For every breakout YouTube star such as Souljah Boy and Susan Boyle, there are thousands of would-be-video diarists, or vloggers, uploading away in obscurity. The lucky vloggers, such as “Fred,” gain more than 1 million followers. Played by 15-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, “Fred” banks six figures from major product placements and revenue from ads on his videos—short zany pieces with Cruikshank acting out his character, an ADD-afflicted 6-year-old too often left to his own devices. Ditto for Michael Buckley, another top user.
A few black vloggers are beginning to make a splash on the scene. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy. “YouTube is very, very white,” explained Tonya, the blogger from TonyaTKO, who has 22,000 subscribers. With so many videos being uploaded, vloggers vie for prime placement on YouTube’s home page. “It’s very hard for black people to get seen on YouTube.” Like the many types of media that came before YouTube, the black vloggers who get noticed can often fit a stereotype. From the bizarre to the hilarious to the inspirational, here’s a sampling of some of the up-and-coming black vloggers and their winning formula:
For her over 22,000 subscribers, TonyaTKO focuses on empowering people. Her often lengthy videos—any clip over five minutes is long in YouTube time, while hers are often over 10 minutes—focus on personal, political and cultural issues, but Tonya tries to keep her opinion to herself. “When you put out negativity, you get negativity back,” she told me. “I just wanted to do things that would make me laugh and make other people smile.” Even still, she recognizes you cannot stop hate on the site. “People called me … all kinds of stuff,” she told me, but she does not reciprocate. “Negativity breeds negativity.”
Mr. Pregnant inhabits more than a few stereotypes and personae, and he plays it up for the camera in a kind of post-modern minstrelsy. As one of the more popular performers on the site—over 30,000 subscribers—his dominance worries those on the site who try to counteract stereotypes. A self-described “enigma,” Mr. Pregnant is a nightmare for anyone concerned with black representation in the media. In an online interview, he told me his viewers slap him with every slur available. But, he said, “if someone called me ‘intelligent,’ I'd probably commit suicide.” Barack Obama he is not, but some would call him an artist.
B. Scott, who blogs and vlogs about lifestyle and celebrity, is arguably the most popular gay and black—of mixed race—user on YouTube. He has attracted nearly 50,000 followers and regularly nabs on-camera private chats with celebrities such as Ashanti, Jordin Sparks, Michelle Williams (Destiny’s Child) and Marcus Patrick (Days of Our Lives). His celebrity commentary and focus on personal enrichment has landed him on-air cameos on TV One. B. Scott’s channel is personal. “It’s a manifestation of my spirit,” he once said, so don’t mistake him for one of the other popular gay Internet stars: “I like Chris Crocker, and I like Perez Hilton, but I don’t feel it’s a fair comparison. I can label myself, but you don’t label me. I define me and what I think is important.”
AsaTheComic, real name Asa Thibodaux, is a Minneapolis-based comedian who rose quickly to fame on the site for his news and pop culture commentary. Asa exudes a “tell it as it is,” matter-of-fact style in his commentary. His spoof music videos, sometimes live-action, sometimes using cartoons with music from Beyoncé, Kanye West, MIA, and Akon, among others, have been viewed millions of times. One of YouTube’s more enterprising members, he has also written a book about making money on YouTube.
Along with AsaTheComic, Alphacat—real name, Iman Crosson—is one of the most popular black comedians on YouTube. What they have in common, along with most other popular users, is an intelligent and intoxicating gimmick, and an exaggerated persona infectious enough to get attention. Alphacat quickly rose to prominence with his dead-on impersonations of Barack Obama and has been voicing the president in Newsweek’s spoof series “The District,” which wrapped up at the end of March. He now regularly posts spoof videos of him as Obama, along with a few personal clips about himself. His most well-known clip, an Obama-starring remake of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” has been viewed over 11 million times.
With over 17,000 subscribers, Jia mixes political and cultural commentary—with posts on people from Chris Stokes and Chris Brown to posts about black hair, and with her personal life—she often talks about her trips to the gym and her romantic life. “I feel that I've been given the opportunity to have a platform where I am able to speak and have people listen. As a black woman with that platform, I felt obligated to speak about people and their misconceptions of other black women on the whole,” Jia told me in an interview. “I’m just a firm believer in the principle that if you have the voice and opportunity to speak on it, use it.”
Barrett is an up-and-coming YouTuber who posts parodies, skits and comic videos about pop and black culture. He also features his friends—among them Dari of Applesandmustard—and gives sincere views of politics and cultural issues from Barack Obama to gay rights. Even if, like most everyone else on YouTube, black vloggers like Barrett, Alphacat and Mr. Pregnant need to deploy histrionics to get noticed, many of them still argue they are being real, true to themselves and their viewers. “People like to assume that’s how I am all the time,” Barrett told me of his act. “It's more of a persona. I have to put on a little for the camera. But it still is really me.”
Applesandmustard, whose real name is Dari, has built her success on focusing on herself. She vlogs about her dreadlocks, her body and her opinions on topics ranging from YouTube itself to race: “I hate when people say that I’m not black enough, or that I’m white, or that I’m an Oreo. It’s dumb. So if I’m not black and I’m not white, then I guess I’m gray,” she said in one video. In many of her videos, she doesn’t do or say much of anything, garnering views on the strength of her personality alone.
Want to put a face to these usernames? Check out the "Vlogging While Black" photo gallery.
Aymar Jean Christian studies new media as a doctoral student in communication at the University of Pennsylvania.