Why it’s worth trying to understand KSI, YouTube’s most controversial star

22-year-old Olajide Olatunji, aka KSI, has racked up billions of views for his videos, yet journalists regard him with derision and bewilderment. Is there more to him than meets the eye?

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The grown-up world is still not sure what to do with YouTubers. Theirs is a starkly divided sort of superstardom: in a recent video charting a week in his unusual life, 22-year-old Olajide Olatunji, better known as KSI, leans out of a taxi as it passes a group of young teenage boys in school uniform. Their panicked, elated reaction calls to mind the crowds magnetised to The Beatles at the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night – the boys chase the car, driven frantic by an urge to connect with or be near to Olatunji, who presumably knows that if they were ten years older they might not recognise him at all.

This is because despite his 10 million YouTube subscribers, despite a Variety survey earlier this year naming him the number one celebrity among American teens, KSI is not a household name. His enormous online success (he’s currently approaching 2 billion views on his main YouTube channel) is confined to a young internet audience, and has been gained at the cost of mainstream controversy (sexist content in his early videos in particular has lead to Olatunji being dropped from promotional campaigns by Microsoft). And so, for now, the grown-up world has tried putting him in a book: I Am A Bellend.

I Am A Bellend (or I Am A Tool in the US) is released this week, and is described by its publishers as “an all-out assault on the online universe”, although really it’s more like a Christmas annual. There are themed chapters illustrated with bright layouts, colourful cartoons and scores of posed pictures of Olatunji in various costumes. It’s a design that sits queasily with the sex-obsessed content – Tinder tips and sexting advice delivered in a style that reminds me of nothing so much as my copy of Russ Abbot’s Fun Book from 1990, and serves to highlight the uncomfortable fact that Olatunji is delivering explicit material to an audience younger and more impressionable than he or YouTube might like to admit.

To get it out of the way – yes, the book is bad. To fill 200 pages the remit is stretched to encompass the entire internet, rather than Olatunji’s actual area of expertise. It’s no surprise that the sections on how to be a YouTuber and the mechanisms by which content creators make money from the site are, despite the funbus limitations of the format, the best by a long way. Followers of KSI’s channel will also enjoy the two-page cartoon explaining his fallout with fellow YouTuber and one-time collaborator GudjonDaniel. But then there are entire chapters filled with weak, recycled bits of internet – spreads of bad hashtags, translated emoji, social media fails, all of them the kind of content Olatunji’s audience watch his videos in order to avoid, here served up uselessly on paper.

Even worse are the sections on relationships and grooming, which swing from straightforwardly moronic (“I’m a man, for fuck’s sake” the book says of Olatunji’s basic beauty regime, “I got shit to do”) to an MRA-lite view of dating (Tinder is “a numbers game” where “women have all the power”). The result is grimy, patronising and irrelevant. I would liken it to a conversation on a range of tedious subjects with a post-adolescent who is barely informed about any of them, but it’s unclear how much of the book was ghost written by the author James Leighton (the official nomenclature seems to be that he “worked on the book” with Olatunji) so there’s a looming feeling that you’re actually in conversation with someone pretending to be a barely-informed post-adolescent, which is, impressively, even worse. Even committed fans will struggle – fans like my 13-year-old son, who read the book as soon as it arrived. “Plastic,” was his verdict. “4/10.”

Clearly, putting him in a book – at least this book – is not the right thing to have done with Olatunji. Everything bad about it serves to underline that YouTube has given us a new kind of performer, as well as a new kind of audience, and certainly a new kind of place for the two to meet and interact. There is nothing in I Am A Bellend, which struggles throughout to recapture the swagger and ease of Olatunji’s voice, that wouldn’t be better said aloud by him, in a video. 

This is not, perhaps, a surprise, but it is a shame. Olatunji is better than this. The standard position on KSI among the journalists and games industry people I know is one of derision and bewilderment. It’s fashionable to hate him and his work – with some justification, as reflected in the worst parts of I Am A Bellend. Especially in his earlier videos Olatunji would talk about, and sometimes to, women as if they weren’t people. A video of him at the 2012 Eurogamer Expo, a public event held in Earl’s Court, showed him motorboating one woman promoting a game (after her permission was stiffly given, on camera) and asking another “Where have your tits gone?” This apparently crossed some line of his own – the video was eventually taken down, and Olatunji received a lifetime ban from the event – but that strand of blaring dick-centric outrage hasn’t completely disappeared from his work.

But – and this is a dangerous but – I like him. Not entirely or unambiguously, but I like him. Aside from the talent agents and publicists who occasionally try to translate his online following into TV or promotional appearances, it’s rare to hear people other than young fans acknowledge how good he is. Olatunji output is funny, and sly. He still edits his own videos, which have a very particular style – abrupt and caustic, undercutting expectation as if bored with the video it thinks you might be watching – that hide intelligence in clumsiness. 

And while Olatunji’s videos can be sexist and stupid, they can also unexpectedly sensitive and generous. To see him starstruck as he meets Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson, or explaining to his audience that he's broken up with his girlfriend but still thinks she's amazing, is to come away with a very different impression of him than a raving FIFA clown millionaire. There is, after all, something about the fabric of YouTube which lends itself to reflection and self-awareness. Success is often built on collaboration (Olatunji has, like many big YouTubers, been generous in supporting the channels and careers of others, including the ‘Sidemen’, a sort of KSI satellite group) and video formats like “KSI reacts to old videos” and “KSI Googles himself” mean constant monitoring of past self, and outside impressions of self.

More than anything, these two sides of KSI – the stuff that makes me wince, the stuff that makes me laugh – remind me of dealing with my 13-year-old, and of the peculiar, difficult splice of child and adult my son contains right now, bellowing and obstinate one moment, collapsing on me for a hug the next. Watching Olatunji react to his old videos – mortified, in one instance, by his pre-fame choice of trainers (“Did I get them out of a bin or something?!”) – is like looking through an awkward family album. KSI's stardom has been a public adolescence that has played out on a platform that not only turns people into stars while they're young enough to make stupid mistakes, away from the usual frameworks that advise or editorialise them away, but actually thrives on that feeling of unchecked authenticity and personality.

That, certainly, is why the book doesn’t work. It fumbles the intimacy and independence which give YouTube stars their powerful draw. And that is why, while I don't think we should absolve Olatunji, I think we should make the effort to understand him – and to understand that he's too good to fade away.

I Am a Bellend by KSI is published by Orion (208pp, £14.99)