With an ear-to-ear grin and his infectious laugh, AY Young admits he’s perhaps an unlikely rapper.
Back from taking a shot at stardom in California, the Kansas City-born Eagle Scout-turned-college basketball player-turned performer is plugging into the entrepreneur community in hopes of more efficiently powering the Battery Tour.
“We’re essentially using the universal language of music to solve universal problems,” Young said of the venture, through which he recently graduated from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac program.
The vision is to translate the Battery Tour — Young’s street corner social music movement — into a self-sustained music festival from which net proceeds can be used to purchase solar-powered batteries that can be sent to those in need, he said.
“There’s over a billion people who don’t have access to electricity — or maybe they have access, but only for a certain amount of time,” Young said. “Then you have disasters; we still have 800,000 people in Puerto Rico without power.”
Battery Tour already has found a tech partner in Conner Hazelrigg, Young said. Hazelrigg’s startup, 17° 73° Innovation Co., produces the Sunshine Box, a portable solar-charging station that can charge 10 devices at a time.
The Battery Tour endeavor could lend itself well to a nonprofit model, Young said, noting the financial uncertainty of the entertainment business. He’s still working through the structure alongside partner Christen Barber, who acts as executive director and handles much of the day-to-day operations, he said.
And they’ve received no shortage of advice.
“Everybody wants to tell you what to do with what you’ve made,” Young said, laughing.
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Changing charging stations
Homeschooled for most of his childhood, Young didn’t discover music until he was about 16, he said.
The street performer’s creativity began with poetry — some of which was inspired by the divided Kansas City he observed around him.
“I thought it was weird that you could be [in a poorer neighborhood at] 39th and Troost, and then you drive a couple of blocks and there’s nice houses, then the Country Club Plaza — and it’s sudden. It’s ridiculous,” Young said. “But that divide that was there eight or nine years ago is starting to disappear. It’s a lot different now.”
His first song, “Stick This Thing in Your Pocket,” began as a poem spoken over the strumming of his brother AJ Young’s guitar.
“I guess that was rap,” he said. “I didn’t really know at the time because my parents didn’t let me listen to rap. We mostly listened to Christian music — I mean, I was in the church six days a week. So, it’s weird to say, but I was 15 or 16 and I didn’t even know what rap was.”
Young’s parents were civic and neighborhood advocates, helping to found the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Association, he said.
“I learned so much independently by watching my dad, who was an entrepreneur, make his own construction company very successful,” Young said. “Watching my parents add value to the community in Kansas City has put me where I am today.”
After graduating from Lincoln Prep High School, he played guard for the University of Kansas City-Missouri basketball team. But while athletics taught him about about hard work and how to “put 10,000 hours into your craft,” it wasn’t his passion.
Young (as “AY Musik”) and his brother auditioned for the FOX TV show “X-Factor” in 2012, earning screen time with such music heavyweights as L.A. Reid, Simon Cowell and Britney Spears. They even received four “yes” votes from the judges, further affirming Young’s belief that his future would be grounded in music, he said.
“After the show, I wanted to say ‘Hey!’ to the world,” Young said. “I wanted people hear my music. I wanted to make an impact with music as the vehicle.”
The music video for his song “Say Hey” was filmed at locations across Kansas City.
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But the gigs didn’t follow. Young couldn’t get in front of booking agents because he wasn’t yet established enough, he said. Pop-up performances on curbside venues seemed the best available option, Young said.
“Walking around, you might see somebody playing the guitar on the street corner, but I’m not a guitar player. I was mainly a rapper then,” he said, noting the challenges. “Plus, when you’re talking about performing somewhere like the Riot Room, you’re talking about a big sound system, It has to sound right. But how do you do that without electricity?”
Figuring out how to power a concert anywhere sparked the earliest incarnation of the Battery Tour — aptly named because the shows themselves were juiced independently of an established venue.
First performing on the Country Club Plaza, which earlier in his life helped inspire his poetry, Young’s shows quickly evolved. As he gained popularity, he realized he couldn’t fill the entire lineup with just his rap. Collaborators joined the spotlight.
“It became a mix of dance party, open mic night, and a concert,” he said. “I was doing a show every day to eat and live, charge my batteries and go to the next city or state. And it just turned into a movement — not being selfish with anything, collaborating with visual artists, collaborating with live painters, collaborating with musicians, whoever wanted the platform.”
The Battery Tour helped Young gain the exposure he needed. He opened for such artists as Shaggy, T-Pain, Wiz Khalifa and Aaron Carter — and he’s set to do the same for Wyclef Jean Aug. 24 at Crossroads KC at Grinders, Young said.
Performing about 230 shows in 2017, he even was in the midst of developing a pilot in California for Netflix, he said. The show would have followed Young and the Battery Tour from concert to concert, but the deal fell apart because of internal strife within his team, he said.
“I fell flat on my face with having the wrong people around me when I was close to attaining that success,” Young said.
What some would call a failure became an opportunity to pivot the Battery Tour’s mission, he said. Returning to Kansas City, Young embraced the idea of making a community-driven impact with his concerts.
“At the end of the day, I do just love music and want to be able to do it freely, whether there’s money involved or not,” he said.
Young has partnered brands with H3 Enterprises, whose co-founder Roy Scott encountered a similar brush with quick national success that also slipped away too soon.
“We hit it off immediately,” Young said. “His story really resonated with me.”
Scott has become a mentor, he said, along with H3 co-founder Reggie Gray, Landon Young at Give VC, Sally Williams at UMKC, and entrepreneurial consultant Jill Meyer.
“I’m really getting plugged into entrepreneurial resources — even just understanding what an entrepreneur is — and trying to figure out how to keep Batter Tour going,” he said.