- September 18, 2020
If you’d told me a year ago that Fenty Beauty was going to partner with a Kenyan influencer, I would have told you to sit down, give me your car keys and drink some water. Elsa Majimbo’s comedy is a unique mix of sarcasm, wit, godlike confidence, and by her own admittance, terrible editing. I have come to love her in the way that I love all my favourite YouTubers. She makes me laugh and we both agree that crisps are an elite snack.
Elsa apologizes for nothing and reminds me that I shouldn’t either.
But the first time I ever heard about her was on one of those #KOTloyals days when some poor victim has been deemed worthy of a dragging and all you can do is watch. It was Elsa’s turn but it was clear that her only mistake was trying to do her own thing. Let’s talk about that.
First, a look at how sustained social media fame happens in Kenya.
The parable of the adman and the influencer
A few years ago, millions of Kenyans purchased their first smartphone and each new user was suddenly a prospective consumer. Advertisers had not properly prepared for this. So when businesses inevitably approached them for ways to reach these new consumers via their new phones, they had to think fast. The admen went to facebook and twitter to learn what they could about Kenyans’ behaviours on the platforms. There they found a small group of people who were already quite popular and gaining. So, the admen hired these popular people and asked them to create a network of similarly popular people to sell products for their clients. Thus, the first influencers were born.
Since then the influencer – advertiser ecosystem has been a vicious cycle. Those with access to ad money in turn get access to the most popular (and most beautiful) influencers who in turn do all they can to maintain relationships with the money people. That’s the game and it means that a handful of people decide who lives or dies in the social media scene.
Elsa refused to play the game.
Not only did she split from the established comedic formats but she also split from the established influencer path. For all the people who were dragging her on social media then, she did not have a chance at success. She was not allowed in and with the dismissive way she reacted to her haters, she never would be. But what they thought would be her downfall was actually the very thing that caused her success. Soon after, Elsa found her people, half a continent away and (let’s just say it) with significantly more buying power than any large Kenyan audience she could have gotten after years of trying to conform.
She has been featured by the Guardian, NYT and CNN. She has several deals with big regional and global brands and it seems that things will only get better. Her success is proof that there is room for creatives to break away from the mould and do wonderful things. That alone is cause to celebrate. And we have celebrated, upon news of the Fenty deal, Kenyans took to Twitter to congratulate Elsa and give her her flowers. Lol no. We pulled up to Fenty’s replies to make bad jokes and hate.
The reaction to her Fenty video looks a lot like the reaction another young creator got when her own video went viral. Azziad Nasenya’s TikTok of Femi One’s hit song ‘Utawezana’ was all Kenyan IG talked about for weeks. At first, because we loved it and then because…. we hated it. Parodies of Azziad showed up that were poorly done and intended to mock her. Parodies followed in the wake of Elsa’s Fenty video as well. There is a long tradition of male comedians pretending to be women in an attempt at comedy but no matter what you think of that, these responses stink of sexism. Both are young women, receiving acclaim for their work and receiving hate for it (mostly from men). You will remember when Azziad’s rate card leaked and she was accused of being greedy by influencers who can only dream of matching her reach.
We did it to Larry Madowo too. The Trend was a new show combining humour and social commentary. He was taking a huge risk as a journalist and trying something new. If you searched his name on twitter or Facebook then you would think that Larry was the incompetent head of some gossip rag. The attacks were personal and deeply offensive.
We have to remember that a lot of this is about power and money. Your money and their power. There is a battle for your attention on the social internet and whoever has it or can keep it the longest, wins. Elsa and Azziad have the attention of their audiences but they are independent, they exist outside of the influencer game so cannot be manipulated by the gatekeepers.
Harder to understand is that this is also about what seems to be a national contempt for those who are openly ambitious, those who will not settle for the limits others set for them. Dreamers are unpopular in Kenya and that is tragic. I hope that Elsa inspires all her peers to be as fearless and effortlessly self-assured in all they do. As for the rest of us, I’ll ask what one twitter user did months ago, “Will you die if you do not reply?”
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