How Piao Huang Found a Career as an Artist Without Looking for It

When T-Pain tells you you're an artist, it's hard to disagree.

December 22, 2020

A couple years ago, if you’d asked Piao Huang B.M. ’20 what kind of career she was looking for in the music industry, the answer would’ve been all business. While she minored in music production and engineering, her main focus was her major in music business/management, and the business side of things is what she'd always told people—and herself—she was pursuing.

That version of Huang might be shocked to see where she is now: an artist building her repertoire signed to Nappy Boy Entertainment, a label started by hip-hop/R&B singer T-Pain, and closely mentored by the vocal legend himself. At a recent online visiting artist event featuring T-Pain, Huang jumped on the call to tell her surprising story, as well as to give Berklee as sneak peek of her first song and video for the label, “Cloudy.”

Watch the video for the new song "Cloudy" by Piao:

Huang’s quick ascension from Berklee business student to professional recording artist appears to follow a growing trend in artists finding success through social media, given that it was her cover of T-Pain’s “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” on Instagram that garnered attention from T-Pain and his team. This kind of discovery is certainly not unheard of in the Berklee community. Tony Ann ’17 was handpicked to tour with the Chainsmokers because of a YouTube video, for example, and alumni Kirby Lauryen ’09, Salem Ilese and Justin Sheriff B.M. ’16 all received major career boosts on TikTok in the last few months.

The major difference for Huang, however, is that she never intended for any of this to happen.

It wasn’t even until her sixth semester that she started thinking about how she’d like to explore her desire to be a performer. She’d always had the chops, since she’d grown up performing, first as a classical pianist, then as a pop vocalist. But, she said, “I put a lot of limitations on myself growing up, because I was scared.” In part, her fears were based on the vulnerability that comes with performing, but there were bigger, cultural issues at play too. “Being Asian Canadian—it’s hard because I never really saw anybody, like there wasn’t any representation…. So as much as I loved performing, I always put myself on the backstage end.”

By August 2019, she was performing in the wedding music circuit. The agency she worked with suggested she upload a clip of her performing something for clients to see, and that’s when she decided to try her hand at covering T-Pain’s breakthrough single.

The best way to describe what happened next may be to list the things that she did not do, including:

  • tagging T-Pain or anyone on his team in her post;
  • checking her phone religiously for likes and shares, and most notably;
  • expecting this to do anything but fade into the background.

On a walk through Boston Common the day after posting the clip on Instagram, her boyfriend unwittingly helped initiate a change in the trajectory of her life by saying: “You need to check your phone right now.” When she did, she couldn’t scroll fast enough to see the notifications coming through. Her cover was going viral.

Despite the widespread praise she received, she still assumed it was just a moment that would soon pass—and that’s how things appeared to go. “I had my little viral moment, that was great. Then two weeks later, I get a [direct message] from Sir T-Pain…and he was like, ‘Send me your contact info.’” After years of trying to tell herself she wasn't an artist, she could no longer deny the truth. "I didn’t even see myself as an artist until someone like T-Pain told me," she said.

She began negotiating a contract in February, but she stipulated that she had to finish her studies at Berklee before packing up and heading to Atlanta, a plan that T-Pain and his team fully supported. “We’re not trying to do this fast,” T-Pain said. “We’re trying to do this right.”

So now, here’s Piao, the artist, in an official contract with Nappy Boy Entertainment as of September, working with a personal branding consultant, and writing songs in earnest for the first time in her life. “To this day, I don’t have any official music [streaming] anywhere,” she said. Given how fast her life has changed in the last year, it sure seems like that statement won’t be true for much longer.