One August-day, in 2018, Erastus Ayieko Otieno decided to shoot a quick video as his mother went out to get some groceries. That hastily done video would go on to give him his first viral video, propelling him to fame beyond his projected dreams. The entertainer from Kisumu talks to Thomas Rajula about his journey in ‘celebrityville’ and how it has changed his life.
It must suck being a Christmas-baby, right?
People have actually called me Emmanuel or Noel, all my life. On my birthday, people celebrate Jesus so I also just join them.
Why do you call yourself an entertainer?
I’m a singer, dancer, comedian and scriptwriter.
Which one came first?
I always wanted to be a singer, but there are a lot of talented people out here. So, I was looking for a way to get people to notice me, and the comedy gave me that breakthrough.
What genre do you do?
R&B, but it’s really hard to breakout with that in Kenya. I moulded myself after August Alsina; I’ve listened to all his songs.
Did you know you had a funny side to you?
People I went to school with, all the way to university, are shocked by this. I was very quiet and contemplative. But these are the kind of stuff that were going through my head. Whenever I saw something happening, I would script it in my head. Doing comedy has just given me an avenue to express those thoughts. (Laughs).
What were you pursuing in university?
I have a degree in public health from Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology. I graduated in 2018 but I just needed the papers. God has proven to me that I was created for entertainment.
Elaborate on this, please.
There are people who’ve done this for many years but struggled coming up. I started in August 2018, and by February last year I had hit 35, 000 followers on Instagram.
How did you start in comedy?
I used to watch Vines, before the app was taken down. I followed King Bach, Kenny Knox and Dope Island. I told my brother that I could do the same. Using a really outdated phone, I’d shoot and edit the videos; switching from one character to the next. When I posted my first video, people who knew me thought I was going crazy because that isn’t how they had known me. I stopped posting but started watching editing videos on YouTube and putting those skills to practice.
Which was your breakout video?
I was experimenting on different characters and Mama Otis’ character stood out. I realised people were feeling that “mum vibe” because it seems all mums are like that. People shared it on Facebook, WhatsApp and I was getting so much feedback from it. But that was just from people in my hometown of Kisumu.
Then, which video put you on the Kenyan map?
My brother told me to try out celebrity impressions, since I was always doing it in the house. My mum was leaving for the shops and I decided to shoot from a script that I had, of Khaligraph praying, before she came back and found me doing weird things; she didn’t know I was doing comedy then.
After posting it, I gained 10,000 followers on Instagram in two days.
What do you think makes your videos stand out?
When I do a script, it is down to the last detail; even how long a facial expression should take. That’s the art in my style. I also try to put scenarios that would be weird if celebrities were actually found doing them.
How do you develop the characters?
I test them over time. I try to read every comment below my posts, to get people’s minds about every character I introduce. That’s how I know people like seeing this character more and doing certain things. That’s how I ended up with Mama Otis, Bakari the choirmaster, Khaligraph, Eko Dydda and Bahati.
Is Mama Otis a real person?
I picked a few characteristics from my mum and two aunts. I don’t know at what point women become Mama Otis, because it seems like all mums are “extra” like that; they will stare at you weirdly or just make you do anything just so you don’t look like you’re idling in the house. It’s my favourite character because that’s what started this whole journey. I introduced Mama Kinston later on, as an ode to Brendah Jones’ Mama Plezdent Kinston character. I don’t script Mama Kinston’s responses though. I just leave spaces while shooting Mama Otis, then just do real reactions as I’m listening to the video.
Do you read all your comments and DMs?
I have to, because some of them are from businesses and I could miss out on the money.
Which brands are you working with?
I had worked with Samsung before a seven-month dry spell ended in November, 2019. I’m now working with Yola and Airtel. I have to make sure that the ads don’t exactly look like ads because I would lose my fan base that way, and that they also don’t skip the videos. So I maintain my style even then.
How did you stay afloat during the dry spell?
I have a music studio in Mambo Leo, Kisumu, called Hitites (a play on tight hits), where artistes come to record. I also record my music there, which will be released in due time.
Which comedians do you look up to?
I feel like Eric Omondi is very hilarious. I’ve also worked with Crazy Kennar and Seth Gor, who are very good.
You’re the eldest of three children. Do your brother and sister take you seriously?
They understand that this is just me in character, but they still know me to be somewhat serious.
What is in store for you this year?
As soon as I hit 100,000 followers on Instagram and 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, I’ll start presenting my scripts for TV shows. Currently, I’m at 81, 000 and 40, 000 on each platform, respectively.
Content creators should study their market, and see what you can do better. Don’t just try to go viral, think long term. Be humble, disciplined and have consistency with your output.
At what point would you consider yourself successful?
Tyler Perry levels; writing scripts for my own television shows.
My character of Bakari looks like Charlie Chaplin, but it wasn’t intentional.
Are you seeing someone?
I’m not seeing anyone. I tried it but entertaining takes a lot of time and it didn’t work out.
I love chicken, cooked well.
Do you do all the vocals for your harmonies with Bakari and SDA choir music remakes?
Yes. I just record the song in different voices.
Craziest experience since the fame?
I try to avoid scandals because of my brand. But after Live Vine Show at JKUAT, these three ladies started kissing me and grabbing me all over. People started taking videos. I don’t move around much so I didn’t know how people would react to seeing me. I was scared they would ruin my brand.
There was a time I was being called on different TV shows because of my work. It was nice to see the recognition from the ‘higher-ups’.