On 10 April, Esther Akoth, popularly known as Akothee, stunned everyone when she finally wed her fiancé, Dennis “Omosh” Schweizer, in a lavish ceremony at the Windsor Golf Hotel. The event, which was notably attended by popular social media influencers, literally brought under the spotlight the glamorous lives of a new breed of micro-celebrities who have found fame and fortune outside the mainstream media structures. In attendance were The Bahatis (Bahati and Diana Marua), Terence Creative and his wife Milly Chebby, the WaJesus Family, Mungai Eve and Director Trevor, among others—all filmed mingling with guests and engrossed in small talk in their resplendent attire.
Akothee, who has in the past recounted her rise from humble beginnings, says she started as a taxi driver after walking out of a marriage where she became a mother at the age of 14. Today, the mother of four is an artiste, farmer and lifestyle content creator. She capitalises on the latter role, using both her popularity and social media visibility to reach out to millennials and Generation Z—demographics that are said to “make up 55% of the Kenyan population”—to market the products of various consumer brands.
Working with the brands leads to more social media followers, which translates to more potential customers and targeted ads for her clients. It’s a cycle that’s subtly cutthroat but has led to massive fortunes. It’s a life that’s the stuff of dreams: big houses and exclusive house tours that garner close to a million YouTube views, fancy holiday trips, designer cars and the opportunity to hobnob with other newly minted celebrities and micro-celebrities. It is a world perfectly described by Drake’s popular line, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” in his song, Started From the Bottom.
It’s a new world
Welcome to the new world of social media influencers.
Less than five years ago, virtually all the people we now know as content creators were relatively unknown. Most were toiling at the margins of obscurity, pursuing goals other than creating content aimed at catching the eye of some well-paying brand. Well, before TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and the delights of using Facebook and Twitter for business, only traditional media platforms like newspapers, radio and television enjoyed the monopoly of offering such services. The legacy media, a by-product of a rather conservative society—less experimental, less innovative, less creative, less curious—churned out its share of men and women it deemed the true representatives of Kenya’s celebrity culture. However, that fundamentally exposed its limitations. The rise of digital technology, which has opened a vast world of faster information flow and heightened global awareness, is a testament to that reality.
The rise and rise of influencers thus speaks to the silent but forceful contestation over identity among young people. While writing about the ratchet culture that became the cornerstone of Gengetone music, Christine Mungai says the young people involved in producing such content are not simply making music to enjoy themselves, for the sake of it. Instead, there is a simmering tension between defiance of authority and the need for attention. Mungai writes that the music is “a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular”. Her central argument is about the power of resistance that lies beneath sub-genres of popular culture often frowned upon by mainstream society.
There is a simmering tension between defiance of authority and the need for attention.
Kenya’s influencers have continued to defy all forms of criticism—from accusations of producing banal content that most of the time amuses rather than educates, to being dedicated agents of exploitative brands that hardly care about their consumers simply because money is involved. They are also seen as the prime symbols of what Susie Khamis, Laurence Ang and Raymond Welling call an “epidemic of self-obsession” in their article Self-branding, ‘micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencers. I’ll come back to that later.
In other words, if the content creators’ videos on YouTube and social media postings are anything to go by, the end often justifies the means. In a society where principles and moral values have profoundly deteriorated, it is vain to blame a person for trying take care of his or her material wellbeing. Social media influencing culture should, therefore, be viewed from a broader perspective that takes into account the underlying socio-economic and political tensions that define our existence as Kenyans. The extravagant lives of influencers and their desire for status symbols could thus be speaking to something bigger.
Is there a bigger picture?
Kenya went to the polls on 9 August last year, and William Ruto was declared president, garnering 50.5 per cent of the valid votes cast while his closest rival, Raila Odinga, got 48.9 per cent. Odinga has since disputed the results and is now demanding a forensic audit of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission servers. However, what stands out most about the 2022 general election is the significant number of people who decided not to vote —almost 7 million—a majority of whom are under 30.
Some of those who did not vote vociferously defended their decision on social media, even as those who had voted gloated about having carried out their civic duty. Those who did not vote argued—rightly in my view—that the political system was already hijacked by crooks masquerading as visionaries who were only using young people as a stepping stone to another five-year term of plunder, deferred dreams, wasted opportunities and corruption. Their warning has come to pass. Ruto has so far reneged on many of his lofty promises of uplifting those at the bottom of society. His “Hustler” agenda is proving to be a mirage as political rejects and loyalists are rewarded with lucrative positions, even as the youth remain in economic limbo. They probably will be of use in the 2027 general election. Not now.
When Nanjala Nyabola—who has written a book on how Kenyans engage politically on digital platforms—writes that the 2022 polls was the “most boring election”, she is essentially bringing into sharp focus the growing disillusionment and despondency that have set in not just among the intelligentsia but, more worryingly, among young people. It has become the norm nowadays, during every election cycle—not just in Kenya but in Africa in general—for politicians to make grand promises about economic empowerment and job creation that hardly ever come to pass. A Daily Nation article quoting data from the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics paints an even bleaker picture. It observes that there are Kenyans who qualify for the labour force but have now, weighed down by frustrations, opted not to look for employment. Then the bombshell: “The majority of those who have given up on job searching are aged between 20 and 24 at 363,018, followed by 25 to 29-year-olds at 232,146.” They are millennials and members of Generation Z.
Bragging rights/attention economy
The influencers should thus be viewed within the context of a new world order where attention is a scarce commodity, and hardly anybody gives it to anyone—not the politicians, not the society. In such a dispensation—with all its frightening dystopian undertones—the act of “self-branding through social media”, as Kham, Ang and Welling observe, “can be understood as a way to retain and assert personal agency and control within a general context of uncertainty and flux”. This consequently breeds a consumerist ideology whereby the lifestyle content creators promote the (false) idea to their followers that acquiring consumer goods—lots of them—is the ultimate goal in life.
I’ll give an example.
In one of their YouTube videos titled, SHOPPING IN DUBAI: BEST MALLS AND PRICES, the WaJesus Family, whose Youtube channel boasts a whopping 609,000 subscribers, showcase their expensive taste to their followers. During the Bonfire Adventures-sponsored trip, they hop from one mall to another, lavishly spending on Adidas shoes and outfits, bedding, home decor items, clothes and other luxury goods. The subtext that the couple ensures is not lost on the viewer is just how rich they are, how classy they are and how they are living the highly coveted soft life. In the comment section of the video, one of their fans affirms: “I’m shopperhollic…I’m shopping with you guys aki.” But it’s the comment that links the Dubai trip and shopping to acts of resilience and fate that provides a useful insight into the complex world of the influencing culture among the youth. A fan called New Wineskin writes, “So in short, everyone’s dreams are valid…Just give yoself time ie, 5years to save and work HARD towards yo goal.”
There are Kenyans who qualify for the labour force but have now, weighed down by frustrations, opted not to look for employment.
In a nutshell, according to the influencer-follower relationship carefully constructed on online platforms, one can always overcome their personal challenges through individual effort alone. This is despite the challenges being a result of poor policies rather than the mere shortcomings of an individual. Also, while the influencers often control the narrative in line with the demands and dictates of the brands they are promoting at any given time, what is projected to the followers conceals the fundamental issues at stake: we are living in a society where the political class has abdicated its roles and responsibilities and shifted the burden to the individual.
Rejection of the political process
For young people who essentially look up to social media influencers as role models and heroes, there is bound to be a rejection of the political process. There is the idea that the entire political process is flawed, and that there is no redemption whatsoever in participating in it, be it by registering as a voter, or voting or taking part in campaigns. Apart from the sticky issues of underrepresentation and analogue politics, the youth believe the process, which still rides on ethnic mobilisation, in the end only benefits a few people. Also, Ruto’s campaign slogan, kazi ni kazi, which entrenches the hustle culture in a society where young people struggle not just with unemployment, but also underemployment, is likely to lead to further alienation. Zak Essa captures this simmering discontent when he writes that “recognising their shared marginalisation, the youth are sceptical of politicians who promise solutions to their problems and consciously choose not to interact with hegemonic political structures”.
For young people who essentially look up to social media influencers as role models and heroes, there is bound to be a rejection of the political process.
In an interview aired on NTV’s The Wicked Edition show titled “Mungai Eve: Why I can’t get employed or go broke”, the former journalism and mass communication student told the show’s host, Dr King’ori, that one of the reasons she was against employment was because she knew her worth. Employment, she said, would limit her from achieving “so many goals” that she hopes to achieve before she dies. While it is tempting to read her statement as empty bravado, especially on the aspect of never going broke, there’s an underlying message Mungai is passing that is worth emphasising. That in the digital age, with its myriad of opportunities, one cannot wait to be rescued by the politicians so to speak. With the ubiquity of smartphones and improved internet penetration in various parts of the country, the power is at one’s fingertips, literally. This type of messaging —however flawed and outrageous it may sound—is likely to become the new reality consumed by a segment of young people for whom there’s no world other than the internet that is sensitive to their dreams and aspirations.
Is there a way out?
Social media influencing culture is here to stay, and it will only grow bigger and bolder as the internet continues to radically push the boundaries of communication technologies, as witnessed by the enormous popularity of TikTok. The attention economy will also continue to produce its micro-celebrities, such as Akothee, The Bahatis and the WaJesus Family, who will be sought out by various brands to reach out to an ever-demanding consumer base. However, what should be of great concern to policymakers and politicians is how they will be able to craft inclusive policies that can bring back to the fold the millennials and members of Generation Z in particular. This is because, by the look of things, some of these young people are on the verge of completely dropping out from mainstream society and its responsibilities to become permanent digital natives.