Issue #11 "Don’t try to be the norm because that does not work."

A conversation with Mohamed Moustapha, creator and co-founder of Jesso Media.

Photo: Yarden Haddi

What does it take to successfully launch a media company from scratch? Mohamed Moustapha believes it means going against the grain. His platform, Jesso Media, is looking to change the way we traditionally consume culture. It’s amassed a community of nearly 30,000 followers on social media who have come to rely on it for the latest trends in music, sports and entertainment from across the globe. Mohamed caught up with perspectivves to discuss the need for authenticity in media, trends in culture, and why we need to say: “f*ck the niche.”

“I want Jesso to be a platform where no matter what country you are from, it serves as a universal hub that can house all these different cultures and experiences.”

Yarden: Where do you see Jesso’s place in the media landscape? 

Mohamed: The direction we are headed towards is a global platform. The core of what we do is music because music to me is the core of all cultures. We’re not designating our brand based on regional demographics. So we’re not just looking to target a Toronto-only audience or people who are only into hip-hop. Jesso represents an individual that exists in this world that is very cultured and is accustomed to growing up with different people. That’s our audience. Someone who consumes our content, for example, might listen to K-Pop, read anime, watch basketball and Premier League soccer, and travel around the world. That’s the person that we’re aiming for and we feel like that person is going to become more prominent because the world is becoming a more homogenous, globalized place. It’s the same reason why MTV fell off. MTV didn’t catch on to the on-demand wave. They didn’t catch on to how things were shifting and changing. That’s why they kind of got left behind. It’s the same thing with a lot of these other media platforms. It’s the same reason why, for instance, Blockbuster shut down. They didn’t realize that things were moving digitally. That was the cultural change. Media platforms, the ones that have become super regional, are set in that old mindset that you have to have a specific demographic. I want Jesso to be a platform where no matter what country you are from, it serves as a universal hub that can house all these different cultures and experiences.

Yarden: It seems like an effective way for you to engage younger people. They are the ones using their phones a lot and are least likely to read a paper or even watch TV news. Are these the types of audiences you are targeting?

Mohamad: I’ve done research on this. I’ve read Nielsen reports on things like cell phone use in second and third-world countries. Usage is doubling and tripling at an exponential rate. Some places in these countries go from not having internet, not having phone landlines to having a smartphone that has Facebook. How do you think that affects the people living in that world in terms of culture and their social development? I look at it from a high level and to most people it doesn't make sense because we are just a “media company.” I want to create a platform that acts as a hub housing different cultures and experiences; one that curates and presents content in a way [that makes it accessible] for a wider audience through editing, creating unique captions and more. For us [it’s important] to be authentic in everything we do. I’m looking at a kid who is 9-years-old that just got a smartphone. I value him because in a few years he is going to be so tech-savvy. These are potential markets that you can reach and that most people don't focus on. Millions of people in these communities all have smartphones preloaded with Facebook and Instagram ready for our content.

Ziv: I guess what I am gathering here is that niche is a limitation for you. It’s restrictive. F*ck the niche. The world is your audience. 

Mohamed: I know that for a lot of people that goes against basic business principles. It is limiting. Look at the media company 6ixBuzz, for example. Where do you go with that brand? The name is restrictive. WorldStarHipHop can never become a reputable media company because look at the name. What does it mean? We want to have that ability to be fluid, to be able to be wide-ranging and even though we're touching on a lot of different things, there’s a core culture that we're touching. There isn’t a category or a label for it yet. Yarden is a perfect example of that category [of audience]. He and I grew up completely different, but I can guarantee you that we can have a lot of conversations on different things where we would get each other. Maybe we don’t always agree, but we would get each other. I want to reach those types of people. Through Jesso Media, I can have a bunch of Mohameds and Yardens—or whomever—having a conversation about these subjects.

“You could take the Weeknd and put him into any environment, any country, any space. Or you could put him at some high-fashion Paris runway show. He’s going to be able to adapt to any environment.” 

Ziv: Expand on the idea that you and Yarden come from very different environments but connect in a very meaningful way.

Mohamed: You know what it is? Toronto culture. People ask why artists like Drake and the Weeknd are so successful. It’s because they grew up in a multicultural city. They were built to be mass-produced. You could take the Weeknd and put him into any environment, any country, any space. Or you could put him at some high-fashion Paris runway show. He’s going to be able to adapt to any environment. Toronto artists can change the way they speak [as well]. Drake does that. He’ll be in the hood and talk a certain way and in a corporate setting, he’ll talk a different way. That’s a Toronto skill. I’m telling you that that’s where the world is going. And if people don’t pick up on that they are going to be so behind because they are going to be chasing this niche market, and meanwhile, everyone’s going to be on this super eclectic wave. Think about music: now it’s become normal for artists to be multi-genre and bend genres whereas, in the past, they’d call you a sellout for doing that as if it was a bad thing. Now it’s normal for a person who makes music to be a video director and to also be a graphic designer. Look at Kanye West, for instance. He went to an art school, he was into drawing, he was into instruments, and production too. That’s the wave. That’s where people are going. Everyone is multi-faceted now so media brands have got to catch up. If you’re Fox News, to use another example, you have to figure out a way to connect with [different types of demographics within your audience] like Black Conservatives. There are also Chinese Conservatives and you have to figure out a way to reach them too. Even when it comes to politics, everything now has to be multi-faceted and a lot of these media conglomerates don’t understand that. They don’t get it yet. I wasn’t surprised when the movie Black Panther sold out. Of course, it's going to sell out. There are no Black superheroes. If you made an Indian version of Black Panther, that sh*t would also sell out [laughs]. I’m ready for that. I grew up with different people, I’ve eaten different foods. That’s just how I am. I know there are more people like me and that I’m not the only one who thinks this way. That’s what Jesso is. Whatever side you're on, we’re going to create an avenue for you to learn about that other side in an easy, accessible way. That’s the goal. We also want to make sure that when you come through our page, you feel as comfortable as possible and we don’t want you to feel leaned or pushed one way. We’re saying, “here’s the information, how do you feel about it?”

“We look at media and business in the same way that a creative or an artist would. You have to be authentic”

Yarden: Every artist’s work has a bit of influence from their own life experience, and I think it's the same thing with companies and their founders.

Mohamed: We look at media and business in the same way that a creative or an artist would. You have to be authentic, it has to come from your lived experiences, otherwise, you are speaking from a place that just doesn't work. And that's what media is lacking. A lot of these companies are chasing numbers and they’ll say, “this story is cool. Let's make sure to interview the person behind it”. But they don’t know that person's history. A recent phenomenon that's happened in sports media is that a lot of athletes have started their own podcast. Media has become so accessible that you don't need to go to ESPN, you can go straight to the source. The interviews are completely different, and it's a conversation.

Ziv: In my view, you need people at the head of media companies who are visionaries like yourself. In other words, this would not be possible without people who can forecast trends. You are forecasting trends. You’re not just doing journalism, you are a marketing agency. 

Mohamed: Definitely. The reason we can forecast and see a lot of things coming is because I can look in the mind of a demographic and understand how they react to something and how, if this thing gets pushed hard enough, it can become something popular. One of our posts that went viral and created a lot of engagement was a post about these rappers from Ghana in Africa that make Drill music. It blew up. People were messaging us and asking about it. It was a moment for us as a media brand to introduce our audience to another country. We created a bridge there between two worlds. That’s what we want to be with Jesso. And in a few years, I think that if we can execute that enough, we’ll be where we need to be as far as becoming a prominent media platform. I studied Vice, Bleacher Report, and all of these other media companies and how they’ve grown. The key thing that I learned from them is to be different and to be consistent. Through trial and error, we’ll figure out the formula and once we figure that out, that will be our domain. For anyone who tries to enter the space afterward, we’ve already created a competitive barrier. Don’t try to be traditional. Don’t try to be the norm because that does not work. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

About the creators:

Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.

Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently, he produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.

Made with chutzpah in Toronto.