BlackKrystel grew up in Palm Coast, Florida, a tiny town that’s also home to singer/producer blackbear, who co-wrote Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend.” “I was always touching a console or a controller,” she says. Though her whole family supported her early obsession with games, as one of the few people of color in her schools’ gifted and AP classes, Krystel struggled to find her “own little tribe.” Once she convinced her fellow nerds that she really did put together her mom’s PC when she was five years old, they invited her to play Super Smash Bros. and skip school to buy Call of Duty 4 when it was released at midnight. She began streaming online, hosting a YouTube series called The Weekly Krystel Fix where she reviewed upcoming releases, and parlayed her childhood of choir singing and piano training into recording acoustic covers and mashups of Fetty Wap songs.
When Instagram launched in 2010, Krystel took her small following to that platform, monetizing her internet presence by securing partnerships with brands like headphones brand Plantronics and Converse. By the time she graduated college, gaming wasn’t yet considered a viable career — not by society at large, and certainly not by her parents — so she couch-surfed for a while and worked odd jobs at GameStop, the US Postal Service, and retail outlets. Eventually, she convinced her parents to let her try the “BlackKrystel thing” for a year. If it failed, she’d hang up her Harley Quinn costume and submit to the drudgery of a nine-to-five. “I made the decision to be really dedicated about it,” she says. “I started streaming again to get back at that competitive level. A lot of followers from my YouTube days found me and were so welcoming, like, ‘You’re back! Long time no see.’”
Meanwhile, Columbia label executives Shahendra Ohneswere and Ryan Ruden had been keeping an eye on the level at which gaming culture was permeating pop’s discourse. Last year, Drake live-streamed his Fortnite match with gaming golden boy Ninja, while DJ Khaled hyped himself at the Overwatch League Finals; Megan Thee Stallion often Tweets about the anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Lil Uzi Vert regularly torments his fans by playing Fortnite instead of releasing his long-awaited album Eternal Atake. The Red Dead Redemption OST was a must-have record on its own, and that was before clips from the game were used in the music video to Lil Nas X’s record-breaking “Old Town Road.” “If you peek behind the curtain of a lot of artists who are popular today, they are gamers,” says Columbia AR Tebongo “Tebs” Maqubela, who helped develop Lost Rings.
“We have so many more cultural milestones than I did when I was a kid,” comedian and visual artist Zack Fox claims. Fox is an avid gamer and anime fan who hosted a VICE special on the Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem earlier this year. Growing up in Atlanta, where middle- and upper-class suburban black families with gaming-obsessed children abounded, his sense of belonging was different from BlackKrystel’s. “No one was looking at me like an outcast,” he adds. “All the black kids I knew were listening to fucking Paramore, playing Pokemon cards or Yu-Gi-Oh!, or Magic: The Gathering. We had all that, but we didn’t really have any large cultural icon validating that for us.”