Tuesday 25th July 2017,
Televisual

YouTube’s Black Stars: A Look Back (and Ahead)

Over a year ago I conducted a little more than a dozen interviews with black vloggers on YouTube. While I never submitted the paper (draft version here) to an academic publication, I did use some of the interviews for an article on The Root. That article focused on the more popular vloggers, but recently I’ve been wondering what happened to the rest of the people I interviewed. Have they grown their audiences? Are they making money?

YouTube remains a mixed bag for minority vloggers, though I tend to air on the side of optimism. Several personalities have achieved stable and even growing audiences, as you’ll see below!

The most popular person on YouTube right now is nigahiga, who is Asian-American, as is Kev Jumba and numerous others among the site’s most subscribed. Gay (male) performers like Michael Buckley and Chris Crocker are also enormously popular. Among black performers, while less represented in the very top (aside from musicians SouljaBoy and David Sides), numerous comedians, from Imon Crosson, Asa Thibodaux, Bryan Oji, and David Spates, have racked up millions of views with sketch comedy and pop culture criticism. Most everyone listed above have 50,000+ subscribers, which I assume allows them to make a significant amount of money off their channels (whether it’s enough to live on depends).

Xem Van Adams is an up-and-coming vlogger who's distinguished himself with frank discussions about sexuality, both his own and society's at large, a discussion many black vloggers choose not to have publicly.

Still, there are a lot of talented people of color who don’t quite break through — disproportionately, it seems, these vloggers are women. Years ago, TokenBlackChic appeared poised to enter the site’s highest tier, but she has largely stopped posting. That said, other women of color, like Christine Gambito (HappySlip) and Michelle Phan (beauty) and to a lesser extent Alexis K Tylor, do rather well for themselves.

Here’s a look at how some of the vloggers I interviewed in 2008 are doing:

Without a doubt, the YouTuber I was most surprised by was Alonzo Lerone, who, when I interviewed him back in 2008, was posting about personal, serious issues and looking for a way to broaden his fan base. The blasian (Filipino and black) North Carolina-based vlogger had a few thousand subscribers at the time but had ambitious plans:

“I learned that you have to broaden your fan base and your availability,” he told me, citing Stickam, blogTV, Twitter and Facebook. Sticking to his word, he’s now on those sites, twittering and hosting live webcasts. His goal was “not to be famous, but to be helping the most people out that I can.”

Now he has over 28,000 followers. How did he do it? It seems he made a very astute shift to pop culture commentary, specifically, music video and TV reviews. These reviews make up the bulk of his popular videos, many of them million-viewers hits, including a remake of a Beyonce song, done in drag. This was a smart move, given that music videos are the most popular form on the site.

Jia, of MissJia.com and JiaTV, has always been one of my favorites. She’s outspoken, progressive and political. Typically dressed down in her videos — so people focus on what she’s saying not how pretty she is — she’s posted on everything from the importance of getting tested to representations of black women. “I’m just a firm believer in the principle that if you have the voice and opportunity to speak on it, use it, especially if its a social issue that pertains to you and others you know,” she told me.

When I interviewed her, she was already doing quite well, with a fairly popular blog and around 15,000 subscribers. She’s maintaining that audience and even doing some new things.

Recently she got a major scoop and outed a professional football player, Ovie Mughelli, publishing documents on her blog from his jilted ex-lover to prove his story right. And she’s getting exclusive interviews from celebs as well. Keep it up, Jia!

Infamously controversial, it seems Mr. Pregnant may have toned down a bit. A postmodern, postcolonial black minstrel known for exaggerating black stereotypes and a self-professed “Intellectual Chameleon” and “Internet Phenomenon,” he nonetheless seems to be focusing less of ridiculous histrionics and instead on his music and losing weight in 2010.

Mr. Pregnant has managed to grow his audience to around 40,000, up about 40% from when I interviewed him, but probably down from where he could’ve been before YouTube shut down his channel awhile ago. He’s done something very interesting with his website, changing it from a home for his music and videos to a forum page for fans and user rants. He appears to now fully embrace his identity as a social canvas, a place for people to work through (or reinforce) their views on race, nationality, gender and sexuality.

Tonya, of TonyaTKO, has continued to do what she does best: talking about her life and about “life” more broadly, in long, sparsely edited vlogs.

The key to her success is simple: herself. She has a warm, best friend personality that every talk show personality needs (epitomized, of course, by Oprah). Since our interview, she has almost doubled her audience. Good for her!

She stays positive –“people did not like negative videos. When you put out negativity, you get negativity back” — and it seems to be her one rule. Privately, however, she was aware of the seemier side of YouTube: “Every day I get called a nigger,” she told me. “People called me a bitch and whore, all kinds of stuff.” Misogyny and the objectification of women didn’t bother her too much, but it’s certainly there: “People on YouTube love them some breasts…YouTube is just notorious for breast hunters.”

Marcus Bellamy, whose channel is WalkingWater, is a dancer (among other things) living in New York City. I suppose his blog initially gained attention for various videos of him dancing shirtless, which, if you watch them, you can see why they’re popular. “I’m a little bit of an exhibitionist,” he acknowledged in our interview.

Since then, he’s beefed up — pun intended — his channel with “real life vlogs” of him talking about his life and various issues. His productivity appears to have paid off to the tune of several thousand new subscribers.

“I follow my own personal, inner being,” he told me. “I just say what’s on my mind, just express how I feel, with whatever images I have to do that.”

Last time I checked, Bellamy has a collab channel with his boyfriend, Myk Staples, called ALotAboutUs.

Barrett (BarrettTV) is a sketch comedian, who, while still far from Alphacat levels, has managed to maintain a slowly growing audience of now 7,000 people. Barrett mixes sketches, spoofs and antics (his latest is a quest to be on the Wendy Williams Show), with the occasional vlog about various social issues. Perhaps his most popular vlogs address his seemingly ambivalent sexuality, an ambiguity with which he plays coy, such as deflecting specious rumors about supposed relationships with other vloggers including the more popular Durand (AlcoholHarmony) or less popular Johnathan (BlasianFMA).

“I try not to do videos that are too personal. I want to keep a line between YouTube Barrett and real life Barrett. People don’t need to know all of my business,” he told me.

He does, however, ascribe to a label to his sexuality, unlike many other of the vloggers I interviewed: “But I don’t have to make a formal announcement video just because people are so damn nosey…Ain’t no secret…I have nothing to hide. But if people are so concerned about what I do then they can follow the instructions on my page on how to find out. Although, unless you are looking for a date, IDK why it is so damn important to these weirdos.”

Ateya (Ateyaaa) is among the most popular beauticians on YouTube, a genre already crowded with its own stars. What Ateya does, along with other beauty specialists like Ti (LoveltyTi2002), is tailor her advice toward black women, focusing, unlike others, on hair. “I’m strictly on here to help all young women, but frankly, women of color,” she said. “At first there weren’t many black girls on YouTube…They’re really coming up with a lot more black women,” she added, citing makeup specialist Lauren (QueenofBlendingMUA) and others whose accounts are now sadly closed.

Ateya’s subscriber base has risen considerably, multiplying many times over to a surprising 46,000. Well done!

Technically, Bjorn Duphot‘s channel, AmorMuse, is a music channel, but he mixes in vlogs and personal politics (occasionally) into his routine. While not as a popular as some of the other performers I spoke to, he has grown his base from a few hundred to well over one thousand.

His “claim to fame” is probably his voice: a very high countertenor (entering alto or soprano range). But it’s about more than his voice. In obvious and not-so-obvious ways Bjorn puts much of his life on YouTube (with over 600 videos and counting). “I pour so much into it…I’m recording my life here. This is a part of my life,” he said, referencing a video he made the day he had to put his cat to sleep.

Recently, however, he’s recently been doing many more vlogs and random videos, like a workout video with personal trainer Sean Kan.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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