KSI is easy to define but impossible to categorise. Knowledge. Strength. Integrity.
Olajide Olatunji – or JJ – was 15 when he registered an account on YouTube and started uploading videos of himself playing video games, using three letters as his online alter ego. This kickstarted a career that has turned KSI, now 29, into an all-conquering multimedia mogul.
He has tens of millions of followers across social media. He’s a rapper who can sell out arenas, a boxer who can sell out those same arenas. He’s the head of a business empire that encompasses restaurants and impossible-to-source soft drinks.
KSI is an influencer with real influence but his staggering popularity can be hard to keep up with, especially if you’re over the age of 30. So who is KSI?
“JJ, KSI, that guy on YouTube, that boxing guy, that musician. I’m just whatever,” he laughs. “JJ is me. I wake up and I look in the mirror and that’s me, JJ. KSI is my alter ego where I’m able to be a character, super confident, the one who’d get all the girls. JJ is introverted, keeps to himself, likes his own space, being a little nerd.
“Back in the day, I was always KSI, I was never myself. Having to be full of energy, always hype, always shouting. I always just had to keep pushing the envelope over and over. And I kind of lost myself. Nowadays, I know who I am.”
A new documentary, KSI: In Real Life, gives an intimate perspective on a young man reconciling his own identity, balancing fame and family, re-evaluating his past and future.
Like any film about someone with great power, and the responsibility that comes with it, there’s the origin story too. The teenager who felt like an “outcast” at the private Berkhamsted School before discovering his own kind.
“I found a group of people online that were making gaming videos. I thought it was sick. They were just like me. There was that sense of connection. That sense of relatability which just really hit home.”
KSI started making his own videos. “I learned how to edit. I got inspiration from so many other YouTubers that I would watch so I knew from the get-go how important entertaining an audience was. Eventually, when I knew I was able to make money from it, the lightbulb switched on and I went into work mode.”
His career choice was validated by talking with a teacher who asked how much he was making a month from his videos. “I told him £1,500 and he was like, that’s more than me!” KSI remembers. “When he said that I was like, yeah, I’m off. I’m going 110 per cent into YouTube. And my parents can’t say shit.”
KSI has a turbulent relationship with his parents, especially his Nigerian-born father Jide. “My parents wanted me to be a lawyer, doctor, etc. But when it came to what I wanted to actually do, I had no idea. Nothing really clicked. For my work experience, I signed up for the HMRC and oh my god it was the most boring thing.”
Was the experience handy when it comes to filling in your own tax returns? “Not at all. My accountant does everything,” he guffaws with his infectious laugh.
To prove that dropping out of school had been the right move, KSI paid off his parents’ mortgage then moved them to another house before going to live by himself, all by the age of 19.
“I felt I had to give back to my parents, for everything they’d done. They worked hard to get me into private school. So for me to turn around and go, ‘I’m doing YouTube,’ it’s obviously going to piss them off. I had to show them this YouTube thing actually worked out.”
But there was a price to pay for the increasing success. “I was just thinking content, content, content. I wasn’t thinking about my own wellbeing. It was like, I’m on this treadmill and I need to go fast and keep going. I wasn’t even thinking about breathing. Over time, it got to me. I burnt out. I lost myself.”
Part of the pressure came from unwillingly becoming a role model. “I didn’t want all these people looking up to me, watching everything I did and expecting me to be perfect. Because I knew I was going to mess up. I knew I was going to fail. I resented being a role model. That’s another reason I would go off the rails, to try to be the worst role model possible just to get everyone off my back.
“But now I feel like I’m stepping in those shoes. I understand this role that I have to play. I know I have to be the best person I can be for all these young adults, these kids that look up to me.
“I’m human – I’m not perfect. I’m still learning. In this world, things are always changing so fast it’s sometimes quite hard to keep up with what is right or wrong. But I try to be myself.”
Influencers can have a positive or negative influence. Negativity gets clicks. Hate is legitimised and emboldened, algorithms can push people into damaging echo chambers while rewarding those producing the content.
“I know a lot of people, especially young men, are looking at people like Andrew Tate like, OK, he is what I need to be in order to be an improved human,” KSI says. “Personally, I don’t think he is the best role model because of, like, the things he says and does. I just think it’s a bit out of order. [Proud misogynist Tate is currently under arrest in Romania on rape and human trafficking charges.]
“I’m kind of in that space, and I know a lot of people look up to me and I feel like rather than chasing money, rather than chasing materialistic things, rather than treating people badly, I say legacy is a good goal to have.”
KSI is speaking to The Big Issue from his home studio. Behind him hangs a custom-made neon sign spelling LEGACY on the wall.
“The long-term goal, that is the most important thing,” he continues, pointing over his shoulder. “There’s always low-hanging fruit; if you want fame real quick, just do this. But in the long-term, it hurts or hinders you. So many young adults are lost in this world and don’t really know what to do.
“So it’s cool that I can help some people, guide them in the right direction. To let them know that it’s OK to be yourself because no one can be better at you than you. I’m always trying to portray to my audience that if you work hard, opportunity will arise. Take advantage then it will lead to bigger and better opportunities.”
KSI is living proof of that philosophy. On a shelf under the LEGACY light is a rainbow of Prime Hydration bottles. Ask any young person – or a parent of a young person – and they’ll have an anecdote about hunting to find some. At the end of December, videos of pre-dawn queues and shoppers fighting over stock in Aldi made headlines.
Demand for the drink, launched with fellow YouTuber Logan Paul – KSI’s partner in business but rival in boxing – is insane. In its first year, revenue is predicted to be $140 million (£113m). Shady sellers are charging £100 a bottle (RRP £1.99), an app to help thirsty fans locate bottles has topped the shopping category in Apple’s App Store and there’s a high-profile partnership with Arsenal (eight-points ahead at the top of the Premier League at time of writing – is Prime to thank? “It might give them a little boost,” KSI says).
KSI is baffled by the demand. “I hate Grape,” he admits. “I’m not a fan, being honest. Not too keen on Orange as well.”
He ranks his favourite flavours: “Strawberry Watermelon, the pink one. Tropical Punch bangs. Blue Raspberry and Meta Moon are up there as well.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the business world would love to know how the buzz was created. “Me and Logan, we’re able to talk to our audience directly, whereas a company has to pump millions and millions into advertising to try to convert a bunch of people that isn’t their audience into wanting their product.
“With us it’s just a lifestyle. I wake up and I drink Prime. If I want to eat food, I order Sides [the restaurant chain co-owned by KSI and his collaborators The Sidemen]. It’s just part of me and part of my ecosystem. My audience are also part of that ecosystem.”
KSI has turned hobbies into phenomenal successes. We speak two days after his headline fight against fellow YouTuber FaZe Temperrr. Any bruises?
“I didn’t really get hit too much,” says the champ, who knocked out his opponent in the first round. KSI not only topped the bill but organised the whole event through his Misfits Boxing promotional company, making waves within the “crossover boxing industry”.
“It’s creating a buzz in the whole boxing scene. So much that the purist boxing traditionalists are hating on it,” KSI grins.
Do you enjoy the hate? “I love it. It’s funny because we’re getting the kids and young adults interested and inspired. The other side don’t really know what to do about it, saying it’s not real boxing. I think if anything, they can learn a thing or two from what we’re doing, especially when it comes to marketing. How we focus on the undercard as much as the main event. We make sure every person is getting the mic and is able to build themselves up and become a star.”
What’s your long-term vision for Misfits? “I want it to be as big as the UFC, as big as WWE. I truly believe it’s going to be one of, if not the biggest, scene in combat sport – I know a lot of older people would be like, no way. I’ve heard that so many times. When it came to the music, people were like, there’s no way KSI is going to be able to get a top 40 – I got a top 40. No way you can get a top 10 – I got a top 10. No way he can get a number one album – I got a number one album. It goes on and on and on. I’m just used to it and I’m like… Just wait and see.”
KSI scored the biggest selling album by a debut artist in 2020 and has had eight top 10 singles, with new track Voices released this week. His latest fight filled Wembley Arena, the same venue he sold out on his music tour last year.
Online he’s watched by millions but it feels different standing on stage in front of a live audience. “The difference is quite spectacular, actually,” he says. In a good way or a bad way? “Both. Online, all you do is press a button. You’re looking at the comments, some good, some bad, some awful. That can affect your mood. Then that’s it, you move on to the next video.
“Whereas when I was performing in front of 10,000-plus people at Leeds Festival I was able to see every single face, hear the noise, the roars, feeling the rumble, the presence of these people. It was terrifying, man. My heart was pumping. But I knew I had to do my job, get on that stage and just perform my heart away. I just went crazy. And it was one of the best feelings ever. Euphoric.”
Collaborating with some of the biggest names in the business like Anne-Marie and Craig David, KSI admits a shade of imposter syndrome. “I felt like a fraud. But over time, I started to believe in myself. I’m able to hold my own.”
What is more important – talent or self-belief? “Self-belief. Hard work as well. Talent can take you far but hard work can take you around the world.
“I have never seen myself as talented. Look up my old videos. Look at where I started from. I was just a little nerd in my bedroom making videos, I didn’t know how to properly rap, didn’t know how to box. I was this plain canvas.
“I just had a dream, self-belief and a huge work ethic. And that has taken me to this point I’m at today.”
KSI: In Real Life launches on Prime Video on January 26. His new single Voices ft Oliver Tree is out January 27
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Winter. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Winter.