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A still from a stream showing Kai Cenat. He’s sitting on a stool in front of brown background and is talking to the camera. Image: Kai Cenat/YouTube

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How Kai Cenat broke into stardom in 2023

From streaming in the basement to dancing on stage with Nicki Minaj

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

On a summer day in New York City, thousands of people gathered in Union Square and spilled out onto the streets. Video footage and images show the crowd vandalizing nearby businesses and setting off fireworks. The New York Police Department showed up and started arresting people. All this commotion was motivated by one person: Kai Cenat. People gathered because he had planned an event to give away PlayStation 5 consoles and gaming computers.

Kai Cenat is the breakout streaming star of 2023. While Cenat has been building a formidable audience for years, the crowd that gathered in Union Square attested to the Twitch streamer and YouTuber’s newfound level of stardom. In March, he broke the world record for the number of active Twitch subscribers, overtaking a mark previously held by Ludwig Ahgren.

Since then, his cultural influence has only grown. According to analytics firm Rainmaker.gg, Cenat was the most-viewed streamer on Twitch in 2023, with roughly 109 million hours watched. He’s hosted celebrity guests like 21 Savage and Nicki Minaj, and also danced live on stage with Minaj at a recent concert. His work has inspired entire meme trends and even influenced contemporary slang. Even then, his career has been a tumultuous one marked with controversies in addition to the events at Union Square. He’s one of the most influential people of the year, so here is the rise of Kai Cenat, explained.

Who is Kai Cenat?

Kai Cenat is a 22-year-old American content creator who streams on Twitch and posts videos to YouTube. He shared his first video on his main YouTube channel in 2018 — the channel now has nearly 5 million followers — and has since grown his audience across two different YouTube accounts and his Twitch channel. At the time of publication, he has 8.3 million followers on Twitch and 5.4 million subscribers on his Kai Cenat Live YouTube channel, where his most popular video exceeds 18 million views.

A photo of Kai Cenat on stage at the 2-23 Streamy Awards. He standing next to another creator and is holding an award in his hand as he talks into the mic. Photo: Rich Polk/Penske Media via Getty Images

Cenat’s early career focused on posting comedic prank videos and other challenges on YouTube. He found viral success with videos like one where he played “extreme” ding-dong ditch in college dorms, and he eventually joined the content creation group Any Means Possible (AMP). In February 2021, he started streaming on Twitch, where he’s now largely known for hosting Just Chatting streams with other guests. These streams have a casual feeling to them and capture an air of friends hanging out — often, guests will huddle around the camera sitting on folding chairs in his basement. Cenat has an approachable but very rambunctious persona where he frequently shouts.

Why is Kai Cenat so popular?

A variety of factors have contributed to Cenat’s success. There’s his content creator group: AMP and its five other members have a collective following of over 10 million subscribers on YouTube and a group channel with over 5 million subscribers. From a strictly numbers standpoint, content creator groups — like the Dream SMP — have proven to be an effective way to grow sizable audiences. Creating content with others also helps fuel a larger fandom. It’s not just about Cenat, but AMP as a group. A lot of the fandom’s lingo, like the term “Fanum tax,” revolves around jokes shared between AMP fans in Twitch chat and on platforms like Discord.

A still from a stream showing Kai Cenat and Nicki Minaj. She’s sitting on throne-like pink chair and Kai is sitting in an office chair next to her. Minaj is looking at the chat and Kai is looking down as he talks to her. They are in a basement that has a Christmas tree in the background. Image: Kai Cenat Live/YouTube

But the streamer also broke into even greater mainstream popularity by featuring celebrity guests on his stream. In 2022, Cenat hosted a stream with the popular rapper 21 Savage, which propelled him to new levels of fame and later became his most-viewed VOD. In his career, he’s hosted other rappers, like Bobby Shmurda, Lil Baby, and Ice Spice. Most recently, in December, Cenat co-hosted a stream with Nicki Minaj; afterward, he and AMP member Fanum joined Minaj onstage during her Jingle Ball concert in Atlanta.

What do people like about him?

Cenat has vast audiences on many different platforms and makes videos in some of the most popular categories, like pranks and reactions. And while his streams are a bit more laid-back, viral clips often highlight spontaneous moments that arise while hanging out with his friends in his basement. It could be a surprise visit from a mariachi band or a masked friend who just barges onto the stream. There’s a sense of chaos to his presence that seems to appeal to fans.

Cenat is also the originator of many internet-popular terms and trends. Cenat is Black, and primarily streams with other Black creators; popular culture and trends have long been heavily influenced by the work of Black people, including on the internet, where a lot of “internet slang” is African American Vernacular English that is later adopted by internet-savvy users. Cenat himself has helped popularize terms like “gyatt” and “Fanum tax” with young people. Now these phrases are all over TikTok and Twitch.

The larger community around the fandom also brings people together. One fan Polygon spoke to, who goes by the name Lilnutz online and introduced himself as “lilnutz littlest of all nutz,” told Polygon that he appreciated the community around Cenat. “Most people think it’s just little ass kids but it’s not,” he said via Discord message, adding that he enjoys “everybody that be in this community,” including older people. “i feel like his community just full of funny people.”

Why is Kai Cenat controversial?

Although many fans love Cenat, he and his friends have also become the subject of scrutiny and serious allegations. There’s the Union Square incident, which caused severe traffic, and for which Cenat was charged with two counts of inciting a riot and unlawful assembly. But the streamer has also drawn criticism for some of his streams and videos themselves.

People gather around and cheer for Kai Cenat (C) as members of the NYPD respond to thousands of people gathered for a “giveaway” event announced by popular Twitch live streamer Kai Cenat in Union Square and the surrounding area on August 4, 2023 in New York City. Cenat, who announced on social media that he would be giving away video game consoles and other items, is reportedly in police custody after a crowd sparked disorder in the park leading to numerous arrests.   
A photo of Kai Cenat and the crowd that gathered to see him in Union Square.
Photo: Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

This past fall, Cenat did an elaborate livestream stunt in which he pretended to spend seven days in prison, a stream during which he featured several celebrity guests. Later, the rapper Offset commented on why he didn’t attend the event, telling the podcast The Morning Hustle, “It’s not really a game. [...] It’s a serious thing. And like, I understand content; I salute it. But I just couldn’t be a part of that content, ’cause if y’all remember, I come from jail, and I remember sitting in there, like, down bad, like, no money on the books.” He added, “I got real homies that can’t get out, ever — you know what I mean? So I didn’t want to make a mockery of them.”

In his regular content, Cenat frequently comments on and ogles women’s bodies. He also regularly makes controversial dating content; fans have criticized his conduct in some of these videos. In a stream that he co-hosted with Adin Ross, the two went on online double dates with women. During one of these dates, both men used “he” pronouns with a person who was tall and had a deep voice, which fans criticized as transphobic. Fans also called out one of Cenat’s friends for using a homophobic slur on Cenat’s livestream.

Cenat and his friends have also faced serious accusations for their conduct off stream. In January 2023, the TikToker Jovi Pena, who uses the handle Jovilicious online, alleged that a friend of Cenat’s, who she identified as Djigui Seck, raped her at a New Year’s Eve party that Cenat also attended. In a series of tweets on X (formerly Twitter), Pena said Cenat had invited her to the party, and that when she decided to leave, Cenat told her she would be safer if she stayed upstairs, because she was drunk. Pena then said that she fell asleep and later woke up in the midst of being raped by Seck.

Later in the thread, Pena said that when she gave a description of her rapist to Cenat, he told her that he didn’t know the person. She also shared a screenshot of an Instagram post of Seck and Cenat together, and a screenshot of a text conversation with Cenat in which she alleges that he “knew what [Seck] was doing” in the room upstairs where Cenat had suggested that Pena rest.

A day later, Cenat addressed the allegations during a Twitch stream, saying that he didn’t initially respond to Pena’s texts because his legal team advised him not to reply. “I didn’t go nowhere else but the police,” he said on the stream. “Instantly, I went to my legal team, I went to the police. I’m not playing. [...] This is a serious topic.” Seck posted a response to the allegations on X in April. Seck didn’t deny that he and Pena had sex, but said that he believes it was consensual. Cenat, for his part, has not commented further on Pena’s allegations.