table with a gumbo of styles and submitting entries that are impossible to classify, and I love it,” he tells INDY Week. “I’ve seen R&B singers over bluegrass and country rhythms.”
For her submission, Giles was joined by pianist J’Pierre, Donn Chii on guitar, Xavier Jones on bass, and Calib Lanier on drums. Despite just a phone handling the audio mix, the group is synchronized through hard breaks and twisting transitions, the instruments weaving into the foreground.
For some musicians, the Tiny Desk Contest is a long-awaited boost. That was the case for the first year’s winner, Oakland, California’s Fantastic Negrito. The seasoned Black roots artist was striving to return to music after a seven-year hiatus. After winning the award from NPR Music in 2014, he went on to win three album Grammys.
Ronnie and Rosa Russ, who also submitted to the 2023 contest, are now in their third decade of professional music. They perform as Sultry Storm, formerly Duétté. The sisters live in Raleigh and Clemmons, respectively. After years of full-time gigging in New York City, Rosa started a publishing company and moved down to North Carolina in 2001. But she refused to abandon the craft.
The entire Russ family is musical—their mother was a touring opera and Broadway performer. So after years of watching the curated Tiny Desk concerts, the Russ sisters learned about their chance to perform on the cramped stage. They booked it back to New York City to record “I See You” with collaborators Shawn Lucas, Dave Innis, Eric Brown, and Sly Scott.
The song is an uplifting acknowledgment of struggle and survival.
“A lot of people don’t get accolades for everyday living and just doing what you got to do to survive,” Rosa says. “I just think people need to hear that we see you, we appreciate you.”
That invitational love is present in Sultry Storm’s lyrics, originally written in 2012, and in the block-party dance moves that the pair break out during the entry video. As the lead singer, Rosa glides easily between delightful jazz trills and pointed soul melodies. Ronnie coolly harmonizes before launching into rap verses.
Resting on classic rhythms from the early New York City hip-hop scene, Ronnie questions the people who allow the struggle to become them: “Why you gotta be? You versus this economy …. Got you on your knees, is that a prophecy? Not from me.”
Before the contest was launched, Tiny Desk’s curated concerts kicked off in 2008. The first four featured artists were all white singer-songwriters. Over the years, Megan Thee Stallion, BTS, and Chris Stapleton made it on. But standards appear to remain different between genres. Underground indie rock, “world music,” and jazz artists often receive an invite, but only well-established country and hip-hop artists seem welcome. Popular working-class or rural genres like norteño, gospel, hardcore, and cumbia have rarely, if ever, made it to the desk.
NPR’s leadership is 62 percent white. The 2023 Tiny Desk Contest, alternately, is judged by four women, four people of color, and two white people. Expanding the curatorial power allows the contest to truly embody its mission of creating an inclusive music community and reaching beyond established industry tastes.
“The Tiny Desk Contest team has beefed up our college and HBCU outreach,” says Carter, describing how the team gets the word out to artists. “We’ve also been more active on Instagram and TikTok. Happy to say that we’ve seen a significant increase in entries this year.”
Relying on her experiences as an independent musician and Black woman entering the music industry, Giles offers her two cents about breaking into a creative career.
“One, being intentional about helping others, figuring out what supports them,” she says. “Also being aware of your own privilege, and how to expand and share that privilege and give resources to others, is something that I really want to do. And, in particular, with communities of color, knowledge really is power.”
“There’s a hunger when you listen to North Carolina artists, because we’re always the underdog,” Giles states plainly. “We have something to prove.”
Rosa Russ loves watching other entries pour into the contest, and plans “to reach out and collaborate with other people. That just stretches you and just opens you up to different things.”
Now in its seventh year, the Tiny Desk Contest is expanding the contest model, spotlighting “Top Shelf” entries in addition to the sole winner.
“If this contest gets a musician one step closer to making music for a living,” Carter says, “that’s a huge win.”
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