KSI runs a media empire in his room. As his main channel’s 20 million subscribers know on YouTube, the fourth is a simple, unassuming white booth somewhere in central London.
The floor is usually full of clothes, cereal bowls, and packaging. The blinds are almost always closed. The only indications of his wealth are a Pele shirt on the wall and, since June of this year, a silver disk in recognition of his growing musical career.
But in this room he became one of the biggest stars on the internet. Here he films himself playing video games, reacts to memes and knocks. And here he has amassed a fortune of £ 12 million (R $ 89 million) over the past 12 years.
KSI’s real name is Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji, although his friends call him JJ. He was born in 1993 to a few Nigerian immigrants. His mother worked as a social worker, his father was the manager of a bingo hall, but they saved enough to send him to Berkhamsted School, where annual fees are currently £ 21,000 per student.
He did well at first, scoring three aces, five bs, and a c on the tests. He invented rape to help him study. He recorded some of them and published them on his first and now defunct YouTube channel.
“Electricity is the flow of electrons”, he sings in “Physics Rap”. In another title he talks about the Haber process to study for a chemistry test: “My God, man, those rhymes were embarrassing,” says KSI, “but at the time I thought I was going to kill him.”
Videos can still be found on Google with a little creativity, but KSI prefers you not to worry about that. “I’m trying to delete it from the internet, but it’s annoying because I don’t know the password or email address for this channel on YouTube,” he laughs. “So I can’t delete it and it stays there.”
After the school tests, Olatunji registered his main channel on YouTube and named himself KSI, which are the initials of the words Knowledge, Strength, Integrity (in English: Knowledge, Strength, Integrity).
The first few videos basically show him playing Fifa and Call Of Duty, but his laid-back personality and boundless enthusiasm were superb to see. In two years he was making £ 1,500 a month (more than some of his teachers), but his grades were gradually falling.
“It was one of those times when you had to choose one or the other and I chose YouTube. At the time, my parents were strongly against it.” They were still waiting for him to become a lawyer or a doctor (“typical of African parents,” they say) and tried to hide the KSI XBox and shut down the internet.
It turned out they didn’t have to worry. KSI may not have been involved in the school, but he knew the value of hard work. “I think hard work wins talent 100% of the time,” he told Louis Theroux ‘Grounded podcast earlier this year.
“I’ve always said that I’m not talented … I only work so hard that I can reach a level similar to that of talented people and then go beyond that.” His pace of work is certainly amazing. He publishes 15 to 20 new videos per month on his secondary channel, JJ Olatunji, and reserves the main account for music. His videos have been viewed more than 5 billion times.
Most of your videos are funny and harmless: film your reaction to funny YouTube videos or answering fan questions (“Who’s your hairdresser?” Someone asked). But the content wasn’t always so innocent. In 2013 he was accused of verbally abusing employees at a gaming convention. He also lost a sponsorship deal with Microsoft after posting a series of videos entitled “Face Rape,” in which he turned to the camera with big eyes and big smiles in various situations.
Then he apologized and said he deleted those videos and said he was “disgusted” with them. In a recent question-and-answer session, a fan accused him of giving in to the pressures of the culture of rejection and encouraged him to return to the old days. “I’m not interested in the cancellation culture,” he replied. “But the idea that I was doing these old videos? No …”
Instead, KSI focused on another area: boxing. In 2018, he challenged his YouTube colleague Logan Paul to an amateur fight that was broadcast to over 20 million people worldwide. It ended in a draw, so the two men met for a rematch in Los Angeles. When KSI won, he took home a seven-digit payment package.
Perhaps more importantly, he decided to enter the ring with American rappers Rick Ross and Lil Baby on one of his own songs, a hip-hop track called “Down Like That.” After his win, the song climbed the charts in the UK, leading KSI to its first hit in the top 10. Not bad considering its previous nine singles didn’t make the top 40. Since then, he has had two more top 10 hits.
Success is proof that he’s constantly improving – although there are pros and cons to having him in the spotlight. “A big disadvantage is that a lot of people can see the garbage – and they judge me for it,” he says. “But the good thing is that people can see me making progress. They realize that I’m not just following the trend and that music has always been my passion, so they respect it a lot more.”
In fact, his followers are the best barometer of his new song. “If I make a terrible song, they’ll let me know. They won’t like these videos, they’ll make memes of me for making such a bad song,” he says. “But if I can produce something good, they’ll let me know. And that’s why I can get this kind of music into the charts.”
Their last single, released in late October, has so far received approval. “Really Love” is a track in collaboration with musician Craig David and DJ Digital Farm Animals. It would have been a perfect anthem for the summer vacation if 2020 had allowed someone to go on the summer vacation. But KSI is not interested in that. He’s happy to be on the same recording with Craig David.
He says he heard David’s songs in the car with his parents 20 years ago. “So I was like, ‘How did I get here?’” He proudly shows the star’s phone number in his diary and says the two have become friends since recording. “Certain people I’ve worked with, man, I really had to work on it, but it’s so easy with Craig,” he says. “He’s the coolest guy and great fun to work with.”
The song was high on the iTunes list on Friday morning (30). But when KSI’s music career begins, he promises not to get carried away with fame. “It’s crazy, I don’t even go to the studios,” he says. “I often repeat a levada (electronically) and compose in my room.”
BBC News Brazil