LOS ANGELES: “It first started when I just decided to prank my mom,” Kareem Hesri told Arab News from his family’s beautiful southern California home. “I threw it on TikTok. She didn’t care. 10 million overnight. It blew up.”
Hesri is a Syrian American teenager and the only boy among his five siblings. He is also an online celebrity known to most as Keemokazi, most famous for his videos on the social media app, TikTok.
Every day, millions of viewers watch Keemokazi and his family in skits and prank videos such as the one that launched Hesri’s career in what is one of the newest entertainment jobs: Influencer.
“My passion always led me to entertainment. It was either music or acting,” he said.
His family was supportive of his entertainment aspirations but recognized the challenges of breaking into the industry. Hesri’s father set firm but realistic goals for him: By the end of high school he needed to have got a solid start as an entertainer or he would need to explore more traditional jobs. Not interested in an office job, Hesri began working on his passion.
“I first started out with acting. I was on a show called ‘The Last Ship’ on TNT. I played a Syrian refugee. So, I did acting first. I met a producer at an acting camp and rapped for him. He brought me to the studio,” Hesri added.
His music career launched in 2017 with his sister Serene acting as his manager. But after some early audience growth, his audience stagnated. “I was stuck at 10,000 followers for years. I never grew. So Serene was always emailing people, trying to get my music played.”
Around the same time, the short-form video content app TikTok was a social media sensation. Created by a merger between the apps Musical.ly and Douyin, TikTok had become home to a generation of online content creators particularly those who had originally gained popularity on the by then defunct app, Vine.
Hesri watched as entertainers his age went from unknowns to receiving millions of daily views. “I never wanted to be the rapper or the music artist that did silly videos. I wanted to be taken seriously,” he said about his initial apprehension at joining TikTok.
But after seeing the kind of success that other young people where finding on the platform, Hesri created his Keemokazi profile and debuted the prank video that launched him and his family into the spotlight. Now it has become his full-time job.
For Hesri the work begins with research. He spends hours before going to bed each night on TikTok’s For You page looking through popular videos in search of inspiration for the next day’s filming.
“If you want to be on TikTok, and you want to be viral on this app, you have to see the trends,” he added.
From there he writes, directs, films, and edits multiple 15 to 30-second videos each day. The workload may not sound difficult, a perception that can put influencers under scrutiny from outside observers.
“If you watch a video, you’ll think it’s easy. If you do the video, it’s hard. It’ll take hours for at least one video,” he said, going on to mention the additional factors of needing to stay timely and consistent.
Hesri is not alone in this work. His family members have gone from being supportive of his dream to having supporting roles in his dream. Followers tune in to Keemokazi not just to see his antics but to watch the entire Hesri family. He attributes much of his success to his family and their Arab roots.
“We hit the Middle East, a very loyal fanbase, because my mom was cursing and yelling in Arabic. People loved it. We have to stay loyal to that because we are Middle Eastern as well as from Syria. So, we connect to them very well. It’s a different kind of connection. I don’t consider them fans or supporters. I consider them family,” he added.
A recent trend among Hesri’s contemporaries is the influencer house, where groups of content creators on TikTok or Instagram will live together under one roof in a sort of social media reality show. Yet despite its rising popularity, Hesri said he had no plans to join the trend.
“This is where the heart lies. This is where the gold is: With family.”