This profile is part of our Culture Shifters series, which highlights people who are changing the way we think about the world around us. Read about film archivist Maya Cade, internet star Drew Afualo, rapper Latashá, music historian Katelina Eccleston, filmmaker Alika Tengan, and actors Rhoyle Ivy King and Nicco Annan.
Keyon Elkins got his first phone when he was 13 years old. It was “a really rundown” piece from Metro PCS, but it was what his mother could get and afford.
Elkins said he felt he was behind in comparison to his peers, digital natives who received their first phones before they were teens, but he took the Android he got and ran with it. He remembers flipping the camera and filming videos in his room. However, fearful of people seeing his true self, he never shared them with anyone. Elkins, who uses he and they pronouns, was still trying to navigate identity and adolescence.
“I was still trying to figure myself out,” he said. “As a Black queer person growing up in the South, you have to hide a lot of things. In those videos, I was just really being myself, and I didn’t share any of that. I kept it secret for the longest.”
Elkins posted his first YouTube video at 14. “Ugh, I hope nobody does that,” he told HuffPost, cringing at the thought of how much time he’s spent on the internet.
Now 21, Elkins is the voice behind some of the funniest tweets and TikTok sounds (notably, “It’s because I ain’t got a iPad” in February 2021) and a source of viral joy, and he is a driving force in today’s digital culture. With more than 500,000 Twitter followers and 66,000 YouTube subscribers, he refrains from calling himself a cultural critic or even a social media personality. In his eyes, he’s someone who “just posts anything and wants to make people laugh.”
The Shreveport, Louisiana, native has been creating content for almost a decade, dabbling in photography and styling, and offering witty, opinionated commentary on television, film and various pop culture trends. He ascended to popularity after an epiphany he tweeted about in December 2019. (Elkins hilariously realized that Hamburger Helper doesn’t come with meat in the box.)
He’s picked up several celebrity fans along the way, too. Elkins was mentioned by Adele in her November 2021 Rolling Stone interview; she said, “If anything’s blowing up on Twitter, I always go straight to that account.” Though Adele dubs Elkins the arbiter of what’s hot and what’s not, he just sees himself “as this kid from Louisiana that talks about what he wants to talk about, and people just check for it.”
Following the fake album announcement “with imaginary duets from Beyoncé and Ariana Grande,” she searched “@keyon” on Twitter to see his response, Rolling Stone reported. Elkins knew the track lists were fraudulent, pointing out that Adele doesn’t typically do features.
However, that day was actually incredibly nerve-wracking for Elkins. He woke up early, at 8 a.m., to study for an exam he had a few hours later — then, his phone began buzzing incessantly. His home screen was flooded with a stream of Twitter notifications and mentions.
“All I seen was Adele, Adele, Adele. I’m thinking maybe she released a new song early or a new album early,” Elkins said. “But I see, ‘Adele mentioned you in Rolling Stone.’ I’m like, hold on. Somebody’s playing a joke on me.”
He visited Rolling Stone’s Twitter page, which mentioned him, and he was in shock.
“I was really, really excited. Adele really doesn’t do interviews like that, so for me to be name-dropped in one of those interviews, it distracted me,” he said. “Later on that day, I couldn’t even focus on my exam. It was bittersweet. I got mentioned by Adele, but at the same time I bombed my exam.”
Growing up, Elkins found a safe space online. He watched the biggest names that defined and shaped Black YouTube in the early 2010s, such as Kingsley and Tre Melvin. He saw himself in those content creators, and watching them be affirmed, appreciated and accepted inspired Elkins to branch out.
Raised in conservative, church-going northwest Louisiana, Elkins grew up hearing that being queer “isn’t good.”
He remembers being bombarded with questions like “Why do you talk like a girl?” resulting in him shutting down and keeping to himself. School was an isolating place, where Elkins often felt alienated and unsupported by kids from his neighborhood. However, his mother — his best friend and his rock — always encouraged him, he said, and Elkins sought to find community in other ways: online.
“I don’t need anyone to accept me, but I do think every kid needs to feel appreciated. I posted my first YouTube video, and the comments were super, super positive,” Elkins said. “I wasn’t even being nobody else — I was being myself. As a 14-year-old, that was something I really needed.”
Nonetheless, he’s incredibly proud of being from the South, the Blackest part of the United States. Akin to Megan Thee Stallion putting on for Houston and Flo Milli repping Mobile, Alabama, he proudly dons Louisiana on his sleeve. Elkins applauded Flo Milli for unabashedly celebrating her Southern roots in her music — with lyrics like, “Bitch, I’m from Alabama” — and his followers were taken aback. Some even replied, “Why would anyone be proud to be from there?”
Elkins retorted with, “Y’all wouldn’t get it.”
“I love the South, and I think without Black Southerners, this world would be nothing. The way we speak, the way we act, the way we move, the way we dress,” Elkins said. “It’s something to be proud of. I just love us.”
“At one point, I was kind of scared to be, like, ‘Oh, I’m from Louisiana.’ The South has its history and, of course, we can’t ignore it,” he added. “You grow up in the South and you feel so ashamed. Then you have to remember, I’m not just from the South, I’m a Black person from the South. What we have and what we’ve created is really, really special.”
That creativity has carried Elkins far as he’s made a name for himself online, literally. After stagnant growth on YouTube, Elkins created his Twitter account in 2015 under the moniker “HOOD VOGUE is tired of poverty.” The handle stems from his time on Tumblr, seeing a mishmash of images from his feed back-to-back, ranging from haute couture in Vogue magazine to Black creatives in the hood.
“I just came up with something random,” Elkins said. “The ‘is tired of poverty’ came from me growing up poor, still, not rich. I just added that just to be funny. I was actually gonna change it, but everybody was, like, ‘Oh, my God, no!’ So, it just stuck with me now that I have this platform. I was gonna change it to ‘Keyon’ before I started gaining followers, but it’s too late,” he said with a laugh.
Attending school during the COVID-19 pandemic, Elkins said he didn’t have an opportunity to start making friends until the fall 2021 semester. Now, as a rising senior at Northwestern State University, only twice have classmates greeted him with, “OMG, you’re Keyon!”
His mother only knows about his YouTube channel because his older brother told her. When he informed her that his account was verified, she said, “What? OK… whatever that means.” Elkins said that what’s most important to her is that her child is safe online.
Elkins, a team of one, runs his Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, email and everything he puts his face on online. Managing this visibility alone, he said he feels the weight and pressure of the public’s expectations of him. It’s a double-edged sword.
“It’s rough being a Black person with visibility,” Elkins said. “You always have to limit what you say to a certain extent. People follow us because we keep it real, but at the end of the day, I do think to a certain extent we have to limit ourselves because then you get harassed. If you don’t say what people want you to say, it’s a problem. They love saying, ‘You hate fun. You’re miserable. You’re a hater.’”
As much as he enjoys sharing his opinions, Elkins said, he knows he doesn’t want to be on Twitter forever. He wants to branch out into music, return to photography, his first love, and do much more. With all the creative talent he has, ironically, Elkins studies accounting with a minor in computer information systems.
“When you come from a low-income background, you can’t really just major in anything. You have to put your thinking cap on, like, what is going to give me that financial stability that I need. I majored in accounting, and I’m good at it.”
Moreover, Elkins understands the volatility of digital media and the barriers that exist for Black creatives. Despite churning out so much viral content, he has yet to have been picked up by a management team. There is a 35% racial pay gap between white and Black influencers, according to a report from public relations agency MSL in partnership with The Influencer League.
Forbes’ top-earning TikTokers report of 2022 consists only of white content creators, many of whom are constantly appropriating Black culture and being rewarded with endorsement deals and branding contracts. This dynamic led to a strike from Black TikTokers in late June 2021. Elkins said his “iPad video” was, unfortunately, a prime example.
“I couldn’t even enjoy that video going off because half of the comments in that video were people making fun of how I speak,” Elkins said, noting his Southern drawl. “But then the next day you have a non-Black person basically trying to mimic how I speak and they get praised for it. Now you see people calling out non-Black people for having a ‘blaccent’ and stuff like that — thank God. But for the longest time, you can’t really complain about that without seeming like you’re jealous.”
Elkins hopes that people get a laugh out of his videos while also understanding that he’s a real, regular human being.
“I wish people would go easy on me sometimes, no Adele,” Elkins said with a laugh. With graduation nearing, he wants to travel the world after school and pursue his dreams, such as hosting “Saturday Night Live” one day or shooting a magazine cover.
After finally acquiring his own iPad in October, Elkins is well on his way.