For Atlanta’s hip-hop and R&B artists, Instagram Live has become an unexpected source of community

With touring and recording largely halted due to the coronavirus outbreak, some of the city's most famous talents connecting with fans through live battles, performances, and karaoke sessions

Jermaine Dupri Instagram Live
Jermaine Dupri performs onstage during an event in 2019.

Photograph by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Red Songbird Foundation

On Saturday, April 4, a day affectionately dubbed “404 Day” in the city of Atlanta for its most famous area code, the comment section for Jermaine Dupri’s DJ set on Instagram Live moved quickly, showing friends reconnecting over their love for the city in real time.

As Dupri delivered an Atlanta-themed set of songs including hits from Playa Poncho, OutKast, and Monica, former Mayor Kasim Reed asked if he’d missed the Raheem the Dream portion of the set. (He had.) Music mogul Scooter Braun recounted his love for the city and the impact it’s had on his career, and shouted out celebrity friends. Local residents reconnected with childhood friends and gave a shout out to their neighborhoods. The Instagram Live broadcast reached more than 15,000 concurrent viewers at its peak but, in the moment, it felt like all of Atlanta, new and old, was watching and celebrating together.

And while Choose ATL, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s initiative geared towards millennial and gen-Z professionals, was planning to hold a live event for “404 Day” before the pandemic, it wasn’t scheduled to include a DJ set from Jermaine Dupri. “The 404 Day virtual party was specifically designed to bring the community together during these difficult times and try to offer a sense of togetherness knowing we’re physically apart,” Ashley Tanks, Choose ATL’s senior director of PR and programs, says. Tapping Dupri, someone who has been integral to Atlanta’s identity as a hip-hop and R&B hub since the 1990s, seemed like a no-brainer.

Partnering with Butter.ATL, Atlanta Influences Everything, and FLR-PLN, the organization coordinated the Instagram Live that appeared on Dupri’s page and reached out to influencers in hopes that they would tune in. “We reached out to several Atlanta leaders and celebrities, and invited them to join. But, we honestly didn’t know who was going to participate,” Tanks says. But plenty of prominent Atlantans tuned in, including Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, WSB-TV anchor Jovita Moore, Lil Jon, Killer Mike, Ludacris, Usher, and T.I. all left comments.

Jermaine Dupri Instagram Live
Dupri’s 404 Day show on Instagram Live

Screenshots courtesy of Sunshine Sachs

Celebrities going live on Instagram certainly isn’t a new trend but, in this current global pandemic, the app that has sometimes been blamed for creating feelings of isolation and FOMO has proven to be an unexpected source of community. Like many people who are now facing changes in their careers as a result of COVID-19, musicians are also having to make adjustments. Touring, a major source of income for many artists, is on hold indefinitely. Public appearances have been halted. And, like others who are practicing social distancing, video chatting has become the primary way of conducting business and connecting with the outside world.

Recently, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz started a producer battle series titled ‘Verzuz” where artists go round-for-round against one another using snippets of their biggest hits. The battles, which are hosted on Instagram Live, have featured a number of Atlanta-based producers and songwriters, including The-Dream and Sean Garrett, Ne-Yo, and Johntá Austin. Atlanta native Lil Jon and T-Pain, who has lived here for much of his career, have had the most successful event of the series so far, with their viewership peaking around 280,000 last Saturday thanks to the pair’s extensive catalogs and friendly banter. For the most part, these battles have been less about “winning” (no one is actually declared victorious) and more about having fun and providing entertainment. When Lil Jon played “Lovers & Friends,” his 2004 hit song with Usher and Ludacris, during a round against T. Pain’s “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper),” he stopped short of his own verse in compliance with the rule that each producer only play one minute and thirty seconds of each song. But T. Pain requested Lil Jon play his standout verse anyway. With people—artists included—facing the threat of illness and unemployment, these Instagram shows have been provided a temporary escape into a reality where everyone wins.

T-Pain and Lil Jon’s large audience stemmed, at least partially, from the fact that they’re not just producers and songwriters. They’re also well-known vocalists. But, even creatives who work primarily behind the scenes have benefited from participating in Verzuz.

Atlanta-based songwriter and producer Johntá Austin has been writing hit songs since he was a teenager. He co-wrote “Sweet Lady” for Tyrese shortly before graduating high school and has since written songs such as Aaliyah’s “Come Over,” Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” and Bryson Tiller’s “Don’t.” Austin says he was impressed with the audience that the battles had been getting so he came up with the idea to compete against Atlanta-based singer, songwriter, and producer Ne-Yo. About 80,000 viewers, including rappers Drake and Travis Scott, tuned in. “To see the amount of people that were tuned in for R&B music, that was great,” Austin says.

Ne-Yo agrees. While he lightheartedly admits Austin might have edged him out in the battle, he says everyone ended up winning in the end. “I felt like it was just positive all the way across the board, and I think that’s the reason that is getting the response it’s getting,” he says. “In the midst of this dark and confusing time that we’re going through right now, it shined a bit of light. It allowed people to be lighthearted and nostalgic.”

Like many artists, Atlanta native Yung Baby Tate says the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely affected her business-wise, but she’s been trying to make the best of this moment by finishing her home studio and connecting with fans online.

“It’s difficult for me to even see what the world is even going to look like after all of this is over. What is over for this? It’s hard to plan around something you have no control of,” she says.

Tate recently entertained about 200 viewers by singing songs such as Anita Baker’s “Caught up in the Rapture” and Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” during a “Quarantine Karaoke” virtual event on Instagram. “I just look at it as a way to organically and naturally connect with my fans,” she says, adding that she was livestreaming well before the current pandemic. “I don’t like to make it too much of a huge deal.”

Instagram Live events are free, so they’re certainly not a replacement for the revenue stream artists would receive from touring. But in addition to the streaming boost it’s likely given the musicians, they’ve also been able to build momentum for new releases. During their battle, Lil Jon previewed a new song with Ludacris and Usher, and T. Pain showcased some of the newer songs he’s been working on. Ne-Yo says he’s also working to release a “quarantine and chill” project soon. Austin recently released an EP titled Pandemic on Soundcloud.

“Hopefully, once we have safely combated COVID-19, we can get back out and be more visible in the public, but I think what’s great about social media and technology is we’re able to keep our connection with the people,” he says.