It began in the shower his freshman year.
In the midst of a lazy winter break in 2011, Fadi Saleh had an epiphany: he wanted to make Barack Obama sing.
So that's what Saleh did with a few clicks, a video editing program, and a handful of long nights.
Using footage from recent campaign speeches, Saleh sliced and diced Obama's words, stringing them together to form lyrics. The finished product, a seamless video depicting Obama crooning Rihanna's "Drink To That," reeled in approximately 80,000 views during its first week after launching on Jan. 4, 2012.
Saleh admitted the total "disappointed him." He'd anticipated millions, not thousands.
Then, things went wild.
"Even today, it's still surreal," Saleh said last week. "It was super surreal then, and its super surreal now."
Inadvertently, Saleh had built an enterprise. Baracksdubs, a YouTube channel featuring a multitude of pop songs sung by President Obama, now has more than 500,000 subscribers and nearly 130 million total views. Saleh has been flown out to New York City and California for MTV's Video Music Awards after creating the "Party In The USA" dub.
Stars Robin Thicke, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and One Direction have even publicly endorsed Saleh's work via their personal social media platforms.
And this is only the beginning. Saleh has still grander plans for the channel.
Translation: Saleh believes millions of hits on YouTube and Internet stardom are just the beginning for the 20-year-old entrepreneur.
Saleh remembers the moment everything changed again, at exactly 5 a.m. on Jan. 10, 2012.
Saleh had just pulled an all-nighter to complete his second Baracksdubs video, a version of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." The spring semester was about to start, and he was preparing to ride back to Knoxville with a friend from his Memphis home.
Saleh posted the video to a few Lady Gaga forums and hopped in the notorious shower once again.
"By the end of the night it already had thousands of comments," Saleh said. "The next morning it was featured on the Today Show, and next week it had three million views."
Within a week of its creation, Baracksdubs started going viral. the Today Show wanted an interview, as did every local media outlet.
"We threw a party for him and I went out and bought him a cake when he got his 2 millionth view and thinking back to that, we thought it was the pinnacle," Hannah Bailey, senior in political science and one of Saleh's closest friends, said. "We thought it was a hobby he would do his freshman year of college and he'd go back and share later in life and that would be it.
"None of us expected it at all."
But it wasn't the pinnacle. It was the tip of the iceberg.
"Sexy And I Know It" by LMFAO would later reach 21.6 million views. "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen would draw 41.4 million views.
Three hundred and fifty speeches.
That is the average number of videos Saleh peruses while constructing a video.
But first, Saleh simply chooses a song and familiarizes himself with the lyrics.
In partnership with Saleh, Maker Studios constructs the beat for each song, permitting Saleh to legally reproduce copyrighted material on YouTube.
Then the hunt for specific words begins – also legally, since Obama's speeches are public domain.
Saleh uses video editing software to find at least five replicates of each word, splicing them down to the millisecond. Drawing from this stockpile, Saleh sequences the pieces and substitutes a replicate word as needed, matching Obama's linguistics to the original song.
"I feel like I've learned a lot about inflection and what makes things sound good together," Saleh said. "I've also learned a little more about Obama and his personality and his voice over the past two years."
It takes about two weeks to put together a new video at a leisurely pace.
After a final review, Saleh exports the finished song.
Yet, Saleh's Internet identity hasn't stopped him from making waves on campus.
The past two years, Saleh has served on Student Government Association campaigns. Last semester, he spearheaded the Dining Dollars Donation effort, which encouraged students to spend unused Dining Dollars on essential items from the POD Markets; all items collected were then donated to a local food bank.
He is also the mind behind the UTK Confessions Facebook page.
And this week, he was named a finalist for the prestigious Truman Scholarship.
"School tends to give people these limits to what they can do," Saleh said, "and honestly, you can go out and start anything if you convince yourself you have the time and the ability to do it."
More than just a Fad
Saleh sports an ear-to-ear grin as he talks about the future of Baracksdubs.
Much like his own, it's in limbo at the moment.
Saleh recently changed majors, jumping from biochemistry to health administration – a move motivated by the channel's rise to prominence.
"The biggest influence was the joy of entrepreneurship and the people and doing business with people," Saleh said. "I've got something they want and they've got something I want. That really excites me.
"I tapped into my whole problem-solving passion," Saleh continued. "All it is, is critical thinking. So I've moved from being a cog in the wheel in the medical field to overseeing the entire field to the doctor and administrator."
With a solid following via Twitter and Facebook, the channel has traction in spades, setting the stage for Saleh's next big move.
"Since the beginning, I've always had a social cause look at (the channel)," Saleh said. "I can do this to make positive social change.
"People look at it as an extracurricular (activity) – social causes – but honestly it should be tied completely in with everything that we do."
It's a belief he applies to every aspect of his life.
"I think with Fadi, his ability not just to sympathize but to empathize with other people sets him apart," Bailey said. "You can come to him with anything, an idea or an issue you're having in your own life, and he can really take it on from your own perspective.
"That's why he's such a great vehicle for change."