During the past couple of months, the internet star KSI has been prolific on YouTube, because what else has there been to do? He has asked subscribers to tell him their jokes and recorded himself reacting to them. He has filmed himself playing scary video games (“I’m shaken”), invited his haters to insult him (“Why am I doing this?”) and responded to pressing personal questions from superfans, including this corker: “Who is your barber?” Captivity, it turns out, will spark a boom time for content. “If anything, it’s moving faster now,” says KSI, during a video chat on a Thursday afternoon in April. “People have time on their hands!”
KSI stands for “Knowledge, Strength, Integrity”. It is the alias of Olajide Olatunji, a 26-year-old from Watford, who happens to be one of the most successful YouTubers in the history of YouTube – a product and exemplar of our very online culture. (Friends call him JJ.) More than 20m people subscribe to his main YouTube channel, which he registered in 2008, when he was 15 and still at school and uploading videos of himself playing Fifa. This was before most of us, least of all grown-ups, came to realise that recording yourself playing video games in your bedroom might actually turn out to be lucrative. “I have African parents,” Olatunji says. “They wanted me to be the kind of person who becomes a doctor.” When he was asked to leave school, at 16, acrimoniously (grades troubles), family relationships became strained, though his parents needn’t have worried. At the time of writing, Olatunji’s videos have been viewed more than 5 billion times. He has 5.7m followers on Twitter and an Instagram audience of 8m. Even his secondary YouTube channel has 10m subscribers. At a moment when numbers like these really seem to matter – culturally, financially, anthropologically – Olatunji is overloaded with them.
Olatunji’s fans are mostly young people; he is as recognisable to teenagers as Tom Hanks is to the rest of us. My young cousins (13 and 14) adore him, partly because they have grown up with him – he has been a regular presence on the various screens of their lives, much like their actual friends. Sometimes his celebrity can seem intense. In one of Olatunji’s recent lockdown videos, a young fan shaved off his right eyebrow on camera, having announced he would “do anything” if Olatunji followed him on Twitter. (The playground cachet of having a YouTube celebrity follow you on social media is enormous.) Three million people have watched that video, which is typical of other recent KSI videos: loud, quick-fire, extremely high-energy, slightly naughty, filmed from his central London bedroom, which is familiar to regular viewers and nothing fancy, decor-wise. Across all of this content he is rarely anything other than greatly enthused, and his enthusiasm is engaging and fun and just about dopey enough to be endearing. He is not reserved. He is the opposite of reserved.
YouTube has made Olatunji rich. At 26, he owns several homes. “Money gravitates towards me,” he says. “I’m in a position now where I don’t have to worry about that side of things.” The reason for our chat, however, is neither YouTube, nor money, but a new endeavour: a solo rap album, Dissimulation, out next week. Olatunji explains the title as “the ability to hide one’s true feelings. Obviously, a lot of people see me as KSI,” he says, but KSI is “a character” – an oversized version of his true self, which, he says, is actually more withdrawn, almost introverted. Often people struggle to see the difference between the flashy exterior and the taciturn interior. “It’s like I put on a suit,” he says, of becoming KSI, “and I feel more powerful.”
So many social media people try to hop on to music, and it never works.
The bravado of the KSI character is present on the new album. Like plenty of rap records, it is heavy on the macho. But there is also a more authentic version of himself packed into the music. “I want to show more of who I am,” he says. “As in JJ, my personal side, how I feel about certain things.” Olatunji was a softly spoken, nerdy kid, and as he grew up those traits never totally disappeared. “I’m actually quite quiet,” he says. “I’m not really out there. But that’s a side I hardly show. Nobody wants to be too vulnerable. Nobody wants to show too much. But I feel like this is something my audience will respect, and it will bring them closer to me, show them I’m human – I do have feelings.”
This isn’t the first time Olatunji has released music. He began writing and recording rap tracks almost as soon as he became a YouTube sensation, sometimes under a label, often independently, with varying degrees of success. He has had Top 40 hits (four from Dissimulation so far), but he has also made musical wrecks that have been roundly, painfully torn apart on social media. In a recent video, he spent half an hour rating every song he’s ever made – some 30 or so – using an idiosyncratic scale, from “GOD” (musical genius) down to “meh…” (regrettable) and “Stinker” (you get the idea). He declared the majority of his songs “Bangers”, but he also dumped a load into the “Stinker” category. “I’ve made some dreadful music,” he says now. “I’ve made songs I regret. I’m like, ‘Why did I make that? It’s terrible!’” He shrugs. “It’s a learning process. The more you practise, the better you get.”
Olatunji describes completing the album, last month, as “a surreal moment”. He didn’t experience apprehension, as you might expect, given that he is a YouTuber releasing a rap album. All he felt was tremendous excitement. “If anything, I’m in awe of what I’ve created,” he says. He thinks it shows layers, that it proves, beyond reasonable doubt, his musical ability. “Lyrically, you know, I bring it… Like, I think this album is going to surprise a lot of people.”
He grew up listening to rap, mainly from America, but as a kid he never felt any great desire to make his own. Music, he says, is “just, like, a hobby,” by which he means he is doing it for no other reason than because he finds it creatively fulfilling. “A lot of musicians, they drop their album and they go on tour, and that’s how they make their money. But I’ve already made my money! This is about me doing what I enjoy. I can do a tour at the end of the year. I can do a tour next year. I might not even do a tour.” He is at pains to emphasise that releasing one album does not make him a musician. Yet at the same time, he’s no longer just a YouTuber. Generally, he finds definition unhelpful. “I’m an entertainer,” he explains. “I’m fluid. I’m just… everything.”
Olatunji does not consider himself especially lucky on the talent front. There are plenty of people with more natural ability, he thinks. Instead, “I see myself as someone who works hard.” Is rapping easy? Of course not! Can you learn to rap well just with hard work? Surely there must be at least some talent. He is aware that, because of his position and his lack of obvious musical chops, his album will face scepticism – that every verse and chorus will be dissected not just by fans but also by critics and then praised or condemned and either way commented on over and over and over again, very much in public. Even his superfans will have mixed feelings. From Twitter recently: “I won’t even lie KSI just dropped a banger and usually his songs suck 💀.” Also from Twitter: “KSI too rich for people to tell him to stop making music 💔.”
None of this seems to trouble him. “I came from YouTube,” he says. “So, instantly, I know a lot of people won’t see me as, like, a real musician. They see me as this person who, because I’ve got a large audience, that’s the only reason people listen to my music.” He’s not sure if that’s fair. “I guess it’s fair,” he says. And then: “Nah. You know what? It’s not fair to say that. I’ve put in as much work as any other musician. If anything, I’ve had more to prove than normal.”
Olatunji isn’t the first YouTuber to attempt the leap from video platform to actual record label release, and he is aware that crossover success – unless you are Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran or Shawn Mendes, celebrities who turned to YouTube with music careers in mind, and not as a kind of afterthought – is rare. “There are so many social media people – ‘influencers’ – who’ve tried to hop on to music. And it never works out. You can’t just do music like that. It’s a process. It takes time. That’s why I’ve never released a solo album before. I wasn’t ready. But, you know, there was a moment when I was like, ‘Yes, I’m ready to release an album now. This is the time.’”
In 2013, Olatunji was accused of verbally abusing staff in a video he made at a popular gamer convention. Bored of making Fifa content, and when he was not producing videos with his friends and posting them under the Sidemen handle, his output had become increasingly brash and vulgar. He made a series of “rape face” videos; he referred to girls as “sluts”. (One website described his approach as “shock comedy”, which is probably an understatement.) In the 2013 video taken at the gamer convention, he sidled up to a stranger and asked where her breasts were, because “I can’t see them.” In other conversations, he cut people off to tell them they were boring. In one confusing clip, he asked a woman to name her favourite STI. Hesitantly, she said, “chlamydia”, to which Olatunji replied, “Is that because you have it?”
Olatunji apologised for the video, removed it from YouTube and, in a statement, requested that people move on. He was also chastised by Microsoft, with whom he’d developed a fruitful relationship as an event performer (“they sent me Xboxes”), and other brands were encouraged to cut ties. Olatunji regrets the behaviour. “Obviously I’m not proud of it,” he says. “But whenever you post something on the internet, it’s there forever. So you can hide from it, pretend it doesn’t exist. Or, you know, hit it head on, realise why it was a mistake.”
Olatunji has since addressed it head on. The confusing thing at the time was, whenever he posted these kinds of videos, they became tremendously popular. “People loved it,” he says. “You know, it shows in the views and the likes and the comments – everything was super-positive. So I was like, ‘Cool, this is the norm.’ It’s only when you step outside the bubble that you realise, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. I’m disrespecting people for likes.’” He says that, at the time, he didn’t really understand. “You’ve got to remember, I was a kid. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t get the whole fame thing. People came up to me to say: ‘Hey, I’m a big fan of your videos.’ Really? It’s just me in my room!”
In a roundabout way, the album is borne out of this period. For six months in 2017, Olatunji left YouTube, quit social media and withdrew almost completely from the public eye. “I needed a break,” he says. “I felt I wasn’t making content for me. I was making the content other people wanted. And I kind of got sick of doing that. Sick of things in general. I needed to just be by myself. See my friends. See the world. Enjoy my life. Rather than slaving away churning out content.” When he resumed, six months later, he approached making things with a different mindset. “I had the break to find out who I was. And what I wanted in this world. And, over the years, I’ve honed who I truly want to be.” The album, he says, is “just a progression of that.”
Recently, a fan noticed Olatunji taking his daily dose of exercise and asked, as if waking from a dream, “Are you real?” Olatunji’s music is meant for people like him – super-engaged young people. “I’m trying to empower them,” he says. “I don’t rap about trying to kill people. I don’t rap about drugs. I rap about things that are personal to me. I’m just trying, a lot of the time, to get a positive message out.” When, last year, he took part in a high-spectacle boxing match against Logan Paul, a rival YouTuber, Olatunji hoped to raise awareness of the benefits of exercise, rather than, say, the fact that a boxer’s ultimate aim is to beat another human to the canvas. Most of the time his positive messages make it through all of the chatter, but sometimes he misfires. In the lead-up to the boxing match, Olatunji announced he planned to “fucking kill” his opponent, a statement for which he later publicly apologised.
Olatunji can find his influence a heavy load to bear. Of his young fanbase, he admits, “It’s cool! It’s also… It’s interesting, because it puts me into a position where I guess I’m seen as a role model. It’s a responsibility. Sometimes, when I think about, it can be quite daunting to know that people are engaged with me to a point where they look up to me. Where they think: ‘I want to be like him.’” How can someone be a role model to young people when they are a young person themselves? Though he is older now and, as he tells it, a kind of force for good, he remains cautious. “You know, I’m human,” he says. “I’m going to make mistakes.”
Culled from the Guardian