ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca locals were in for a surprise when they came across a strange advertisement on YouTube. If they stuck around to watch the whole video, they would’ve seen Raymond Xu’s “TRAPPED IN ITHACA,” a tongue-in-cheek music video about the oddities of Ithaca that’s been a steady presence in advertisements and recommendations on YouTube over the last several months.

Xu grew up in Ithaca and attended Cornell University until 2018, though he left after he graduated, he moved back to Ithaca at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. After spending a few years away from the town, he realized some things from his youth had changed when he returned and was inspired to write “TRAPPED IN ITHACA.”

Xu has been posting to his YouTube channel since 2013, but it wasn’t until he posted the music video that his account began to gain traction. The song has something every Ithaca resident can relate to, making playful digs at local attractions like the Grassroots Music Festival, trinket shops on The Commons and Moonies Bar and Nightclub. 

Xu attended Northeast Elementary, Elizabeth Anne Clune Montessori School, Dewitt Middle School and Ithaca High School before attending Cornell University for a bachelors of science and a masters of engineering. Though his academic interests are in software and technology, Xu has always had a passion for music — he has been playing the classical guitar since he was six years old. Xu said his musical training and enjoyment of rap music gave him the ability to write “TRAPPED IN ITHACA” and other rap songs.

But music is just a hobby turned side hustle. Outside of it, he has worked on an array of engineering projects including as a machine learning engineer at Johns Hopkins applied physics lab. Most recently, he is the founder of a software program that assists with research and finding related information.  

Xu said a large part of his adolescence was spent at the mall and playing basketball. But upon his return to Ithaca in 2020, he realized the local culture of both activities had changed. 

“The video and the song are like a third about the mall because that’s where I grew up hanging out, my parents used to live by the mall and I would hang out there when I was probably 12 to like 16,” Xu said. “That used to be in rap all the time too, you know when Kanye said ‘we got married at the mall,’ it used to be a big part of hip-hop and I thought that was so cool.” 

Ithaca locals found the music video when it came up as a YouTube advertisement that played before the video they intended to stream. Xu said he made the music video run as an ad because he wanted to promote his other rap music that he released after making “TRAPPED IN ITHACA.”

“At first it had like 500 views where people thought it was kind of funny, but then after I started doing more rap, I wanted to promote my channel a little bit more and promote my music,” Xu said. “So I tried a bunch of different venues and made all sorts of different ads on different websites … and the most effective way for me to share my music was YouTube ads. I got some really good responses from it, it was some insane click rate, like 16% of the people who saw the ad, clicked the ad to go to the video, which was just unheard of in the advertising realm.”

According to YouTube Help, half of all channels and videos on YouTube have a click through rate (CTR) that can range between 2% and 10%, showing “TRAPPED” has indeed been more successful than the average.

Viewers of the music video took note of the song’s offbeat, non-rhyming sound and felt that it reflected its subject matter. One commenter said, “This rap is a good match for Ithaca. It is totally Ithaca level rap.. Odd, not terribly rhythmic or inspired language choices, but quirky and endearing nonetheless.”

Xu said he thinks Ithaca’s community feeling is unique from other small towns due to the high population of transitory college students who constantly move in and out of the area and that he wanted the feel of the song to reflect that.

“Small towns tend to have that more personal, ‘get to know you’ vibe where everyone’s super friendly,” Xu said. “But I feel like Ithaca is more like New York City-ish because people come for four years and leave […] It’s more cold than I feel a typical small town would be and I feel that lends itself to the awkward, youth-like nature of the song. I wanted the song to fit the town, so the video is very low production value, very much as if I was 13 years old and trying to describe life in Ithaca, that’s kind of the energy of the thing.”