Lying on his bed with a camera close to his face, Shabaz Ali raises his eyebrows, widens his eyes and drily ridicules the excessive lifestyles of internet influencers. His videos on TikTok and Instagram have propelled the 30-year-old from Blackburn, northwest England, to internet celebrity and the cusp of mainstream fame — yet he is the first to admit he is hardly a natural fit.
He is a chemistry teacher with a thick northern accent, using slang unlikely to travel very well even to neighbouring counties, and he makes serious points about the growing gap between rich and poor. “My issue has always been overindulgence,” he told AFP in a recent interview. “I think the Kardashian era is definitely coming to an end, because we’ve come to a point where we really don’t need to see how many billions you have and how much money you’re spending.” Ali, known as Shabaz Says on social media, has amassed tens of millions of views, with 1.6 million followers on TikTok and 1.2 million on Instagram. His main series — “I’m rich, you’re poor” — sees him comment on videos made by influencers.
He expresses incredulity as an influencer irons a bed, or makes ice cubes in the shape of pineapples, or cooks a “blood quiche”. Internet culture may be a golden goose for comedians, but Ali reckons his rich-poor humour has struck a chord because many people are struggling to afford the basics right now, even in wealthy nations. “They just want to talk about it,” he said of those commenting on his videos.
“In Britain, we grow up to be really ashamed about not having much. But you shouldn’t be ashamed,” Ali said. Instead, he wants to instil a sense of “povvo pride”, using northern England slang for someone experiencing poverty. Seeing the ridiculousness of someone fixing a wedding cake to the ceiling, or spending $50,000 on an Hermes bag, hammers home the absurdity of current times.
“It has allowed the rest of us to think: ‘I might not have it, but at least I’m not an idiot spending silly money on stupid things’,” he said. Ali has always mixed his professional life with social-media hobbies, starting out by editing YouTube videos. But during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when life migrated online across the world, his pupils encouraged him to get serious with TikTok.
Fuelled by boredom and a hot summer indoors, he started pushing out more short sketches, eventually hitting on the “povvo” vein of humour that saw his follower count take off. Now, he is selling his own merchandise, writing a book and thinking about a podcast and other media projects. Could he become the type of person he has been lampooning?
Ice cube fascination
Ali is clear: He has no plans to give up teaching and he is not swapping Blackburn for Dubai, the global epicentre of influencer excess. “I think Dubai has lent itself to everything I’m the opposite of,” he said. Equally important, he wants to avoid “bullying” humour and make sure he uses his celebrity to promote more important causes. “It is a form of escapism, but when you have one million people watching you, do something with that,” he said. “Don’t fall into the trap of just selling stuff.”
Ali has never been a fan of internet personalities and does not spend his spare time watching the videos he lampoons. But after a pause for thought, he admits one exception. “I’m fascinated by the ice cube videos,” he said of those showing people spending hours to create ice cubes in weird shapes, weirder flavours or even printing patterns on them.
For Ali, the people making these videos are legitimate targets because they are effectively saying, “I can afford to do this, you can’t.” Or to put it another way: “You’ve got fish fingers and food in your freezer, and I’ve got an entire freezer of ice cubes.”—AFP