If there’s one thing to know about BuzzFeed’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud, it’s that his favourite movie is Moneyball. The 2011 sports film features Brad Pitt as the general manager of a professional baseball team, who recruits a Yale economics graduate (played by Jonah Hill) to help him build an undervalued but ultimately successful team using statistical analysis. It’s Abdelmahmoud’s go-to film when he has—albeit rare—downtime. But it’s not because he’s a baseball fan,or even necessarily a Brad Pitt fan. It’s much more philosophical. “Ostensibly,” he says, “it’s a baseball movie. But it’s not a movie about baseball. It’s a movie about revolutions, and it’s about how not everyone recognizes we’re in the middle of a revolution.” Abdelmahmoud doesn’t watch the film for the adrenaline of the game, but rather to see if he—like Pitt’s character—can recognize game-changers. “I guess when I watch Moneyball, I’m really looking for answers,” he says. “Trying to be like, Would I have the tools and the recognition to be like, this is the thing that has the power to change everything? That has the power to change the way that we think about everything?
“I haven’t gotten an answer, and maybe when I do, I’ll stop watching Moneyball,” he muses. “But for now—great movie.”
Abdelmahmoud is quickly becoming a recognizable name. It pops up daily on Twitter to his 22,000 followers, where his sharp, relatable tweets about news and pop culture rack up double digit likes and even bigger engagement. It also pops up between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. five days a week in the inboxes of people across the web—and the world—signing off the BuzzFeed News morning newsletter. The newsletter, which Abdelmahmoud took over in early 2018, has become well known on Twitter for Abdelmahmoud’s clear and accessible break down of, often, heavy news stories, and his inspirational sign offs—always varying, always reflective, and always encouraging, even when the news cycle isn’t.
In August 2018, Abdelmahmoud’s letter to his daughter on the burden and privilege of carrying an Arabic name, published as part of Maclean’s “Before You Go” series, further introduced audiences to another introspective and nuanced side of the journalist.
And people are reading—and loving it. In mid-November 2018, BuzzFeed announced that Abdelmahmoud’s sign offs were moving off the web and into our closets with the media outlet releasing t-shirts featuring his inspirational phrases. And less than three weeks later, Abdelmahmoud announced that he’s set to release a book of personal essays about belonging, blackness, masculinity, and being Muslim. Son of Elsewhere is set to be released in Fall 2020.
“I never planned on this,” Abdelmahmoud says of his career in media, as we sit across from each other at BuzzFeed Canada’s office on a rainy day in early October 2018. While attending Queen’s University, Abdelmahmoud wrote for the Queen’s Journal (the campus’s student newspaper) and worked on the student-run radio station CFRC. “[But] this wasn’t the plan. That was just stuff I enjoyed doing on the side,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was go to public policy school…I was like, I’m going to work in public policy and I’m going to save the world through the complex machinery of policy.” It didn’t work out. “U of T rejected me, they were like—keep it, thank you,” he says.
After a short internship speech-writing for Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf, and a seven-month stint at the Yorkdale Apple store, he landed his first media gig as a researcher on the set of CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight in February 2012. “I loved that show, I still love that show. I wish it was still around,” he says. But the stability of news eventually drew him to The National as a researcher and editorial assistant, before he made the jump to TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin as an online producer and Social Media Specialist in 2013—a dream job for him, combining his love for policy with its implications. “This is a time where a lot of newsrooms were [asking], ‘What is this social media thing? Someone should explain it to me,’” he says. “That was how I ended up at TVO.”
“Elamin was fun,” says Steve Paikin, longtime host of The Agenda. Working with Abdelmahmoud both behind and in-front of the camera, Paikin says, was memorable. Recalling Abdelmahmoud’s particular and distinct way of expressing himself: mainly with his hands. “After I got to know him better, we were sitting on set and I got the cue to start,” Paikin recalls, “and I started my introduction, and all of a sudden I sort of clicked into Elamin mode and I started flying my hands all over the place. I would talk very low and then come up high again,” he says. “And the look of fear, terror, and amusement in his eyes as I was in the throes of doing that was pretty funny.” Throwing him a question, Paikin says Abdelmahmoud froze—unsure how to respond— “I just said, ‘Come on, man, I’m just screwing with ya’—and we took it again,” Paikin says. “That‘s the kind of stuff that stays with you.”
Moving to BuzzFeed in 2015 was an easy choice for Abdelmahmoud. In fact, at the time, it seemed almost meant to be—spurred on by the changing role of social media and news. “My reading of social media trends in general was that nobody’s really interested in clicking through to the website and spending all that time [there],” Abdelmahmoud says. “They’re more interested in consuming the content where they were.” At the time, he says, BuzzFeed was doing just that—ahead of other newsrooms—experimenting with having more of their content live on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and away from their actual site. “And to me, this was interesting,” he says, “because I thought: that’s weird. And then they opened a Canada office.”
“This is not a surprising situation,” TVO’s Harrison Lowman says of Abdelmahmoud’s popularity. A longtime friend and former co-worker of Abdelmahmoud’s at TVO, the pair met in 2014 on assignment, bonding over politics and audience engagement as they drove to Waterloo, and later—and almost every summer since—driving down to the states for an annual boys trip. Of their initial meeting, Lowman says it didn’t take him long to realize just how much people like Abdelmahmoud.
“I would describe it to people as an aura he has. He really pulls people in, so much so that when you’re walking with him on the streets of Toronto, you constantly run into someone that he knows from some walk of life,” Lowman says. “And it’s not like if you or I were to just walk by and someone would say, ‘Oh it’s so nice to run into you, what a surprise,’” he continues. “They’re completely taken by him and they just light up, and it’s really kind of weird to see. You’re almost like, I wish people liked me that much.”
So why the allure? Lowman has a few ideas. Mainly, “he’s just totally open, happy and willing to give advice, happy to admit instances where perhaps he went wrong, put those fully out there,” Lowman says. “And I think people really take to that.”
“Since I’ve known him he’s been quite sure when it comes to his voice…it seems like he really thinks through things,” Lowman says, commenting on Abdelmahmoud’s on-air confidence. This can partly be accredited to his time at Queen’s, where Abdelmahmoud studied philosophy for four years—enough to fulfill a degree—before switching to gender studies in his final year, spurred on by an elective, finishing the required credits in a year and a half. The elective was feminism and Islam.
Abdelmahmoud is very aware of the extra (potentially unnecessary) time he put into his undergrad, but “at the time, I just felt a real pull towards a field of study that I was like, ‘All of this is new to me. I’m so interested in [this],’” he says. And it’s the set of tools he gained from that year and a half—namely the ability to analyze and critique, making connections that are often hard to put into words—that he’s taken into his working life as a journalist, lending an introspective, gendered, and racialized lens to much of his work. Whether it’s writing about how to end systemic oppression at Queen’s to commenting on how men can help end rape culture on CBC to—most recently—writing about the whiteness inherent in the Canadian identity of cottage ownership for Cottage Life Magazine.
It’s a lens that Paikin says can also be attributed to Abdelmahmoud’s background—different from many of the other people working at TVO at the time. “[Because of this], I was interested in his take on events,” Paikin says. “I’m a guy who was born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1960s and ’70s, so how I see the world and how he sees the world, he having been brought up and come to Canada as a refugee, will be very different and that difference was always intriguing to me.”
Coming from Sudan as a refugee in 2000, at 12 years old, Abdelmahmoud and his mom joined his dad—who had come to Canada three years earlier and owned and ran a convenience store—in Kingston, Ontario. Growing up in the historic city—where the population remains largely physically and culturally white—Abdelmahmoud says, wasn’t always easy. “[From grades 8 to 10] that was a period of time where I don’t really remember anything other than the process of trying to learn the language and of trying to constantly fit in,” he says. “That meant talking as little as possible about the fact that I’m from Sudan, and listening a lot to what these kids were talking about so that I could learn to blend in.” This meant, at the time, learning to love wrestling and Nelly Furtado.
“It’s not a criticism to Nelly Furtado. I was interested in those things,” he says. “ [But] I think my interest, now looking back at it, was almost cartoonish, because it was like, if that’s what everybody’s listening to, if that’s what everybody’s doing, then I’ll force myself to be interested in it. It wasn’t [so] much faking it, as much as it was I’m gonna force myself until I’m into it. And then I was into it.”
For all the difficulties those first years brought, Abdelmahmoud credits the city for his upbringing, considering himself—surprisingly—one of the limestone city’s biggest defenders. “ I’m like, I don’t know when the fuck that happened,” he laughs, “but I’m really enjoying it.”
Kingston is the place where Abdelmahmoud learned and had his first thought in English. A poignant moment he still recalls, although he can only really remember that it occurred while watching Friends. “It wasn’t an interesting thought…[but] I remember thinking, hey my thinking has changed…It felt like a triumph,” Abdelmahmoud says.
While Abdelmahmoud has been on our screens—both tablet and TV—for years, it’s really the newsletter that cemented his status as a personality. “I think that Elamin really understands some things that are unique about the medium of newsletters, which is that they are, by necessity, a bit of an intimate medium,” says Torstar’s David Topping of Abdelmahmoud’s popularity. Topping, the newsroom director for newsletters at Torstar, has worked on building and branding newsletters across Canada. “[Newsletters are] in your inbox alongside your friends, your family, and the thing that you bought on Amazon,” Topping says. “So, they often benefit from the sense that they are being made just for you, the person getting them.” Similar to podcasts, which benefit from being a voice literally in your ear daily, newsletters “as a form fosters intimacy and loyalty and connection, and it does that better just right out of the gate than some of the alternatives,” Topping says.
He points to Abdelmahmoud’s newsletter sign offs,or affirmations as he calls them, as a great example of recognizing and tapping into that already established intimacy. Popular sign offs include: “Set aside time to tend to your dreams today,” “I hope you get to surprise yourself today,” and “Take time to celebrate your triumphs today—the thing can wait.” They may seem cheesy to some, but for Topping, they’re just what the audience needs, especially when the news cycle is so difficult. “In ending the newsletter like that, it’s a great sort of way to remind the person of that connection,” Topping says. “I think that’s really smartly done.
“I think for someone in the position of Elamin, which is the job of making sense of the news of that day, which is a very complicated job, people are definitely responding to it.”
But Abdelmahmoud’s success isn’t entirely happenstance. It takes work and strategy. While he says BuzzFeed moving to Canada was terribly convenient, his application was anything but. Abdelmahmoud submitted his application for the coveted position, then friended BuzzFeed Canada editor-in-chief Craig Silverman on Facebook, fingers crossed Silverman would recognize the name coming across his desk and his Facebook feed simultaneously.
“I thought, it’d be really hard for me to show you how I run my own social media in an application, so I’ll just add you to it and we’ll see how that goes,” Abdelmahmoud says of the tactic. “It’s a bit of a gamble, but it seemed to have worked out.”
And that strategy runs through the rest of his online presence; but engagement does come at a price. Lowman notes that, although he’s gotten better, Abdelmahmoud has a constant—namely, he always has his phone in hand. “He’s always on social media,” Lowman laughs. “To keep up that image, to keep up that social media personality, he’s on Snapchat, he’s on Instagram…getting his thoughts out there,” he continues. “And sometimes you’re just like ‘Elamin, look me in the eye, man.’ Everything is part of cultivating that image.”
And that’s important to remember—it’s an image. “On my best days, I don’t [think of myself as a brand,” Abdelmahmoud says. “[But] everything on social media is, to a certain extent, performance, right? There’s a certain level to which you’re performing a version that you think your followers are interested in,” he says.
Regardless, people are talking—both on and offline. In 2018, Abdelmahmoud was awarded the One to Watch award at his alma mater as a “rising star” in media. In the same year, he moderated talks with award-winning authors like Scarborough’s own David Chariandy at June’s Hot Docs Festival, spoke at breakfast lecture series Creative Mornings TO, hosted the Giller Light Bash, and has continued to wake up at 4 a.m every weekday morning to get that much-loved newsletter out.
It’s been a big year. “I’m very proud of him. He’s done a good job,” TVO’s Paikin says of Abdelmahmoud. “He’s made a good name for himself, and that’s very difficult to do these days, and he’s a going concern.”
Abdelmahmoud, for his part, is grateful, if not slightly baffled. “Most of my life is not very high stakes. If I make a mistake, no one dies, you know? So I’m going to be okay,” he says. “I try to always think about that; the fact that there are people whose lives are much more stressful at the moment, [and] difficult than mine.”
“I’m just grateful,” he continues. “What is there to be flapped about?…I’m really lucky to do this.”