Long Live The King: YouTube OG King Russell Is Back From A Digital Hiatus. He's Ditching Celeb Gossip And The Pressure To Post.
“The industry humbled me," the actor and comedian told Blavity.
August 06, 2021 at 5:19 pm
From Rock ‘N Roll to Southern eats, the outputs of Black creativity remind that there's no American culture without Black culture. Today, Black creators provide the laughs, language, and choreography that have shaped the digital age. But too often, their creations have become faceless pieces of language and art. In Blavity's Young, Gifted and Viral series, we'll talk to the young innovators who continue to define digital culture.
A decade ago, YouTube star King Russell enchanted subscribers with his hot takes on everything from "Kimye" to Nicki Minaj's "Itty Bitty Piggy." His award-winning Overexposed series covered the trending moments in pop culture that he and his subscribers believed were on the receiving end of a bit too much press.
It was Kanye West's infamous "Imma let you finish, but..." moment at the 2009 VMA awards that would give King his first viral moment. His reaction video to the rapper's contentious speech was the first on his channel to reach 100,000 views.
When King wasn't adding his voice to the gossip cannon, the comedian captivated subscribers with performance as characters La'Vodka, Heather-Ann and Beatrice, stars in his mini-series Really B, Really?
But that was Kingsley. Today, King says, he’s been in the influencer game long enough to know there is no such thing as harmless celebrity gossip.
“I grew up following pop culture: every awards show, event, red carpet -- I was into it all. Celebrities were larger than life, like cartoon characters on the TV. They just seemed so disassociated from reality," he explained. "And then you have the way celebrities were covered by tabloids, talk shows and outlets like VH1 My Fabulous Life and E! True Hollywood Story; it was just all a spectacle. Celebrities didn't exist as real people with real emotions, so it was just easy to comment on their life, and their decisions, and their scandals."
After spending four years away from the platform, the YouTuber told Blavity that he's relaunched with a heightened sense of self-awareness -- and empathy for public figures.
“The industry humbled me," the comedian admitted. "Being an influencer, and doing red carpets and things that YouTube allowed me to do, ultimately humanized celebrities to me, to the point where I started to feel bad because I'm like, ‘Yo, these are people just doing their jobs. They’re just singers, they’re actors. This is their passion and their talent. What gives us the right to speak on anything outside of their craft?' I don't know why people continue to treat certain people like that.”
Just after the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage, King was asked by People magazine for any advice he had for members of the LGBTQIA+ community as they processed the victory.
His counsel was straightforward: "Be yourself. And f**k everybody else."
The recommendation captures King's approach to the demands of the limelight. While the pressure to post may rule some influencers, King told Blavity that he's relished the time to himself.
“The truth is that I didn't miss anything, I didn’t miss s**t. I was really chilling,” King said with a buoyant laugh. “I can't say I’ve missed one particular thing. I definitely am more active on social media in general now, and so it's been nice to catch up on people's Instagrams.”
King, formerly known as Kingsley, says the decision to drop his stage name was a natural one. He’s 30 now, and thought it fit for his brand to reflect that. But the influencer’s updated moniker "JustKingTBH" captures more than just the reversal to his birth name. The new channel, which boasts more than 2.7 million followers and premiered its first video in May, will move away from the constraints attached to his Kingsley persona.
This time, he says, authenticity will guide him.
“For me, I think one of the biggest things is just not caring what anyone thinks. And it's easier said than done. But when I was reflecting, I realized that there's definitely been times when I felt myself slipping back into familiar content, doing things that I knew people would be happy with, even though I had outgrown it,” King went on.
What’s worse, the content creator confessed, he wasn’t even able to feign interest in the topics Kingsley felt pressured to cover.
“When I was looking back at my stuff, I could just see on my face when I was not feeling it,” he said. “I don't want to do that anymore. I'm 30 years old. I don't need to be stressing about what's trending, or trying to slip certain terminology in my videos. If I sound old, if I sound out of touch, that's totally fine, because that's what I am. So just really being true to myself and getting back to that excitement of when I think of an idea, execute it, edit it, post it and I don't care what people think. I don't try to make it digestible. That's the most important thing to me, just to put up something I’m genuinely proud of.”
A trailblazer in his early years on YouTube, King has spoken about his discomfort being one of the few Black faces online at the time. But the space has changed a lot since his 2009 launch. Today, internet users need not scroll very far to find a Black face -- whether the Blackface belongs to an actual Black person, is another matter.
Last year, beauty influencer Jackie Aina called out fellow creator Amanda Ensing for alleging that her appearance as a non- Black woman was hindering her earnings as an influencer. The exchange illuminated the larger blackfishing trend, as well as the motivation behind the style choices that would make Ensing appear more ethnic. Later in the year, two apparently Black models who appeared in an Ivy Park ad were also discovered to be non-Black.
Even from his distant vantage point, the befuddling trend hasn’t been lost on King.
“I feel like there's always been instances of other people taking our culture and blowing up with it. Recently I saw someone on Jimmy Fallon doing these dances, very much not how they were meant to be done. When I see stuff like that I just feel bad," King said. "I know how it feels to have people get platforms with content that's yours. And I don't know how to fix that. That's the problem with the internet. I remember like way back, the 'On Fleek' girl created that saying and it blew up. Like, how do you claim something as your own, and make sure that nobody else can rip that off?”
Still, ever the influencer, King finds a karmic balance in social media -- when it’s used for good.
“I'm glad that people are starting to speak up. I think one of the coolest things with social media is when people can start a viral trend or pop off a tweet, like, ‘Yo, this is the originator. This is the person that should be credited.’ And then people are kind of forced to pay attention. So it's like a double edged word in a way,” he said. “Content can get stolen, but also, right off the bat, it can get corrected.”
But King's glass-half-full perspective hasn’t kept him from deactivating his own Twitter fingers. The 30-year-old shared that these days, he’s prioritizing his mental health over trending topics. Particularly because of the likelihood for the hashtags to harbor videos of Black people being killed by police.
“With Twitter, constantly having a feed of news and then everyone's sharing the news and then thinking about the news, it's just too much. I don't need that on my mental. Sometimes even from a creative standpoint, I just feel more as though my thoughts are my own,” King explained, admitting that he logged back on to see updates on the Chauvin trial, only to be confronted with more traumatizing news.
“And even around the week of the trial, that white officer that accidentally thought her gun was a taser or something? It was starting all over," he continued. "I was like, ‘I can't do this.’ I like to be involved and outspoken, but at the same time, it just gets to be a lot. So all the breaks are beneficial for sure.”
In his time away from the camera, King says he’s developed a deeper sense of empathy for others, and a clarified sense of himself. Still, his passion for entertainment endures: he’s back in school, studying TV production from angles unexplored.
“I've gotten to host shows and different things throughout the year, but I realized that I have a genuine passion to learn how it comes together, and not necessarily from in front of the camera,” he said. “And it's not to say that my life before elevated to where I was some superstar, but I wasn't doing a lot of normal things anymore. Being an influencer, it’s all about me. I’m recording, I'm editing, I'm posting pictures to promote the videos. It's just so much focus on myself and I was tired of it. To be in school again, to be around people, felt like I was getting back to normalcy. And that made me take a step back and reevaluate what I wanted to bring to the table as I reintroduce myself back. I have a more grounded perspective.”
Although he archived all of his original Overexposed content, the vlogger said subscribers can rest assured -- Kingsley's not fully gone just yet.
“I'm definitely going to be incorporating those things into my channel. I actually looked back at Overexposed 2010 for the 10- year anniversary, so I do want to incorporate older content and use some of it as a platform to kind of have a discussion on what I’ve realized about celebrity gossip. You know, there's some videos I have that are so OD,” King laughed. “I'm just going off, starting things, and, you know, I'm not running away from it. I don't want people to think I'm like looking back hating the videos.”
With his relaunch, King said he’s already begun to marry current events with his beloved Overexposed blueprint. He’s even got a segment on white women calling the police.“I definitely just want to bring myself to the table. I’m aware now more than ever of what it means to have a platform,” he added. “When I started, internet culture was different. YouTube was just popping off. I didn't comprehend what I had. I want to speak out about things that I feel are important more so now, and I think shifting away from celebrity gossip is one step towards that. This last year has opened my eyes to so many things -- I want to be able to entertain people, but help them at the same time, and promote things that I believe need to be discussed in this day and age.”