‘And side note, if you want to dive deeper into that topic [Eurocentric beauty standards], Khadija Mbowe did an amazing video called ‘Beauty is in the Eye of Colonizer,’ said popular YouTuber Tee Noir in a recent video, where she called out the disconcerting fetishisation of Black women in TikToks. This shout-out from the online cultural commentator sent Khadija Mbowe’s subscriber count skyrocketing. Followed by a well-timed video critiquing the new Netflix series Bridgerton (and the YouTube algorithmic gods), Khadija went from 800 subscribers to over 150,000 in under two weeks.
She is currently at 166,000 subscribers and her most viewed video with 643,000 views, touches on ‘race-baiting, queer-baiting, colorism, featurism and performative diversity’. She has also uploaded videos that cover the omnipresence of ‘Instagram face’, the ‘doom scrolling’ phenomenon and the worldwide impact of colourism (whilst doing an extensive skincare routine!). At surface-level, Khadija’s virality may seem serendipitous, but the backlog of video essays and social commentaries suggests otherwise. Her videos range in subject matter, but all testify to her talent, hard work and perseverance — the latter of which creatives, especially those of colour, know too well.
Online, Khadija has made a name for herself as our ‘cool, fun, Millennial aunty’, but she is excelling offline too in the arena of opera and other creative pursuits. We caught up with her via video call to find out about her upbringing as part of the Gambian diaspora, grappling with overnight YouTube fame, and more.
What was your experience growing up in North America coming from a Gambian background?
Well, I was born and raised there [in North America], so the first time I went to Gambia, I was four. It was like two worlds. I always had my Gambian house where my parents were. My dad spoke English mostly, but my mom always spoke Wolof to us. We always had Gambian food– in Georgia, there were a lot of Gambian people there, so I was always around that. But then I’d also be in school with a lot of different types of people, so I’d have two worlds of school and friends, and then my home life and family. I appreciated it, but it was still very difficult because people in America — you know, you’re born and raised there, but people still see you as non-American. But then you go to Gambia and people think you’re a Black Toubab, which is a Black ‘White person’. Then, I got older and met other people who were first-generation that could relate to feeling like they didn’t have a place anywhere. It was hard at first, but finding people like that was very helpful, so I knew that, ‘okay, I’m not alone. There are other people who have had to assimilate, but then their parents are telling them not to, but yeah, it was like two different worlds for sure.
At the time of this interview, you have 155,000 subscribers! You’ve hardly had enough time to adjust to this dramatic change, if you’ve even adjusted?!
It’s weird, yeah. I just started getting so many emails and I was like, ‘Ahh!’ It happened in a two-and-a-half-weeks span going from 800 to 30,000 to 100,000 to 150,000 subscribers and I’m just like… “Okay?!”. I think the thing that’s so weird is that people are like, ‘Oh, I’m such a fan’ and don’t expect me to respond to them. It’s kinda interesting the way people react to me.
Studying Music Performance at the University of Toronto, you were one of the very few Black singers in the whole cohort. Opera is also historically and presently very White. You also are an advocate for equity and inclusion in the performing arts. You wrote an article in November on young opera singers’ use of social media to speak out on racial inequality. Do you think that the arts have done enough to improve diversity? If not, what steps still need to be taken?
So I think some arts organisations are taking it seriously. I’m in two fellowship programs: one of them is a Fellowship for Association for Opera in Canada and the other one is Banff Opera in the 21st Century (they do newer works). I think that some are taking it seriously, but I think that they’re the smaller companies. The bigger ones are beholden to stakeholders, especially when it comes to money. A lot of stuff in the arts — it’s patrons, it’s donations. If you are looking at a lot of wealthy, older White people who don’t want things to change or don’t understand what the big deal is because everything’s worked for them.
I think the way for that to change is people on an individual level just reckoning with themselves and really wanting to do that work. I think a lot of these bigger companies— it’s performative, they kind of care but they don’t really, and they’re not willing to do the work on an individual basis.
Please tell me more about the Marigold Music Program.
Last year, after that video of me ranting about school and just being very frustrated, I was trying to have talks with the University of Toronto and it just seemed like they just didn’t have the vision. To me, the way you can change classical music being so White — or just music programs, in general, being so White — is not just a top-down change in leadership, but a bottom-up approach of actually going into communities and working with communities.
Our vision is to change the visual landscape of music. We want to empower young people by being an organisation led by young people to show them you have more agency than people have been telling you. You have more agency, you have more power, you have more control. Right now, we’re in the midst of planning an entire course with the University of Toronto to have a civic engagement. And it’s like an internship, essentially. The goal is we give them as much training as possible to set them up as best as possible so that they could go into the communities.
‘Representation matters’ is a common motif mentioned in your videos. What kind of importance has representation had for you?
For me, I think it’s just a matter of giving me the permission to be the way I am. When I live in this kind of world, when I live in this kind of body, seeing media that reflects my life experience to an extent, it validates it in a way. And I’m not going to be ashamed to admit that, because we’re all people and on a fundamental human level, we like to feel like we’re not alone. We like to feel listened to and understood and that people care about us and in a soft way, seeing yourself reflected in media, it gives you a bit of that, ‘oh, there are other people out there that are like me’, especially for me, when you live in a lot of White spaces and doing a degree in classical music, it’s a very White space, and I have a lot of White friends. So it’s like, I don’t see someone in my friend group that looks like me, I don’t see someone when I go around that looks like me, so can I see it on TV? Apart from my family, I don’t get to see it. And I think that’s so important.
I think people that don’t see why it’s such a big deal are the ones that get the representation. They don’t even have to consider what it feels like to watch a TV show and not see someone that looks like them. Or go outside and see a billboard or just an average person just living their life [that looks like them]. There are many different ways to be White and there are like two or three ways to be Black or Asian. If you have a visible disability, maybe you just don’t even exist. If you’re trans, it’s a sad story. If you’re an indigenous person, do you exist? It’s just so absurd to me.
You’re 28. You initially studied Sociology and English intending to pursue a PhD in Sociology, then you took four years off before switching to opera. Did you ever compare yourself to others because of social expectations?
Oh, definitely. Turning 28 this year, at first I was very much like, ‘I feel behind’. I was like, ‘there are people on YouTube that have millions of subscribers and they’re like 22’. But, for some people, it just takes longer. To be perfectly candid, before that blow-up happened on YouTube, I was in a really bad depressive episode. I was coming out of it the day Tee Noir’s video came out and I started getting those notifications. I’ve had to deal with that my whole life: I got diagnosed when I was in my early 20s. It’s kind of like being cracked open: I had to understand what was going on, why I was feeling this way. I had to start taking my mental health seriously and focusing on it, instead of acting like it’s a separate part of someone when it’s actually a part of me; it’s a part of who I am.
If this [blow-up] happened when I was 22, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Honestly. And there are 22-year-olds that can and I commend them. But for me, it just wouldn’t have been an option. I am happy that all of these things are happening at this age because I think I have a much better handle on myself, I think I know who I am better and I’m more willing to explore that. I have a very great support system around me and all of those things were not there when I was 22, 23.