Donzell Taggart was the youngest pastor in his Arkansas church — so popular that members of the congregation used to ask him to sign their Bibles — when Covid hit. To that point, Taggart’s extracurricular life had been hyper-focused: Singing rehearsals with the choir could start as late as 10 p.m. and run past 1 a.m. Covid blasted a gaping hole in his schedule.
“Church stopped happening, and I didn’t have nothing to do,” Taggart explains on a recent call. “We got bored. So I’m like, ‘Bro, I’m gonna blow up on social media.’ ” He has accomplished that goal in the whirlwind two-ish years since, leaving Arkansas and his church behind, but gaining close to 3 million TikTok followers in the process. Now Taggart is attracting interest from labels, and he hasn’t even put out a song.
While TikTok has been the music industry’s focal point for around three years, the stories that tend to get the most attention on the platform revolve around viral hits, which draw attention like chemtrails streaking across the sky. But labels also view the app as a recruiting center, a place to locate raw talent, try to connect them with the right support team and especially the right song, and create a new star — a combination of modern tech and old-school music-industry grooming. Probably the best known example is Bella Poarch, one of TikTok’s most popular creators, whose debut single “Build a Bitch” has racked up hundreds of millions of streams; other acts in this pool include Lil Huddy and Nessa Barrett.
Taggart is hoping to join their ranks, and his first step in that direction took place at Walmart. A number of them, actually: After he decided on a whim to break into song at a Walmart in Tennessee and posted a video that earned hundreds of thousands of views, he ended up repeating the feat at around 30 different locations. “Walmart started in Arkansas, so there’s one on, like, every corner of our road,” Taggart says. “I just decided to go on a Walmart tour.”
This involved him getting booted out of more than a dozen Walmarts, though early on, he edited the videos to omit his ejections and appear more “wholesome.” But if he recorded a singing clip that wasn’t set in a superstore, he struggled to gain traction. “I would try to sing the same way I screamed in Walmart,” Taggart says. “None of the videos would blow up.” (Going viral by singing in Walmart also helped launch another singer, Mason Ramsey, into the major-label stratosphere, while Bear Bailey earned the record industry’s attention after repeatedly recording TikToks of himself singing inside a local gas station.)
The videos did succeed in blowing up Taggart’s connection to his church. After a clip of the singer belting Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” at a Walmart performed particularly well, he got a call from his head pastor. “He said, ‘Yo, Donzell, I love you, but the video’s at 3 million views, and you’re a pastor, and the song is about teenage suicide, and it probably doesn’t look good, so maybe you should send your videos to us before you post it,’ ” Taggart recalls. He quit that day.
He became more confident in his ability to move an audience with his vocals after he resettled in L.A. Singing outside of a Santa Monica shopping center netted him $80 before he attracted too large a crowd and the police dispersed everyone. “I can make money doing this!” Taggart concluded. “If wanted to eat or smoke, I’d go sing for two or three hours first.” He also became an irrepressible duet partner on TikTok, posting a steady drip of full-throated covers, but almost always leaving room for another user to hop in.
Tiffany Kumar, founder of Beat House, a combined label and publishing company, says she got “goosebumps” when she heard Taggart sing. “Today, all artists have to be ‘TikTok artists,’ but at the same time, the industry gets weary of ‘TikTok stars’ because it has been burnt by viral artists that don’t [end up producing] many streams,” Kumar adds. Beat House now works with Taggart, aiding him in the tough work of getting “beyond a viral moment” — or even a slew of them.
As part of this process, Taggart has been immersing himself in the studio and working on his first original songs, hoping to release a debut single in the near future. His delivery is room swallowing, grand with just a touch of abrasion; he’s capable of emphasizing notes with a quaver that’s nearly operatic. And thanks to his time as a pastor, long sessions are a breeze. “If I’m in the studio singing for hours on end, I’m ready for that,” he says.
Taggart is back in touch with members of his former church as well. Initially, “They’d say, ‘Maybe Donzell should cut down on cussing,’ ” he remembers. “But now they’re like, ‘We’re so proud; you’re doing amazing!’ “