With just two words about his favorite food, Tariq captivated millions.
“For me, I really like corn,” he says in a now-viral video, which has been watched over five million times on YouTube. Tariq describes corn as “a big lump with knobs,” noting, “It has the juice.” “I can’t imagine a more beautiful thing,” he says.
Perhaps you’ve heard the jingle, or know him as “Corn Kid.” Offline, Tariq just started second grade, where his slightly-too-young-for-TikTok classmates have no idea he spent the last few weeks of summer becoming an internet sensation.
He likes recess and also math. (The latter, he rationalized using the uncomplicated wisdom that comes with being 7: “Because, like, I’m good at math,” he explained.) He has three sisters, each counted aloud on the fingers of one hand. His favorite color is “all the colors,” his ideal adventure would be a visit to a humongous water park and he is not a fan of flying insects, like the ones buzzing around the beekeeping hives in Domino Park on the Brooklyn waterfront, where he had just settled into a chair to discuss his recent brush with internet fame.
Several shrieks from both reporter and subject later, we relocated. “I didn’t actually walk into him, he walked into me,” Tariq, safely away from the bees, said of his star-making chance encounter with Julian Shapiro-Barnum, the host of the internet show “Recess Therapy,” which features Mr. Shapiro-Barnum’s spontaneous interviews with children in New York City.
Tariq was with one of his older sisters and his grandmother at Smorgasburg, a weekly food festival in Prospect Park, when Mr. Shapiro-Barnum approached him for an interview this summer. On that particular day, Mr. Shapiro-Barnum, whom Tariq calls Mr. Julian, was working on an episode about favorite things.
The answer for Tariq was simple and, conveniently, already at hand: an ear of roasted corn.
In the video, Mr. Shapiro-Barnum has edited crunching sounds over each time Tariq takes a bite for dramatic effect. “I hope you have a corntastic day,” Tariq says. Beside him, his grandmother is unable to control her giggles. “What? It’s just a pun about corn.” Crunch!
“A pun is like something you make up to make people laugh,” Tariq later explained when asked to define a pun.
A missing front tooth, Tariq said, makes it slightly more difficult to eat his beloved starchy vegetable, but he remains undeterred. The tooth fairy did not come when it fell out, he said. “She ditched me. She thinks I have a horrible family.” Tariq’s mother, Jessica, sitting next to her son, feigned a gasp and laughed.
Tariq’s tooth fairy theories aside, his family actually appears to have done the impossible: maintaining a semblance of normalcy, safety and fun for Tariq while he runs out his fame clock. (Tariq’s family asked that they be identified by only their first names, in an effort to maintain their privacy.)
The Recess Therapy interview had gone international before Jessica, 33, even found out her son was going viral. “I got a message with a video from Europe and they’re like, ‘Isn’t this Tariq?’” Jessica said of a message she received from cousins overseas. “They’re like, ‘He’s on TikTok!’”
This puzzled Jessica, who, at the time, did not use the app. (She said her daughter had messaged her to make sure it was OK that Tariq spoke with Mr. Shapiro-Barnum in the park.) Texts, links and emails started flooding in from friends and strangers from around the world. “And then I realized that, ‘Oh, my God, my son is all over the internet,’” she said.
Bookers from television shows started reaching out. The family quickly found a lawyer. Tariq met him once via Zoom, his mother said, but he did not recall the meeting.
He did recall a trip to Los Angeles for the premiere of “Pinocchio.” An interviewer on the red carpet asked if Tariq was excited to meet Tom Hanks. “Who’s Tom Hanks?” Tariq replied. On “The Drew Barrymore Show,” Tariq sampled various corn-based foods: baby corn, corn soda, dessert corn and Quorn, a meat-substitute brand for which Ms. Barrymore is chief mom officer.
Online, the “Recess Therapy” video exploded like kernels in a pot of hot oil. It was the perfect recipe for virality: one part cute kid plus one part delicious food, with a healthy sprinkling of catchy sound bites, perfect for interpolating.
That was exactly what Michael Gregory did when he turned Tariq’s interview into a song on TikTok. Mr. Gregory is a quarter of the Gregory Brothers, a musical group that has made a name for itself transforming viral videos into catchy tunes. The group’s biggest hit to date may be “Bed Intruder Song,” an Auto-Tuned interview that became YouTube’s most watched video of 2010 and charted on the Billboard Top 100.
Sitting at a keyboard, Mr. Gregory plunks out a tune with a single finger and sings backup to Tariq. The TikTok video has been viewed 76 million times and the audio has been used by other creators on the app in more than one million videos.
The group then reached out to Mr. Shapiro-Barnum and Tariq to collaborate on a bigger project, creating a full-length track using footage from a follow-up interview between Mr. Shapiro-Barnum and Tariq. The song was released on Spotify and revenue is being split evenly among the three parties. Tariq is credited as both a writer and performer.
Splitting profits with the subjects of the viral videos the brothers turn into music has been part of the group’s business model since their first hit, “Double Rainbow Song,” Mr. Gregory said. “We were like, ‘This is a good chance for people that are in a viral moment to actually benefit from said viral moment.” (The group said it was coordinating with Tariq’s lawyer to help him register as a songwriter so he can receive the appropriate royalties.)
Seemingly everyone wanted to get in on Corn Kid’s moment. The actor Kevin Bacon performed an acoustic cover of the song on TikTok, strumming the strings not with a pick or his fingers but with an ear of you know what. United Airlines used the song in a TikTok video about its planes. Dunkin’ posted a Corn Kid meme on Instagram and Chips Ahoy stuffed two ears of corn into the sleeves of a cookie package to make a Twitter meme. “Look Out, Corn Kid, the Future of Your Favorite Crop Is Far From ‘Corntastic,’” read a Bloomberg headline from the end of August.
Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota declared Sept. 3 “Official Corn-bassador Tariq Day.” “Whereas, South Dakota is one of the top corn producers in the nation, providing nourishment to people across the globe but especially to Tariq, a 7-year-old boy who recently discovered corn was real,” reads the opening of the executive proclamation. In his capacity as official corn-bassador, Tariq and his family visited the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. The trip was sponsored by the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
“It is the size of an actual castle,” Tariq said. The Corn Palace is not literally made of corn, he noted: “It’s made of metal that looks like corn.”
Tariq also joined Cameo at the end of August, a platform that allows celebrities to record personalized video messages for fans for a fee. Since joining, he has been the most viewed profile on the platform, a representative for Cameo wrote in an email. Tariq’s current rate for a personalized video is $220. Through Cameo, he has also been hired to film brand advertisements, including a video for Chipotle that is now the company’s best-performing TikTok ever.
But with his popularity also came criticism, Jessica said. On Twitter, some users theorized that Tariq was being used by his family to make a quick buck. Others worried he would fall prey to an all too common online pattern in which young Black creators do not receive appropriate compensation and credit for their work.
“I’m not reading the negative comments,” Jessica said. “Before it was really getting to me because people were saying really mean stuff like, ‘He’s being exploited,’ ‘He’s being forced to do these things.’ But anyone that knows Tariq knows he loves the camera. He loves to talk. And this is something he always wanted.”
In fact, Jessica initially tried to keep her son away from social media. It found him anyway.
“I always used to say, ‘No, you’re not getting a YouTube channel,” she said.
Jessica, Tariq and Tariq’s father discuss every opportunity that comes his way. They have been selective about what they greenlight, Jessica said, and the decision is always ultimately Tariq’s. “If he’s in the mood to do it, we give it a go. If he doesn’t really feel like doing it, I’m not going to force it,” she said. Jessica turned off his Cameo requests when school started back up to ensure Tariq could focus on his education. She said she had no plans to turn them back on any time soon.
“People on the internet are saying, ‘Oh, this family is living off of him.’ Listen, he’s well taken care of. Both of his parents work and he lives in a household with lots of love with his siblings and both parents,” Jessica said.
Jessica has taken pains to keep Tariq’s private life private. On his first day of school, she met with her son’s principal to explain his new situation and set some ground rules.
“As soon as I went to the principal, she already knew who he was,” Jessica said. “They are really respecting my wishes when it comes to his privacy. And no pictures, except for one little boo-boo that happened.” An employee at the school had asked Tariq for a selfie. “I said yes,” Tariq said, grinning.
Jessica recently granted her son’s longtime wish to join social media. With his mom’s help, Tariq set up a TikTok account that now has nearly 600,000 followers. He posts under the handle @KornBoyOfficial. Somebody posing as him was already using the name @CornKid.
Tariq hopes eventually people will stop asking him about corn. “I really want to go to the park, but I can’t until I’m done with this,” Tariq said when asked what he would rather discuss instead.
While he climbed a tall metal slide, Jessica spotted several parents who appeared to clock her son as Corn Kid. Tariq had no idea.