On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, 23-year-old Fadi Saleh was watching the U.S. election unfold along with much of the country. Meanwhile, a video he’d posted on his remix dubs channel Baracksdubs back in July was going viral on Facebook.
It featured President Barack Obama dub-singing “Fuck Donald Trump” by YG and Nipsey Hussle, and by the end of election week it had gone from 3 million Facebook views to 26 million views. “It speaks to Obama’s role as a symbol of nostalgia and solace in a scary time for a lot of people,” Saleh says.
Of course, viral content isn’t new for Saleh and Baracksdubs, the channel he created as a college freshman in 2012 that has since had Obama singing pop hits like “Call Me Maybe,” “Sexy And I Know It,” and “Shake It Off.” But now, in the wake of an exceptionally controversial election where America is facing a major turning point, Baracksdubs is facing a pivotal shift of its own.
Saleh came up with the idea for Baracksdubs while singing in the shower and questioning his pre-med career path. What if he made Obama sing instead? And so Baracksdubs was born, capitalizing on the way people felt about Obama that seemed different from his predecessors.
As the first social media president, Obama deftly used Facebook and Twitter during his campaign leading up to 2008, and since his inauguration, The White House has put resources behind digital initiatives like Snapchat filters and YouTube videos. Combined with that is Obama’s campaign strategy, billing him as a symbol of hope and positive change. All of those things together have made Obama seem more relatable, a pop culture icon of a president. Or as Saleh puts it: “Obama is a rock star.” Baracksdubs takes advantage of the way people already see Obama; these videos are a natural extension of his popular persona. “Whether you love him or hate him, he’s a pop culture icon as much as he is a president,” Saleh says. “Seeing a pop culture icon sing all these songs I think just makes a lot of sense to people.”
And that brings us to Donald Trump, an icon of a different sort. During this election cycle, creators who used Trump as entertainment faced blowback from viewers. When Saturday Night Live had Trump on as a host, people protested. When Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair in the months leading up the election, media and viewers criticized him for normalizing Trump, for making him more palatable to The Tonight Show’s wide audience.
It’s a line that everyone in this space will have to reckon with as we experience a Trump presidency, including Saleh. Though Trump videos will not be a focus on the new direction Baracksdubs is taking, he will still be in the mix of people singing dubbed songs. “I think Jimmy Fallon was doing a version of what I was doing, where the intention is apolitical,” Saleh says. “But the fact of the matter is that’s not how it’s going to be taken.”
He faces a difficult challenge: how to offer comic relief to anti-Trump Baracksdubs fans without alienating those who support him. He says he expects that first Trump video to make viewers feel “a little sore, a little too real to enjoy.” The trick will be to replicate the unique potency of Baracksdubs, how it speaks to Obama’s personality and place in the culture. Over the course of thousands of hours of video, Saleh has been able to pick up on and illuminate Obama’s strengths. “He knows how to get into character, and I mean that in a positive way,” Saleh says. “When he walks into a room he really understands how to adapt his tone and diction while still maintaining that sense of authority as a president.”
As Obama’s time as president trickles down, Saleh is moving Baracksdubs into a new phase of growth. Saleh has watched so many Obama speeches that people have said he talks with Obama’s inflection. “They’ll say like, ‘Oh you laugh like Obama. You sound like Obama.’ And I’m like, I swear that’s not on purpose.” Starting Friday, Baracksdubs will continue producing Trump and Obama videos but will turn its focus to a broader selection of celebrities and important figures.
The channel’s parent company, formerly SpareTime Entertainment, has been renamed ELMNT. With ELMNT, Saleh hopes to bring dubs to the masses. ELMNT’s three-tiered plan is one, to broaden dubs out to celebrities who aren’t Trump and Obama; two, to create new genres of dubs beyond just music; and three, to create an app that will turn viewers into creators, providing them with easy tools to make their own remixed videos. “This is probably the biggest moment in Baracksdubs history,” he says. “It’s about reminding people that Baracksdubs isn’t a one-act play.”
And Baracksdubs’ audience seems ready to embrace the new focus. Saleh heard from thousands of fans in a recent survey, 53% of whom wanted the channel to feature more celebrity voices, as long as Obama and Trump were still part of it. It helps that people like Ellen DeGeneres and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have already been dubbed on the channel.
Though ELMNT is still in early stages, Saleh will build out his team in Los Angeles and has already begun crowdfunding financial support through Patreon and selling Baracksdubs merchandise.
Meanwhile, Obama will still be a character on the Baracksdubs channel, if a less frequent one. He’s still an important symbol, Saleh argues, even out of office. “As we watch Trump do what he does, after his first 100 days people are going to be looking for something to keep moving them forward. And Obama is going to be part of that.”
On Tuesday, the Baracksdubs account posted its final video with Obama as the POTUS, set to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Obama’s dubbed voice sings out with the spirit of the real Obama, “We gon’ be alright. Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.” And watching him sing, even in dubbed form, we believe him.