News & Politics

Surprise! Here’s Who Has Performed So Far at NPR’s Top-Secret Tiny Desk Fest

Which mystery acts are performing each night? We attended to find out.

Photo by Elliot Williams

Note: We’ll update this post with highlights from each night.

After roughly 950 intimate performances with everyone from Lizzo to Wu-Tang Clan to Taylor Swift, NPR’s cluttered funky-eclectic tiny desk opened up to the public this week for the first time with the Tiny Desk Fest. Announced earlier this month, the festival promised four nights of secret artists—meaning nobody who bought a ticket knew who they would be showing up to see.

So who performed the first night? It turned out to be Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who coined “Hot Girl Summer” this year on her track with Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign and recently performed here at Jiffy Lube Live.

From the first night: When guests arrived at NPR’s headquarters, they still didn’t know who they were seeing. The announcement was subtle: As the crowd milled about, waiting to be given directions, the big screens that surround the lobby started showing pictures of Megan in her leopard-print power outfit. The zipper read “NPR’s Tiny Desk Fest welcomes Megan Thee Stallion with Phony Ppl.” Soon enough, the crowd got the message. Gasps and screams filled the room.

“I had a dream this morning that it was Megan Thee Stallion,” says attendee Alexa Moore. “I just remember someone leaking it on Twitter and I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s gonna be Megan!'”

Over the past 11 years, the Tiny Desk series has gone from a haphazard small gathering of NPR staff and guests to a massive operation with 7.5 million viewers a month. It took the team about a year to pull off a festival open to fans of the series and they knew there would very limited space (it is a workplace). That’s why, despite not knowing who they would see, hundreds bought tickets immediately. All four nights sold out in just three minutes.

During her performance, she transformed her typically high-octane, twerk-heavy rap sound into stripped-down jazzy arrangements that she jokingly called “chill shit” and shared a new song in collaboration with Phony Ppl called “Fuckin’ Around.” For fans of her music, it was difficult to stay subdued in the still-active office as Megan rapped about being a “big ole freak, big booty, big ole treat.” Those who weren’t too familiar couldn’t help chuckling at hearing her riff explicitly sexual lyrics in such a calm setting.

“We do want to keep an element of surprise,” says Lauren Onkey, senior director of NPR Music. “That’ll be fun and exciting for the audience and be characteristic of Tiny Desk—we want people to be able to love a Tiny Desk concert no matter who’s performing.”

Keeping it quiet around the office wasn’t too challenging, though the excitement of major artists stopping by the office is occasionally hard to contain. Before Taylor Swift’s recent appearance at the desk, NPR journalist Audie Cornish shared the info too soon in a now-deleted Tweet. No such leak has so far happened with the festival details, though. “If there’s an artist in the middle of the building that afternoon doing a soundcheck, I don’t know if something will go out on Twitter,” says Onkey. “Honestly, we’re not obsessing with the secrecy.” But fans at Megan’s show were definitely keen on saying whether they had guessed it would be her, referencing adjective clues like “trill” to prove their points.

“So much at NPR Music is about music discovery,” says NPR’s senior director of events Jessica Goldstein. “We really want the focus to be not necessarily who’s performing, but about the experience of coming together and trusting NPR as a tastemaker and listen to music whether you know who the person is or not.”

From the second night: Night two was a performance from Sheryl Crow, in which she played songs that spanned her 30-year career—including the fan-favorite “All I Wanna Do” and songs from her new album Threads. She followed the set by sitting down for an interview with Ann Powers in NPR’s Studio One, where she opened up about this being the last album she’ll record, the importance of truth in this fraught political time, and how she’s “all on board for reparations.”

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.

Assistant Editor

Elliot joined Washingtonian in January 2018. An alum of Villanova University, he grew up in the Philadelphia area before earning a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post,, and, among others. He lives in Bloomingdale.