By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Few can say they’ve been active on YouTube as long as Birmingham’s Kevin Peterson who, having amassed nearly 300,000 followers over more than a decade, was there before most even understood the power of serious Internet content creation.
“A lot of people who watch my stuff now may not know, but I’ve like been on YouTube since almost the beginning, when a lot of people kind of shared the same story,” he said. “It was just kind of like a video hosting site, just put stuff up that we had made and wanted to share with friends or colleagues or people at work and things like that,” said Peterson, who goes by “the1janitor” or T1J, a name which came from a janitor/superhero character he used to draw as a child.
He is now often mentioned in the same breath as other social commentary figures on the platform, Black or otherwise, like F.D. Signifier and Lindsay Ellis.
When Peterson, 37, started he was still in his dorm room at the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, recording rants and short creative projects about whatever was on his mind, whether it be the ethics of spanking children or procrastination. That was in 2008.
“It was just like me sitting in front of a webcam just talking about whatever really, just anything that would come to my mind. I think there were some videos back then that kind of resembled what I do now, but that definitely wasn’t the point of the channel,” Peterson said.
He left UA the same year he began YouTube and started a job at the Hoover Public Library as a library page, pushing a cart around and shelving books. After a few years of doing regular jobs and YouTube at the same time, Peterson said, he was laid off from a call center in 2013.
However, he had begun to see some money from his videos, and while on unemployment decided to make YouTube a career.
“I decided to just focus on YouTube and not really get a real job anymore after that, which was a bad idea, I should say, but that’s what I decided to do at the time,” Peterson said.
Since Peterson dedicated himself to the platform, he has steadily continued to gain subscribers on his YouTube channel, which now has 303,000.
Building An Audience
Around 2016, Peterson begin to build his audience, speaking on social justice topics, particularly race and the Black Lives Matter movement, which had seen a resurgence since it began in 2013.
During the years of 2015 and 2016, YouTube had seen a growth in videos made by anti-social justice figures, Peterson said, and his positive focus on social justice topics helped him build an audience by standing in contrast, he said.
“I hesitate to talk about it, because I don’t really want to toot my own horn, but I do think that I was one of the people that provided the earliest counter arguments to that type of [anti-social justice] content, among other people,” Peterson said.
Also, there weren’t many on YouTube during the early years who could speak to the experience of being Black in America, he said.
“I also think that there weren’t very many Black content creators, especially Black male content creators, that were talking about racial issues, at least in a way that I thought was productive, and also just in a way that is authentic to my experience as a Black person,” he said.
In a lot of his videos, Peterson said, he’s explained social concepts he views as simple but necessary for some people, like dispelling myths about Black Lives Matter and talking about concepts of inclusivity.
“I think a lot of what I did for a while was just introducing, what I perceived to be, pretty basic things to people, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. It’s just like, no one’s ever explained it in that way, or they’ve never heard it explained by an actual Black person,” Peterson said.
Feeling like one of only a handful of Black creators talking about social issues on the platform in those years, Peterson said, made him feel a pressure, something which he no longer feels with a spate of new Black creators in the same space.
“There are several fantastic Black creators on YouTube now, and I think there’s people who are better than me at talking about these things now, so I don’t really feel like the duty that I used to, to kind of talk about these things,” Peterson said.
Peterson listed F.D. Signifier, Jouelzy, Tee Noir and Khadija Mbowe as a few of his favorite Black YouTube creators.
Peterson, born in Germany, came to Birmingham at age 8, after having previously settled in Maryland. After initially moving to Ensley, Peterson said, he, his three brothers and mother Lois Jemmott moved around the city and metro throughout his youth.
As a child, Peterson, who was oldest of three boys, said he spent much of his time drawing, influenced by X-Men cartoons and comics, as well as the Cartoon Network fare of the time, such as “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Cow and Chicken”.
During his time at Ramsay High School, located in Birmingham’s Five Points South neighborhood, Peterson said he took art classes and aspired to draw comics as a career. His first semester at UA, in 2003, Peterson said, he came in as an art major.
However, though Peterson never graduated from the university, he underwent a shift in how he chose to express himself while there. After years of being focused on visual art, Peterson said his last change in major was to English.
“I think I just needed an extra credit, or I was just trying to find a different class to take, so I took a creative writing class and just ended up falling in love with it, and from there, I started taking more literature classes, and I liked those as well,” Peterson said.
Before college, he never took much interest in what he read for school but found the teaching style of his professors more engaging. Even though he had never had an interest in writing, Peterson said looking back, the change from visual art to writing made sense.
“I always hated taking tests in school, but I always really enjoyed writing essays and it never occurred to me that it was a creative process at the time, …it was just expressing myself.”
Peterson, who now lives in Birmingham’s Crestwood area, said outside of his work, he is an avid watcher of Alabama Crimson Tide football and player of role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
He can occasionally be found seeing friends later in the night at the Japanese-inspired bar and restaurant Shu Shop downtown.
Check out T1J’s videos at https://youtube.com/user/the1janitor.
Updated at 10:51 a.m. on 11/28/2022 to reflect Peterson’s increase in number of subscribers.