It isn’t easy going on tour as an opener. Atlanta rapper Zaia was up for the challenge, though. The 22-year-old recently wrapped up his very first nationwide tour on November 21, opening for Atlantic Records recording artist Skizzy Mars in 29 cities across five weeks. Those in attendance would’ve never guessed it was Zaia’s first tour. On stage, Zaia presented as a seasoned veteran.
“Just the fact that I can go out there and perform [as an opener] and make them say to me, ‘Yo, your set was crazy. I was able to turn up and let go during it,’” Zaia tells me over the phone. “That’s one of the most positive things I could ever be told when I’m on tour.”
The most exciting part of Zaia’s live performance is his musical accompaniment: a live guitarist and bassist. Zaia performs without backing vocals, a rare approach for young artists. Zaia isn’t just rapping at his audience; he is creating music on the spot. The atmosphere during his set turns communal, with everyone in attendance wanting to partake at the moment.
“In my music, there’s a lot of live instrumentation,” Zaia explains. “It has a lot of drums, guitars, [and] bass. I don’t want to take anything away from that vibe.”
With a strong “vibe” in mind, Zaia’s latest EP, RESET, released as a 15-minute short film this past June, tackles the emotions of working through a break-up. Project standout “ON THE RUN” places Zaia’s soulful rasp atop crispy, knife-sharp drums as he makes one last-ditch effort to save the relationship. The song’s instrumental isn’t programmed; there are colors and emotional depth provided by the live drums. The wellspring of energy and emotion found within his music directly translates to the stage presence he brandishes so naturally.
How does Zaia avoid burning out despite his tendency to roam the stage like a madman? The right mindset. “Every day is a new day, so I’m going to perform every day like that,” he says, determination underlying his voice.
With a tour under his belt and a new project on the horizon, Zaia is ready to capitalize on his forward momentum. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: We’re just about the same age. I can’t imagine traveling across the country, performing in venues almost every night. Can you explain what that experience has been like for you?
Zaia: Man, it’s crazy. It’s waking up every day in a new place and new surroundings with new people and new personalities. It’s wild. You’ve got to take a moment and be like, “Damn, I’m here. I’m not at home.”
You chose to perform this entire tour with a live guitarist and bassist. What’s the value of performing with a band rather than rapping over vocal tracks?
Well, I like live music and people playing instruments. It’s just a whole vibe. In my music, there’s a lot of live instrumentation. It has a lot of drums, guitars, [and] bass. I don’t want to take anything away from that vibe.
When you’re getting ready to take the stage as an opener, what’s your mindset like?
For me, it’s about not overthinking. I try not to think about if this crowd is going to like me or not. Or else, you’re going to start getting in your head, and that’s when shit starts fucking up.
You need to believe in yourself.
Yeah, you’ve got to trust in the music that you made and take it one step at a time. Right before I go out on stage, I’m super nervous. You’ve gotta take that first step onto the stage, and after that, it’s like skydiving. After that first step off the plane, you’re in the air. You already did the hard part. It’s about going out, giving them a good show and just having some fun.
How has this tour helped you to build the all-important artist-to-fan connection?
It gave me a better feel for people and for connecting with people when I’m on stage. I haven’t always been a people-person, but I know how to talk to people. I’ve been getting messages on Instagram, and even dealing with that. You’ve got to do a lot of connecting with people over the Internet. But it’s so different in person. When it’s in person, you’re dealing with gauging their returns and what people feel.
What is one of the most positive experiences so far that you’ve had touring?
A lot of people think the opener isn’t a part of the whole show. Like, there’s the opener first, and then that’s when the actual show starts. Just the fact I can go out there and perform [as an opener] and make them say to me, “Yo, your set was crazy. I was able to turn up and let go during it.” That’s one of the most positive things I could ever be told when I’m on tour.
Touring has allowed you to leave Atlanta. How have your travels impacted your perspective on making music?
I don’t know yet just because of how fresh it is. I haven’t had an “A-ha!” moment yet. I’m going to LA in a week to finish my project, so I’ll see what I come up with and how I’m feeling, but I haven’t even assessed the fact that damn, I just went on tour. It hasn’t hit me like that yet.
Traveling the country for five weeks and having the time of your life is an amazing feeling, I’m sure.
Exactly! I like to think about this time [in my career] as the time that’s getting me ready for when I’m going on the road for six or seven months to a year or two years. This is a time where I’m learning how to handle that. Even when I get down, as long as I don’t forget to look at [touring] as a blessing and what I wanted, I’ll be good.