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College students will tell this teenage vlogger just about anything
Yafate Beyene is building a budding YouTube channel, one question at a time.
When Yafate Beyene informed his parents that he was going to forgo college and, almost immediately after graduating high school, move to California, they didn’t believe him. “When I first told them back in Minnesota that that’s what I wanted to do, they kind of brushed it off saying, ‘Ah, he’d change his mind eventually,’” he told me in a recent phone interview. “But once they started seeing the feedback I was getting on the show, once my cousins in Africa were calling my parents and saying they liked the show, that’s when they knew the potential. That’s when they started supporting it.”
Beyene, better known as Yafa to his fans, produces, shoots, edits, writes, and stars in the Yafa Show, a man-on-the-street interview series for the YouTube age. At 19, he’s collected over 10,000 subscribers and nearly a million views. Sure, he’s still small fries compared to YouTube celebrities in the Million Billion Club—YouTube channels that have amassed at least a million subscribers and a billion views—but he has tripled his subscribership in the last year and gained nearly 500 new YouTube subscribers just in the two weeks that passed between when I interviewed him and when I began writing this article. And if you show one of his videos to a student currently attending college, there’s a good chance they’ll recognize him.
Yafa started playing around on YouTube as early as 13, though back then what he posted had little structure or consistency. It wasn’t much later, however, when he began to contemplate what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “I decided I wanted to travel and I wanted to meet new people,” he recalled.
“I’ve gotten people to say some things that while I’m editing the footage later I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I got them to say that.’”
It was around the age of 16 or 17 when he abandoned that first YouTube account and launched the Yafa Show, at first shooting it at local malls around his small hometown of Lakeville. But it turns out mall security doesn’t like you walking around bothering customers with a video camera, so he kept getting kicked out. “I wanted a more secure location where I could just come every week and have an actual talk show kind of format,” he said. “So on Fridays I’d get out of school and get in my car, in my 2000 Pontiac Sunfire, and I’d drive about 45 minutes to downtown Minneapolis.” He’d often arrive around 11 p.m., just as young 20 somethings would begin herding from bar to bar. Yafa would set up his tripod, pick up his microphone, and begin asking people walking by if they were willing to be interviewed.
The concept of the Yafa Show is deceptively simple in that its description belies the skill and dexterity that goes into making it. On his phone he keeps a list of questions that he believes many people find themselves wondering but are too afraid to ask. Do women really fake orgasms, and why? How much daily masturbation is too much? Why do couples cheat? Once he’s chosen a question, he then proceeds to ask it to every single person who agrees to appear in front of his camera. Often, there will be group dynamics at play as he asks a couple friends together and they each riff off each other. Other times he’ll interview them alone, which can sometimes produce cringe-worthy moments as he asks that person a sometimes deeply personal question. Sometimes a person, upon hearing the question, will walk away without answering it. But perhaps his most consistent observation about the people he interviews is how much information they’re willing to give up.
“I’ve gotten people to say some things that while I’m editing the footage later I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I got them to say that.’”
Yafa’s editing process is perhaps the most important component to his show. When it’s at its best, it’s not simply a chronological replaying of answers, but rather he groups the answers into thematic sequences that tell a longer story arc about how human beings approach a cultural issue. In the video on how much masturbation is too much, for instance, we learn there’s a solid contingent of free-flowing, everything goes individuals who think there’s never too much. Then we’re introduced to the prudes who consider more than once or twice a day for self-indulgence as rather pathetic. And then general consensus seems to settle on chaffing and blisters signalling that you’ve reached your daily limit. The follow-up questions become increasingly personal as Yafa switches from how much masturbation is too much to direct inquiries into how often his interview subjects masturbate themselves.
“He is a journalist and a cultural critic,” said Dane Golden, the vice president of marketing for Octoly, which consults with brands on how to properly utilize YouTube Yafa reached out to Golden a few years ago and he’s since become a mentor and a kind of unofficial producer for the Yafa Show. “He’s going out into the world and finding people and asking them what they think and he’s doing serious reporting, even if it’s on not so serious topics.”
And it may be Yafa’s status as a person of color that allows him to wade into often taboo subjects like cultural and racial stereotypes—asking his interview subjects to provide answers that they may not want recorded for posterity a decade from now. An 18-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota or UCLA who’s answering questions like “What’s the definition of a bad bitch?” or “Signs she’s on her period?” likely won’t find his or her answers so humorous once they’ve entered the job market, so perhaps Yafa’s best talent is getting these people to shed their inhibitions and caution and blurt out whatever thoughts reside within the id.
“I think it’s important to make the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible—a true conversation rather than just hitting them with question after question,” Yafa said. “It feels like we’re just a whole bunch of bros talking about the girl they want, and I think that’s the way you can get the best answer from people.”
It wasn’t long before the University of Minnesota campus began to seem too small and confined for the ambition of the show, so on his spring break of senior year in high school, Yafa piled his stuff into his car and set off across the country, heading toward West Virginia and the Big 10 colleges in the area.
“He is a journalist and a cultural critic.” —Dane Golden
“I was 17 and I couldn’t really stay in a hotel, so I slept in my car for those seven days. At 3am, after I was done interviewing, I’d sleep there and then wake up at like 6am freezing. Then I’d drive to a new city, plan out the interview for the day and shoot at night. I just did that for seven days straight. I’d shower at gas stations. It was very low budget.”
A surprising thing happened as he went from campus to campus: Some people recognized him, and sometimes he’d have a line of people waiting to be interviewed. It was a sign that he was slowly but surely building an audience of fans. His most explosive growth, however, came after one of his videos was featured on WorldStarHipHop, the controversial website that has aggregated everything from funny videos to footage of young people, often minorities, engaging in violent fist fights (the website’s founder, Q, has been accused of promulgating negative stereotypes). WorldStarHipHop is so popular and powerful that major entertainers regularly choose to debut exclusive music videos there. “The day that happened, my phone got a notification every two minutes for the rest of the day and the following day. I had to put my phone on vibrate it was getting beeped so much. I was getting messages from people on Facebook, people texting me and saying, ‘Everybody at the University of Minnesota is talking about your video!”
When Yafa graduated, he flew to Spain for a week for a brief vacation, but once he came back he spent a day in Minnesota before packing up his stuff and heading to L.A. He wasn’t even 18 years old yet and therefore couldn’t sign a lease, so for the next few months he sublet in an apartment with six other roommates and got a job at a Starbucks a 45-minute bike ride away. (You can see a Starbucks in the background many of his most recent videos.) Almost immediately after turning 18 he got a job at a sports bar and has been there ever since, working at the bar at night and then shooting the Yafa Show on his days off.
At first, he was plagued with self doubt about whether he’d made the right decision and if the show would ever really take off. “I remember I was at a Starbucks going over some ideas, and I had a guy approach me who said, ‘Yo Yafa, I’m a big fan, I didn’t know you moved to L.A. I watched your show back when you were in Minnesota. Big fan.’ And that gave me all the motivation I needed to go back out there and start shooting.” Within months, he became a fixture on the UCLA campus, and by living in L.A., he’s begun to make some crucial relationships that might lead to future collaborations with entertainers and famous YouTubers.
But during our entire conversation there was one topic he never broached: money, or, more specifically, how he planned to make it. So I asked him about his business model. Was it to simply rack up views and participate as a YouTube partner, taking a cut of pre-roll ads on his video? “I’m a YouTube partner,” he said. “I think when the content is sometimes risque, it’s harder to get advertisers on the show.” And some YouTubers have complained over the years that the pre-roll ads don’t pay very high rates, requiring you to amass millions and millions of views per month in order to make decent money—a bar Yafa hasn’t reached yet.
A surprising thing happened as he went from campus to campus: Some people recognized him.
Instead, he’d like to pursue an avenue already being mined by other major YouTube personalities—direct sponsorship. “Maybe a clothing line to go along with it,” he said. “Or maybe a travel sponsor.” In this scenario, a hotel chain or airline pays for him to travel from city to city to shoot his show. He’s also contemplated selling merchandise, like T-shirts with his face and show logo on them. “I’m focused [on revenue], but I’m not purely focused on it. Right now I feel like working on the content is the most important thing and once the show gets big enough the sponsors will come to you.”
I asked Yafa’s friend and mentor, Dane Golden, about the longterm business viability of the show. Golden has worked on the brand side of YouTube sponsorships, after all. He didn’t seem worried about Yafa’s prospects and said it would be disastrous for his brand if he started using cheap gimmicks to juice up his YouTube views for advertisers.
“He’s gradually finding an audience and it isn’t happening right away,” Golden said. “He is doing all he needs to do. He could do some collaborations [with other YouTube personalities], and collabs are how smaller YouTubers get bigger, but he doesn’t want to do it with just anybody, he wants to only do it with people who really identify with his audience and his type of show. So that takes time to find that audience.”
Until he does find that audience, Yafa will continue to get up, work his sports bar job, and then shoot on his days off, staying up all night editing the video while subsisting on coffee and chicken nuggets. Because that’s what he set out to do when he threw away a traditional career trajectory to pursue this dream. Most kids his age haven’t even figured out what they’re going to major in in college. Yafa, though he couldn’t pinpoint the exact number of subscribers he needs to have crossed the threshold between amateur YouTuber and professional, at least knows where he’s going.
“It’s the point where if you tell a random person on the street that you have this number of subscribers, whether it’s 50,000 or 100,000, they say, ‘Wow!’ That’s how I’ll know I made it.”
Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. This article was originally published on his personal site. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Email him at [email protected]
Screengrab via the Yafa Show/YouTube
Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. He's a former associate editor for PBS’ MediaShift and assistant managing editor at US News & World Report. His bylines have also appeared in the Atlantic, New York Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, and others.