How Silentó Got the Nation Doing the Nae Nae

The story behind how a 17-year-old started a dance craze. 

Nearly six months ago, Silentó was performing his now-hit song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” at local roller rinks and birthday parties in his native Stone Mountain, GA. Then, on June 25, Silentó premiered the official “Watch Me” video the same day he appeared on a much bigger stage: Good Morning America. The 17-year-old originally wrote and posted the song to social media after losing a high school talent show. It grew into an online hit, fast: The video has over 54 million views, and the song’s been earning around 7.4 million streams per week. Adding to its viral power are the numerous fans posting videos of themselves dancing along. 

“Watch Me” leads a crowd through moves that Silentó’s classmates have likely seen before, whether on Vine, at sports games, or in Jennifer Lopez videos. The Whip also came out of Atlanta, and Bopping saw a resurgence in Chicago just two years ago, thanks to an 18-year-old dancer. Part of Silentó’s initial success can be attributed to how its initial fans already loved to dance this way. But this rising star had also done what no one else had—he gave these newer moves the right song to make them actually cross over to radio. “Watch Me” was the third hottest single in the country last week.

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Silentó is borrowing moves invented by We Are Toonz, who invented the Nae Nae, and Famous to Most, the We Are Toonz spin-off behind the Whip. Both groups recorded official rap songs for their dances, though neither of them has caught on; the only part that has really stuck is from “Drop That Nae Nae,” when We Are Toonz goes HOO-AH! (See: when Mercer University upset Duke in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament.) Meanwhile, “Watch Me” may be the most youthful pop hit since Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Silentó uses giddy, SNES-inspired production from hip-hop mixtape cuts released two years ago; instead of rapping, he sighs through his backing vocals. When he guides people on the dance floor, he does it with bubbling excitement.

Since “Watch Me” arrived, listeners have wondered if Silentó could be the next Soulja Boy. The comparison isn’t perfect, but Soulja Boy was the first to become famous doing what Silentó has since done: create a song people can dance to, then re-post fan videos to inspire others to do the same. Unlike with so many aspiring dance stars, Soulja Boy and Silentó’s debut singles have a distinctive sound and actual personality. “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” the most downloaded single of 2007, borrowed from Atlanta’s snap music, though the sound was completely new to those outside city limits. (Also, it had you Superman that ho.)

“Watch Me” has the nation transfixed again, only now Silentó has it sounding like child’s play. Searching the “Nae Nae” on YouTube yields 387,000 results. This clip of Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan  doing the Nae Nae with supermodel Cara Delevingne is infectious, while  is nearing half a million likes.

Silentó has been hard at work on his Capitol Records debut, though with the growing success of “Watch Me,” he seems to have bought himself some time for even his follow-up single. An online dance craze hasn’t felt this approachable in a long time.