The Secret Life of 6ixBuzz
How an Instagram account created by two ambitious, enigmatic young men became Toronto’s most successful—and most divisive—social media phenomenon
What is 6ixBuzz? An Instagram account with two million followers. A YouTube channel. The next big thing in Canadian media. A voice for diverse, often disenfranchised communities surrounding the downtown core. A burgeoning rap label. A digital sweatshop. A deeply divisive, sometimes bigoted social media feed. The answers vary depending on who you ask. If 6ixBuzz were a typical media organization, I’d put the question to the company’s founders, but they refused my request for an interview unless I agreed to keep their identities a secret. Why? That’s complicated too.
Back in 2017, when it all started—before the premier, Jagmeet Singh, Jake Paul, Drake and John Tory followed 6ixBuzz—no one cared what it was or who ran it. The account was the brainchild of two George Brown College students named Sarman Esagholian and Abraham Tekabo. They came of age with phones in their hands, loved hip hop, Toronto and memes, and decided to mash those interests together. They created a basic Instagram account, full of content that mimicked that of Say Cheese TV, a popular Texas-based media start-up that trafficked in local news, sports highlights and clips of street rappers freestyling. Its founder, Shawn Cotton, had quit his minimum-wage job cleaning appliances at a Best Buy distribution centre, and with $27 in his bank account launched the blog in 2011.
Esagholian and Tekabo were inspired by Cotton’s success, but where Say Cheese (and others like it, including WorldStarHipHop) was based in the U.S. and featured mostly American content, 6ixBuzz would focus on Toronto news and artists, plus the many funny, infuriating, jaw-dropping, controversial things young people were doing and seeing in the city and its surrounding municipalities.
The 6ixBuzz account grew quickly. For many kids in Brampton, Scarborough, Mississauga, Etobicoke and beyond, the feed was a mirror reflecting their experience back at them: the food court dynamics, park hangouts, parking lot meetups, underage drinking. The content was often authentic, funny, memorable and, above all, familiar.
That’s not to say it was always wholesome. The feed was curated for maximum views. The raunchier, racier or more shocking, the better. Esagholian and Tekabo published posts showing confrontations involving people openly struggling with mental illness, graphic car accidents, attempted home break-ins captured on Ring cameras, the taunting and harassment of Subway and Dollarama employees, as well as memes with racist, sexist and homophobic undertones. Often, 6ixBuzz would leaven the post with a neutral, open-ended question like, “What y’all think of this???” in the caption.
News selection seemed predicated on the theory that young people wanted to know what was going on in their city but weren’t going to tune in to the nightly broadcast or pick up a paper to find out. Most of the news clips were short, phone-friendly summaries of reports from other publications. The images were bold and featured captions written in a conversational, often humorous way.
Whether by design or by accident, the formula worked. By January 2018, six months after they launched, 6ixBuzz had 60,000 followers. That same month, 6ixBuzz republished a post from a Torontonian with the handle @mwhonder, featuring some truly local content: “A man proposed to his girlfriend in the [Scarborough Town Centre] food court while they were eating junior chickens… I’m tired of Scarborough.” It was as amusing as it was forgettable—until Drake, who had recently followed the account, left a comment: “East End Fairytale.” Practically overnight, the account swelled by 10,000 followers. Tekabo filed paperwork to incorporate 6ixBuzz, permanently entering his name (and later Esagholian’s, too) in the searchable federal business registry for anyone who cared to look it up online.
Around the same time, 6ixBuzz shared a video of a York University student who hopped onto the back of a TTC train car and took a joyride through the tunnel. The video caught the attention of mainstream news networks. When Global News ran the story, they credited 6ixBuzz. Two months later, 6ixBuzz hit 200,000 followers. By midsummer, it reached 360,000.
Soon, people were creating content in the hopes 6ixBuzz might repost it. In December of 2018, 6ixBuzz published a video of a young man tossing a chair over the railing of a high-rise balcony in downtown Toronto. The camera follows the chair’s trajectory to the Gardiner far below, where it smashes on the pavement. The man behind the camera laughs, gleefully chanting: “6ixBuzz, 6ixBuzz, 6ixBuzz…” Two months later, Marcella Zoia, now known as “chair girl,” repeated the stunt.
By July 2019, 6ixBuzz claimed they were receiving up to 2,000 direct messages a day, many of them content submissions. Among those hopefuls were people like James Potok, a 28-year-old aspiring musician who, during a flight from Toronto to Jamaica in the early days of the pandemic, stood up and announced that he had just returned from China and wasn’t feeling well, prompting the pilot to turn the plane around. Potok’s motivation? He said he was hoping to go viral on 6ixBuzz. That stunt received international coverage, boosting 6ixBuzz’s profile even further.
Yet despite the emergence of 6ixBuzz as a leading social media force, its creators remained a mystery to almost everyone who followed it, which gave Esagholian and Tekabo an additional superpower: cover to post whatever they wanted, to act on their basest instincts with impunity. Some posts insulted Bramptonians for being outsiders, others would mock Somalis with racist stereotypes. They encouraged commenters to insult each other—about what? Anything.
In a city fraught with cultural and geographical hostilities, 6ixBuzz became the place for warring factions to meet. In one post, a video shows three members of the Menace Gang from Alexandra Park standing outside a Regent Park building complex—effectively enemy turf—flashing huge wads of cash as if daring their enemies to emerge and respond.
6ixBuzz was essentially disseminating gang propaganda. Before long, the comment sections became miniature battlegrounds, with two faceless lords of war, Esagholian and Tekabo, sitting in the shadows, watching chaos ensue. The replies became so poisonous that followers would routinely joke that “unfollowing 6ixBuzz is a form of self-care.” Such criticism was articulated most prominently in May of 2020, when Mustafa (formerly Mustafa the Poet), a Grammy-winning songwriter, singer, poet and filmmaker from Toronto, tweeted “6ixBuzz pits communities against each other.”
After 6ixBuzz had posted yet another meme that insulted Somalis, some members of that community became upset enough to maybe do something about it. Someone presumably looked up 6ixBuzz’s business registration information and, on a Somali-Canadian message board, linked to an image of Tekabo and issued a call for violence: “Here he is 6ixers purge purge purge… murk him on sight kill him wherever you see him no mercy.” No one ever acted on the call to arms, but it was an indication of how seriously 6ixBuzz was being taken.
Around that time, the founders were starting to monetize their platform and weren’t about to change tack. They were charging $10,000 to run a sponsored giveaway or similar contest on their main account. The cost of a sponsored post varied from $5,000 to $7,000. An ad on their Instagram story, which would be live for only 24 hours, cost $2,500.
The meme game, in other words, was good. Since the start of the pandemic, Tekabo has travelled to Abu Dhabi, Miami, Los Angeles and Vancouver, spending time at luxury shopping malls, rooftop infinity pools and yacht parties.
Esagholian loved hip hop from an early age. By Grade 5, he had become a fan of Drake, inspired that a creative kid from Toronto could make it big on the international stage while staying rooted here. But in school Esagholian was frustrated by the limitations he saw around him. Music class was a place to learn to play an instrument, only—there was no option to learn about the business side of music. By the time he was in his late teens, he knew he wanted to be part of the entertainment industry. He wasn’t much of an artist himself, but he had a knack for spotting talent and for throwing unforgettable parties.
In the spring of 2016, a year before 6ixBuzz’s launch, Esagholian was organizing regular hip-hop nights with the help of his older brother and some friends, under the name KnowYork. Their events popped up around town that summer, and by September, they had secured a monthly slot at the Wallen nightclub and lounge (now closed) on Queen West. They expanded to Ottawa, bringing acts like Puffy L’z and the late Toronto-based rapper Smoke Dawg—both members, alongside Mustafa, of the Regent Park hip-hop collective Halal Gang—to the Bourbon Room, a bi-level nightclub on Rideau Street with a capacity of nearly 500. It was relatively small time, but they could sell out the space.
It was around this time that Esagholian and Tekabo noticed a gap in the Canadian music industry. So many of the rap artists KnowYork was putting on stage at small venues were essentially locked in place, career-wise. There was no mechanism for mainstream discovery. Despite the fact that Drake and the Weeknd had both emerged from Toronto to worldwide fame, there seemed to be no faith in the industry that Canada would produce another star like them. Or at least it seemed no one outside of the Weeknd’s XO Records and Drake’s OVO Sound wanted to put in the effort to find out.
To help fill the void, 6ixBuzz purchased a YouTube channel from James Dare, a young director and video editor and the man behind Kushdup Filmsz, a production company that shot music videos for local rappers. Dare had started his platform with the goal of building a place where people could go to discover new Canadian talent. But by the time Tekabo approached him, he had stepped back from the venture. Still, it was an established account with credibility and an audience. Dare sold his channel to the pair in what he characterized to me as a mutually beneficial deal. Esagholian and Tekabo rebranded the channel as 6ixBuzz Premieres and began shooting, producing and posting music videos for emerging rap talent.
Esagholian assumed control of the main Instagram account, while Tekabo gravitated toward the music side of things. (Their duties often merged when the main account posted clips from music videos—although they’d neglect to state whether or not the posts were paid for by artists). Word travelled fast about 6ixBuzz’s role in the city’s rap scene. A handful of artists, all with strong online audiences of their own, followed the account: Puffy L’z; Yung Tory, who’s since been signed to Timbaland’s Mosley Music Group and Def Jam Recordings; and LB Spiffy, a rapper from the Jane and Finch area. The popular producer Murda Beatz followed too.
Soon, 6ixBuzz was more than just an Instagram feed. It was a quasi music label, too. Their first album, 6ixUpsideDown, included acts Esagholian had featured with KnowYork—Top5, Archee and 3MFrench—as well as LB Spiffy, Pressa and the late Houdini. The album charted for a week on Billboard’s Canadian albums list, peaking at No. 87.
Over the years, some traditional news outlets reached out to 6ixBuzz, wanting to know who was behind the account everyone under 25 seemed to follow. Vice and a handful of blogs published features, and in each case the founders participated only on condition of anonymity. Toronto Life wanted to know too. In 2019, this magazine assigned a writer to meet with Esagholian, but wouldn’t agree to his request to keep the founders’ names secret. 6ixBuzz had become a bona fide media outlet and a source of news for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, and they deserved to know who was providing that information. When Esagholian heard that his name would be used, he turned menacing, calling the writer incessantly—dozens of times in the span of 15 minutes—and when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, Esagholian said it would be a problem if people found out where the reporter and his family slept at night. The writer backed out, and the magazine assigned the piece to another journalist. This time it was Tekabo’s turn to issue similar warnings. That writer also abandoned the pursuit.
Most media companies spend a small fortune creating a brand, securing an office and staffing up, and hope an audience follows. 6ixBuzz did it all in reverse
When asked, Esagholian and Tekabo would sometimes say the anonymity was important as a way to generate mystique. Other times, they’d suggest it was to protect them from retribution. So it came as no surprise when, after I requested interviews, the founders agreed but only if I concealed their identities. When I wouldn’t acquiesce to their terms and continued to reach out to sources without their participation, Tekabo ordered me via text to stop talking to people about the company. When I asked why he should be granted anonymity, he replied: “I have dead friends. A lot of them.” I sympathized with him, yet both their names were already easily found on Google, and numerous tweets identified them, alongside photos of their faces. And if they were truly concerned about violence, why were they issuing threats themselves?
What is a media company in 2021? With its steady accumulation of followers and advertisers, 6ixBuzz had effectively become one, and the industry they’d wandered into was in turmoil. Legacy brands were trying to survive and stay relevant amid overwhelming competition from Facebook and declining print revenue, among other existential crises; meanwhile, 6ixBuzz was providing a fascinating case study in 21st-century brand building. Where most new media companies spend a small fortune on creating a brand, buying or renting offices, hiring staff, and trying to attract and grow an audience, 6ixBuzz had done it all in reverse. They’d built a loyal following on the cheap using a free platform, then used that audience to grow the company into a legitimate challenger to long-established brands. They brought in collaborators, a sales team, designers and staff to help run the enterprise. They controlled costs thanks to subsidized office space—first at Yonge and Dundas, as an affiliate member of Ryerson’s Digital Marketing Zone, and then at Yonge and Sheppard in exchange for some sort of promotion, according to a source.
Part of their success was attributable to their audience: the ever-covetable youth demographic. And those kids weren’t some maybe-possibly interested citizens who had come across a post once or twice in their online travels; they were real people who had intentionally clicked “follow” on 6ixBuzz’s account. To sponsors, that combination of youth and loyalty was pure gold. For executives looking to get their message out to young people, 6ixBuzz—which by January of 2021 had two million followers—made a lot of sense.
There was an additional allure, too: it seemed that for every few hundred obnoxious posts, there was some charitable 6ixBuzz initiative. In 2018, they ran four dropoff locations for Toy Mountain, a holiday toy drive benefiting the Salvation Army. The following year, they organized a Thanksgiving food drive inside the DMZ Sandbox at the Ryerson Student Learning Centre. Then they partnered with Nelk, a band of YouTube pranksters, on a holiday food drive and meetup. Kids and teens lined up in droves as if for a Supreme drop, but to donate non-perishables. There was a raffle, the top prize being an all-inclusive trip to L.A. with the Nelk Boys. 6ixBuzz also started running park cleanups, one for Canada Day at Ashbridges Bay and another during Caribana at Coronation Park. Last year, there was a back-to-school giveback—6ixBuzz-branded backpacks and pencil cases packed with essentials were distributed in low-income neighbourhoods around the GTA—and a Thanksgiving turkey handout with Shelley Cares Foundation. They also sponsored DJ Charlie B’s holiday toy giveaway.
6ixBuzz was invited to high-profile panels and gatherings in the tech world. In November 2019, through Ryerson’s DMZ, they were partners, alongside Facebook, in the Canadian Media Innovation Showcase. Speakers included Mayor John Tory, Director X and representatives from the Score, CP24, TSN and Warner Music Group. They later met with Clearco, a financing firm led by entrepreneur and venture capitalist Michele Romanow of Dragons Den. In the spring of 2020, they signed a two-album distribution deal with Warner Music Canada. They’ve also been in talks with representatives from Bell Media to pitch talk shows for MuchMusic. This entire time, they managed to keep their names out of the press.
For all their success, however, there were signs the company wasn’t prepared for the scrutiny that comes with running a high-profile business. In the early days of the pandemic, as fears were rising about a new virus emanating out of Wuhan, 6ixBuzz posted a photo of a Markham restaurant called Wuhan Noodle 1950. Some 8,000 comments, many of them profoundly racist, followed. The owners of the restaurant received prank phone calls, and say they lost two-thirds of their business, which the owner chalked up to the social media attention.
Last year, 6ixBuzz landed a deal with Foot Locker to develop a capsule collection of 6ixBuzz-branded T-shirts, which Foot Locker would stock and sell. But when staff at retail stores across the GTA unboxed the product a week before it was going to hit the floor, many were disappointed that their employer would associate with such a divisive brand. They raised their concerns with district management. Days later, executives recalled the product with the exception of the shipment sent to Yorkdale, which stocked the items for just two days. Foot Locker also never made the items available through their e-commerce site, having decided that the collaboration was no longer “on brand.” In an Instagram post on September 18, 6ixBuzz cited “shipping delays” as the reason that the collection was now only available at Yorkdale. Internally, Esagholian characterized the matter as a disagreement over product development and that 6ixBuzz had decided to step back from the collaboration.
Esagholian and Tekabo had bigger things on their minds than the odd failed contract. They wanted to launch a 6ixBuzz website and app, and that was no small matter. They’d be taking a leap away from Instagram, which would require more infrastructure, a larger staff and more money. Plus, it was the first step in turning the business from a news aggregator into a news creator. They already had an art and sales department; now they contracted an app developer. They hired freelance writers to populate the site before it went live. Months before the launch, writers would attend Monday-morning pitch meetings, overseen by senior writing staff. Approved stories were due Friday at 5 p.m. Writers were expected to complete five a week, for $17 to $23 per article—meaning a paltry $100 per week per contributor. Their submissions would be laid out by editors in the website’s back end.
The launch was scheduled for December 29, 2020. 6ixBuzz bought out billboards across the GTA and paid for an animated trailer to air on the big screens above the new Rogers store at Yonge-Dundas Square. They hired a PR professional, who wove a compelling backstory: “6ixBuzzTV came from a group of young kids from the city who were tired of not being heard by mainstream media and gave a voice to the voiceless.”
But as the launch neared, the staff writers, none of whom had been paid, began noticing their articles disappearing from the system. It turned out Esagholian was directing higher-ups to delete articles he no longer deemed worthy of publishing. Because the contracts stipulated pay for “published articles,” he wasn’t technically bound to pay for them.
Despite living a lavish lifestyle, raising money for charity and running giveaways, the founders neglected to pay most of their employees
In fact, the experience was consistent across departments. Sales staff were hired on a commission of seven to 20 per cent, depending on which posts they were selling ads for and whether they brought in the client or simply closed. In some cases, they could be on the brink of closing, only to have communications with the client intercepted by a manager, who would take over, meaning the salesperson couldn’t claim commission but would still be responsible for managing the file. Other times, a supervisor would cancel a contract after it was signed.
According to the nine current and former employees I spoke with, Esagholian was as ruthless a boss as he was ambitious. One employee worked 12- to 15-hour days, unpaid, without weekends off. During the early days of the pandemic, the mandate from Esagholian was to be the first news outlet anywhere to share updates from the Trudeau and Ford governments. But if staff, working from home, were moments late posting breaking news or allowed 10 minutes to elapse between tweets, Esagholian would be on the phone. Two former contractors described the workplace as a sweatshop.
When the company missed a pay date on Christmas Day in 2020, mutiny set in. In a 6ixBuzz WhatsApp group for freelancers, writers were shocked to see an editor write, “I refuse to work for a company that doesn’t pay its writers and editors.” That editor then quit and exited the chat. Esagholian, who was in the chat but rarely posted, jumped in to express his appreciation for everyone’s hard work. “We’ve been discussing pay for months in regards to starting when the site launches,” he wrote. Few were reassured. According to one employee, Esagholian began lobbing insults at them: “money hungry” and “lazy sacks of shit.” The remaining staff threatened to walk out, and some did.
After a six-day standoff, Esagholian paid half their overdue wages to get the staff back to work. But ultimately, he had all the power: there was no shortage of young writers and j-school grads looking for work, especially for a new and ascendant organization. Despite the high turnover, the launch went ahead as planned. Today, the site’s content spans culture, politics, the pandemic and of course music. In some ways, the website differs from the Instagram feed—less obnoxious, less shocking, more professional, more progressive and inclusive. Contributors have written about Supernaturals Modelling, an Indigenous-owned agency; the sale of 98.7, a local Black-owned radio station; and the opening of Black Owned Toronto, a Scarborough shop that grew out of a popular Instagram page promoting Canadian businesses. On the music side, 6ixBuzz released four singles through Warner to tease their most recent album, Canada’s Most Wanted, which arrived on June 11. The album accumulated 15 million streams on its first day.
Less than a decade into running Say Cheese TV, Shawn Cotton had become a cultural force. In 2018, the Los Angeles Times called him “one of the most influential contemporary tastemakers and cultural chroniclers of street rap music.” But less than a year after the article came out, Cotton was so deeply affected by the murder of his close friend and fellow videographer, Zack Stoner of ZackTV, that he wouldn’t even leave his house without a bulletproof vest and his nine-millimetre pistol. By that time, he owned 11 housing properties and had plans to buy more. He leaves his hot-pink Corvette parked in his garage, afraid to announce his presence in gang territory. He now visits rival neighbourhoods in cities across America, telling human-interest stories from neglected communities, and documenting various clashes from both sides.
If Cotton’s career trajectory—experimental start-up, wild success, blowback, career changes—is a reliable model, then the 6ixBuzz founders seem to be somewhere between stages two and three. In a recent Instagram story, Tekabo, who like Esagholian remains a behind-the-scenes player, prompted followers on his personal and private (though faceless) account to ask him questions. He was at an airport gate, trying to pass the time. As questions came in, he would post them, along with his answers, in his stories. He shared a question—“What made you make 6ixBuzz”—and his answer—“I was brokeeee”—superimposed over a page from his grade school yearbook. His face in the grad photo was covered, but his year-end quote was visible: “In 10 years I’ll be richer than all of you guys.”
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.