Akilah Hughes Used Social Media to Make a Name for Herself. Now She Uses It for Social Change

In advance of her appearance at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the writer, comedian, and podcaster talks about making videos that matter, the duality of the internet, and books she’s loved lately

Akilah Hughes never set out to be a YouTube star, but the 31-year-old actress-comedian started heading in that direction well before the platform even existed.

In her 2019 memoir Obviously: Stories from My Timeline—named after her popular YouTube channel, Akilah Obviously—Hughes recalls growing up in Kentucky and getting online for the first time in elementary school. She joined the “webbies” club to use Netscape and play Neopets, which she calls a “social media gateway drug.” In college, she discovered YouTube, and posted her first video in 2007. She tells Los Angeles that she could go back and kiss herself for having the foresight to recognize that “this is the future, and this is going to be a democratized sort of situation, where people who are talented can use this as a portfolio to get ahead.”

Even early on, YouTube had a hateful side. Hughes remembers seeing racist videos and thinking, “This is a place that is worthwhile and valuable, but also a place that seems to need some sort of oversight, because what is being spread here is bad.” Today, that still holds true. She says, “It’s a great place to make change, to educate, to build things, and on the other side of that, it’s a great place for conspiracy theories and megalomaniacs to thrive.”

Still, it was clear to Hughes that it was a place “where people of under-supported communities could build huge online communities of people who like them, especially the gay community and women of color.” In 2013, after a white boyfriend broke up with her, she went viral with the video “Meet Your First Black Girlfriend.” That led to opportunities to make videos for media companies like MTV and Oxygen. In 2020, she teamed up with Milana Vayntrub—who you might know as “Lily” from the AT&T commercials—on a series of videos for Comedy Central, including an updated version of “Pattycake” that addresses everything from LGBTQ rights to racism. The video racked up millions of views on TikTok, and at this year’s L.A. Times Festival of Books (April 17-23), she talks about the power of that kind of social media success.

On Saturday, April 17, Hughes, Jackson Bird, and Allissa V. Richardson, Ph.D., will join moderator Colin Maclay, a USC professor, for a panel discussion called “Selfies for Social Change: Claiming Space in Social Media.”

She wrote Obviously while living in New York City, and just before the book’s release in September 2019, she moved to Los Angeles to work on Crooked Media’s daily news podcast What a Day. She cohosts the show with reporter Gideon Resnick, and says, “It’s two friends talking about the news. We try to balance some hard-hitting, upsetting, daily-strife news, with funnier, lighter fare. I think that it’s the least soul-sucking way to stay informed.”

Because she has some preexisting conditions, Hughes has spent the entire pandemic at home. She says, “I’m very much in the cocoon of quarantine, just trying to come up with whatever my Shakespearean play is for this crazy time period.” She’s working on developing Obviously as a TV series, and after spending months filling out applications for rescue dogs, she recently adopted a Jindo mix puppy from Korea. His name is Fauci, and he’s often featured on her Twitter and Instagram.

In honor of the upcoming Festival of Books, Hughes shared a few book recommendations:

  • Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby – “I’ve read it so many times, because I think the essays are just hilarious.”
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – “It’s the story of intergenerational black women going through their family dramas and discussing them in a way that’s really beautiful.”
  • Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures edited by Natasha Marin – “It’s about where we can be as a culture in the future. I think that, especially for Black people in America, the future is what we have to look at, because the past was so painful.”
  • The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz – “I’m reading it now, and I’ve been cracking up. I could’ve lived my whole life without knowing Fran Lebowitz existed, and what a bummer life that would have been.”

The Selfies for Social Change: Claiming Space in Social Media panel takes place online, Saturday, April 17, at 2 p.m. Visit the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books website to view the full schedule and RSVP for the free virtual events.

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