Why Viral Stars Help, Not Hinder, UK Entertainment

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Dalia Mae

The UK is packed to the brim with young and hungry creatives aiming to make it big. Over the years, the methods through which they achieve success have transformed, and as more traditional routes like signing to a label have declined in popularity, it has been replaced by more grassroots, DIY approaches. Across music and entertainment, the apex of social media has ushered in a new type of creative—the viral star. The overnight successes who, for better or worse, invade the timeline and drill a hole into our collective memories to devastating effect. In the month of October alone, we welcomed three more online sensations with varying degrees of talent into the viral canon; Loz’s “Zeze” freestyle, Osh’s “My Yé Is Different To Your Yé”, and the highly problematic #Fraudbae rapping about his own crime. Much has been said about their respective ascents, so much so that hard-nosed veteran Chip poignantly christened them with a new title: social media artist. Well, more sarcastic than poignant. Understandably, this phenomenon will have jaded many for whom music is a source of expression and a practice of genuine passion, but it has become evident that social power cannot be tamed.

UK music and culture has seen its fair share of viral stars throughout the 2010s. From Shadrack & The Mandem fake-intimidating us with stone-cold road tales, right the way down to a young Deno melting our hearts with his angelic vocals two years ago, viral culture has been a source of laughter, joy, relief, anger and frustration for all who love entertainment. We live in an era where a man can furiously complain about being knocked over while doing a job and become a viral star who is available for ‘bookings’ (see: Ferdi aka ‘Why You Coming Fast’) so this is exactly the era where people with no discernible talent can thrive off their notoriety and make a living for themselves. This isn’t to say they’re not all talented, because the UK has certainly seen dimes and duds in equal measure. And while it may be easy to go viral, it is much harder to keep that momentum behind you and maintain a worthwhile career.

Musicians such as Not3s and Ramz were under tremendous pressure to follow up their respective monster hits “Addison Lee” and “Barking”, and were unfairly labelled ‘one hit wonders’ way too early. The former has since become one of the faces of Afropop, while the latter is still very much a factor in the scene after peaking at number two in the UK Singles Chart. Ultimately, their natural talent overweighs the millions of views they’ve received, and theirs are perfect examples of how viral success can be transferred into a steady career. The same can be said of Stormzy after the park freestyle heard round the world, “Shut Up”, became the highest charting freestyle in UK history in 2015. Since then, not only has he transcended his beginnings by becoming Britain’s premier pop star, he has also channeled his viral fame into meaningful cultural progress, establishing the Stormzy Scholarship earlier this year. Cultural phenomena continued to flow from South London thanks to Kayode Ewumi, who discovered a worldwide audience with his ‘Roll Safe’ character in 2016, allowing for his own progression as a serious actor after inking a deal with the BBC for a Hood Documentary series and a leading role in the upcoming BBC show Enterprice.

In many cases, these subjects of online fervour are resourceful enough to utilise their notoriety for the greater good of their own careers, refusing to be overshadowed by a popular video they posted. This says much more about their ability to navigate than any viral moment could. Reversely, the slippery slope of viral fame is straight vitriol, a fate dealt to OG Niki and her now-infamous freestyle from 2011. In retrospect, it can be argued that her sultry, overtly sexual lyrics were ahead of their time, and she would perhaps fit seamlessly into the canon of UK female rappers today. But after a popular collab with Sneakbo months after the freestyle, she wasn’t able to recreate the fire she stoked.

And while still culturally relevant, the same fate could befall Elijah “Chicken Connoisseur” Quashie who, with his Channel 4 show The Peng Life, has been unable to recapture the glories of his chicken shop reviews which, ironically, became so popular it warranted Channel 4 to enlist his services. Though a similar format to his YouTube reviews, the quality of The Peng Lifein which Quashie reviews some of the world’s most expensive products—doesn’t quite resonate as it removes him from his master zone and of the enduring charm and biting critique that made him so popular. But that his fame comes from a quintessential part of the black UK experience has now made its way to mainstream British culture, much like Stormzy and Ewumi, is a testament to the power of viral culture, and how much it is embraced by a national audience.

Social media has no doubt levelled the playing field, in that people with a music or entertainment-related itch to scratch can suddenly become a star, arguably taking the spotlight from those more deserving. There are artists who have been toiling and perfecting their craft that have probably been left salty by Loz’s bedroom freestyle over Kodak Black’s “Zeze” and shooting of a video weeks later that now stands at 375k views on YouTube. Or Michael Dapaah’s cannonball into fame with the still-banging “Man’s Not Hot”. But shouldn’t the arts be inclusive of any and everyone? Shouldn’t we be welcoming of all? Or do we risk becoming an elitist audience, dismissive of those not considered ‘good enough’ to make a dent on the culture?

Ultimately, it is the collective effort of consumers that make something viral, and that includes artists and entertainers. Whether this dilutes these fields is down to interpretation, but the amazing part about these scenes is their variety and synergy. Though Loz and Osh—the latter recently inked a deal with Columbia Records—are currently taking up a lot of social space, the sheer accessibility for people to become entertainers means you’re bound to find someone you like, unscathed by the viral bug and making whatever content you deem to be meaningful. At this still embryonic stage of entertainment among this new generation of musicians, actors and comedians, there is more than enough room for a myriad of individuals to engage with and carve out a space for themselves. So, while many may scoff at the idea of a viral star taking up airtime, their roles and unrelenting unpredictability are what keep the scene fresh and current.

To go viral is to catch lightning in a bottle, to unite a population of people around a moment in time, and in an age where the majority is online and constantly seeking wider popularity and validation, it is seemingly easier to follow this example. To hate on them is to hate on the culture that breeds them, the same culture that has introduced us to those we now know and love.

Posted on November 15, 2018