The floor of Mohamed Youssouf's apartment, a one-bedroom in the Dubai Greens, is littered with books and DVDs: Richard Branson's Losing My Virginity: How I've Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way; Russell Simmon's Do You!: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success; a Mel Brooks biography called It's Good to Be the King; The Tao of Warren Buffet; The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding; the first season of Entourage; the Jay-Z film Fade to Black; and multiple seasons of Chappelle's Show and Seinfeld. It's the multimedia research library of a man interested in being funny, rapping a bit - and getting paid along the way.
Right now, the "getting paid" part is particularly important to the 35-year old, Kuwaiti-born, Djibouti-raised and "Somali by heritage" Youssouf (or, as he has branded himself, Phat Mo). He is incomeless, having just quit his job as a creative director at Desert Door, a Dubai-based film production company. "I had an epiphany," Youssouf explains after picking me up at the Ibn Battuta Mall to take me to a taping for his current project, The Phat Mo Show. "Life was flying by, and everything at work was a waste of time. Now I'm not going back to work. I refuse to become an employee again. It's not an option. But I have no idea how I'm going to support myself. My savings are going quickly. Something has to happen."
This is not the first time that Youssouf has tried to make something happen. Three years ago, he and a friend filmed a pilot for a sketch comedy show called Mo and Co., then pitched it to every network in Dubai. "Everybody liked it and nobody picked it up," he says. "I have no idea why. I thought I was a genius, pushing for local content. I was like: 'Look, fools: I've got a local comedy show, it's a no brainer, take it'!"
"And we really thought we were going to sell this show and be superstars. We were driving to meet the head of Dubai One, and we were looking out the window saying 'OK, I'll take that billboard, that billboard, that billboard.'" After no one picked up Mo and Co. (Dubai One seemed interested, but passed in the end), Youssouf penned an angry article for Forbes Arabia titled There's Nothing Funny About Our Comedy Business, in which he blasted local producers for not fostering local talent. "In retrospect, it was stupid," he tells me. "You don't want to burn bridges."
The Phat Mo Show is a sketch comedy / reality TV hybrid. Because Youssouf is working without studio support, its episodes are low-budget and only viewable on YouTube. The sketches star Youssouf as a condemnation-happy representative of the Arab League ("I have the chart of condemnation for the next 12 years. Yes, we will be condemning - write this down please - for the next 12 years."), Youssouf as a truculent Emirates-based rapper named 50 fils ("I remember we used to hang out at Hardee's. Remember Hardee's? S***."), Youssouf as the spokesman for an exciting new Dubai residential development called My Hood. The reality segments detail his efforts to make it as an entertainer in Dubai.
When I wrote to Youssouf asking whether I could interview him, he wrote back asking if he could film our conversation for his show, and I agreed. "This is Peter Parker," he began, pointing at me and grinning into the camera from his living room couch. "Spiderman. From The National." I asked Youssouf how he hopes to make money from The Phat Mo Show. His current plan is to find corporate sponsorship, but he hasn't yet. "I hope it happens," he chuckles. "If it doesn't, I'm in doo-doo." The first episode cost Dh30,000, which he borrowed from a friend and has yet to repay.
But it's not all bleak: he's being asked to do standup gigs, he's been commissioned to write an action movie ("a cross between Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code", as he describes it) for a producer in Abu Dhabi and he's found investors for a short action film that he will direct in July. He is also recording a rap album. "I'm working with a guy called Madman, or Madness, or The Mad," he tells me. "He keeps changing his name, like Puffy, but he's very talented." His tracks have won some airplay on Radio One, and he opened for Sean Paul and 50 Cent when they played in Dubai.
And he's pitching The Phat Mo Show to studios. This year, Dubai One, Showtime and Orbit have all put out calls for locally-produced content. This makes Youssouf laugh wryly (somehow, he laughs wryly and loudly at the same time): "I'm like, 'Hey, I came to ya'all three years ago!" He shakes his head. "But at least they came around."