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Talking race, pop culture and YouTube with Khadija Mbowe

Khadija Mbowe
John Riley
Khadija Mbowe
Khadija Mbowe

Y'all already know the baddest show about race (if we do say so ourselves). But even we have to admit, we're not the only cool people on the Internet talking about race and identity. Journalists, storytellers, creators and educators all over social media have been making waves in the past year, using TikTok, Instagram and YouTube to explore how race shows up in every aspect of our lives. So as the year comes to a close, we wanted to put a spotlight on Khadija Mbowe – one of the people who's been helping shape these conversations.

Mbowe is YouTube's self-described "cool, fun millennial aunty". Their videos, which blend humor, singing, and careful research, take on everything from race- and queer-baiting in Bridgerton to the scrutiny of Black women's confidence to the history of dog-whistle politics.

In 2020, Mbowe graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in music (hence the song-filled videos). Their original plan was to become a jazz singer. But something clicked when they started making YouTube videos. It was a hobby that combined so many of their interests: pop culture, sociology, race, media. And eventually, that "hobby" took on a life of its own; after Mbowe's channel was cited by another popular YouTuber, "I went from eight hundred to a hundred thousand subscribers in like, two weeks or less," Mbowe says. That number has only grown – today, Mbowe's channel boasts almost half a million "nieces and nephews."

I sat down with Mbowe to talk about their channel, their audience, and their goals in talking about race on YouTube. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Aja Drain: How did you get started making this YouTube channel?

Khadija Mbowe: I started out recording stuff on my phone during the pandemic because I was bored. Being from a classical music background, I didn't realize that I wasn't able to let out my creative feelers as much as I could once I started playing around with YouTube. In classical music, you're just singing the same works over and over again based on your voice type. Unless you're a composer, you're not composing your own stuff. I'm someone who needs rules to an extent, but I need a lot more freedom. YouTube just kind of was that.

I love the culture that we all live in. I love examining the media, because I've always loved TV shows and movies. My dream job is like an Issa Rae meets Lena Waithe meets Keke Palmer meets Donald Glover. And I don't even know what that looks like, but I just have so many interests. Those are the people that I feel the most like – oh, with a splash of Noname. [So on my channel,] I basically talk about a lot of pop culture, but I try to talk about it through a sociology-meets-media-studies lens.

Your personality really shines through in these videos, and it's clear from the comments that people feel really connected to you. One of your more personal videos was about coming out – in it, you describe how racial and cultural identity can affect someone's decision to come out. And in your own story, you talk about what it was like to come out to your family this past year. How do you determine which parts of yourself you want to share publicly?

For a while I wasn't doing videos speaking about my experience – I was just kind of talking like a professor. And as the year has gone on, as I've kind of started to develop a tiny bit of trust for the audience, I started to let them in more.

I did want to tell my coming out story, because I think it's important, especially for young Black queers. We barely get to see ourselves represented. My dad is Muslim and West African, and somebody needs to hear that, because they feel like no West African Muslim parent is ever going to be understanding.[Editor's note: In the video, Mbowe explains that their dad was "so chill about it," which made the process of coming out much easier.]

It's been hard. I over-explain myself and I'm a recovering people-pleaser, so I get really anxious about people thinking badly about me, or thinking that I'm trying to hurt people's feelings. Because that's never my intention.

Who do you imagine your audience to be?

I can't even picture, it's like blobs – blobs of shapes that look like humans. So it's not a demographic that I'm imagining. It's more of a feeling of, "Hey, have you ever stopped to consider the sociological implications of this thing that we see in the world – this pop cultural event, this pop culture person? Have you considered how they're treated, how they're received by the media? Have you ever stopped to think about what that means, how that manifests? How are you part of that? How are you complicit in it? How are you perpetuating it? How are you fighting against it? How are you just like, lying on the ground, looking at the ceiling, wondering, why am I here?"

That's literally how I'm approaching it, because there is no point in me coming in here and trying to wag my finger at my audience. I'm not trying to act holier-than-thou or anything like that.

I will admit, I have a specific fondness in my heart for young Black girls. They are the ones that I want to protect. I'm not going to knuckle fight with you about that. If I feel like you're doing something that is going to participate in possibly harming young Black girls, I'm going to bring it up. And I don't always get it right. But I'm just saying, if everyone is blobs, there's a seven-year-old Black girl that's standing there looking at me.

What do you hope people take away from the videos you make?

If they get nothing else from interacting with me, one thing would hopefully be that you have way more agency than you think. If you have racist thoughts, homophobic thoughts, bigoted, xenophobic type of thoughts, that is OK. A lot of us, most of us, have not great beliefs, because of the world that we are born into. There's a channel on YouTube called Costuming Drama [aka Noelle], and she has said, "You're not responsible for the first thought that pops into your head, you're responsible for the second one." And your action. I add in "and your action" afterward, because that's what you can control.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aja Drain