BEMIDJI, Minn. — Jex Nwalor almost certainly has more TikTok followers than you.
In fact, he has more followers than the population of the state of Kansas, the city of Rome or the country of Albania — a whopping 2.9 million.
This sudden fame and attention stemmed from a love of music for the freshman business management major and basketball player at Oak Hills Christian College in Bemidji.
Less than three years after he started singing and playing the ukulele in his room and posting videos online, he has built up an army of supporters, garnered attention from major record labels and even has a ukulele named after him on the market.
For Nwalor, the TikTok fame is just a vehicle he hopes will propel him into a successful R&B music career.
At home instrument
Born and raised in Brampton, Ont., Canada, just outside of Toronto, Nwalor moved to the United States to attend high school in Gilbert, Ariz. A few years later, he ended up in the area after coming to Bemidji to play basketball for Oak Hills Christian College.
Nwalor has been surrounded by music his whole life but said he never took it very seriously, just singing casually in informal choirs or at church.
“A lot of my friends back in Canada didn't even know I could sing. Because I didn't even know I could sing either,” he said.
A few years ago, all of his cousins got ukuleles for Christmas. That’s when it clicked.
“I didn't get one, but I'm like, ‘This instrument is so cool, I want my own.’ So, I got on Amazon and purchased a little ukulele. I learned everything I could on that ukulele. And I started posting videos on TikTok. By probably October that year, 2019, that's when people started commenting. Like, ‘oh my gosh, it was so good,’” he said. That’s when he thought, “I'm gonna probably take this seriously. And that's when I kick-started.”
Why the ukulele? Nwalor also plays the piano and the guitar, but said he likes that the ukulele sounds like an “at home” kind of instrument.
“The ukulele is an instrument where it sounds like you're doing this from home, I'm doing this in my dorm room,” he said. “Not a lot of people use the ukulele as their main instrument, I feel like I can make the ukulele a more mainstream instrument.”
Through quarantine, Nwalor found even more time to practice his new skill, teaching himself how to improve using online tutorials.
“I've been watching lots and lots of YouTube videos on warming up my voice in high notes and low notes and riffs and runs and all of that,” he said, mentioning that being in quarantine over the past year gave him more time to practice. “I'm still doing it every day. It's a daily thing I do in the morning, in the shower, in the car, when I get up, before I go to bed. I'm just always practicing.”
On Nwalor’s TikTok account, you’ll encounter a variety of different videos. He has some comedy sketches, some music videos — both original songs and covers — and some videos blending music and comedy together.
Soon after he began posting videos on the short-form video-sharing social media platform TikTok, the positive reactions began rolling in.
“When I first hit 100,000 (followers) I was so happy. I was excited,” he said. “I was like, ‘Let's go, this is actually working. My voice is what they like, and I'm gonna keep I'll keep rolling with it.’”
The follower count just kept climbing. As of April 13, he was sitting at 2.9 million followers. After a few months of posting, he started getting recognized for his videos by people in person, sometimes by members of the opposing team at basketball games.
For Nwalor, the first thought that he “made it” came when he was followed by singer Jason Derulo. His family and friends are overwhelmingly supportive of his newfound fame, Nwalor added.
Along with the fame came opportunities to capitalize on it.
As the ukulele is a relatively niche instrument, Nwalor has received a lot of attention from major ukulele manufacturers. Right now, he is partnering with Uku Ukuleles to sell his own ukulele, which is called “The Jex” and is available for preorder.
Currently, he is stepping back from his education and basketball career to focus more on music and marketing himself. Within the next five years, Nwalor hopes to have released many original songs and moved back to the West Coast.
Nwalor is new to the songwriting aspect of music, but thanks to his internet success, has a contact at a major record label who has helped connect him with R&B songwriters and lyricists when he hits a writing block.
He hopes to inspire others to discover their own hidden talents as he did.
“There are a lot of people out there that have hidden talents they don't know about, and that they should keep exploring,” he said. “You should show your talents for sure, just express yourself. Don't let anybody tell you anything different. Be yourself.”
For Nwalor, family remains his biggest inspiration.
“I'm trying to do this for my mom. She gave her best for me and my two other brothers,” Nwalor said. “My dad passed away in September 2010, and she's been super strong, raising the three of us on her own. I just want to give back to her, for what she's done for us.”