Updated on January 18, 2022 at 10:45 a.m. EST:
Forbes recently named TikTok’s top-earning creators, including Charlie and Dixie D’Amelio and Addison Rae. These white influencers are known for co-opting Black creator Jalaiah Harmon’s viral “Renegade” dance and garnered more exposure and opportunities than Harmon (Rae was even featured on Jimmy Fallon performing the dance; she has since apologized). These creators have gone on to star in reality TV shows, movies, and even perform on stage in recent years. And while they’ve taken their talents beyond TikTok, Forbes reports that they still earn 30% to 50% of their income from sponsored content through the video-focused social platform. Black creators are at the helm of some of the app’s most viral trends, so why aren’t Black creators earning nearly as much money as their white counterparts or being offered the same opportunities?
Black Twitter is asking the same question. It wasn’t long before Twitter users started expressing their frustrations about the article. Like many social media platforms, TikTok is another app that Black creators are carrying on their backs. It's tiring to see how many Black creators fight to be seen for the work they’re putting in, just for white creators to receive the credit. Creator and Founder of The Influencer League Brittany Bright recently tweeted her thoughts on why Black creators are not in the top earners on TikTok, stating that brands are lowballing Black creators with huge followings and that Black creators with huge followings are lowballing themselves by not charging brands nearly enough for their content. She expressed how important it is for Black creators to advocate for themselves. “As trendsetters, they need US — not the other way around,” she said.
That statement couldn’t ring more true. But in the fight to be paid for what they’re owed, how can Black creators also protect their intellectual property from being claimed by someone else? It seems like every month another Black TikToker has to air out how a white creator either copied their video word for word, changed the flow to their song, or recreated their dance moves without properly crediting their original creators.
On top of that, their audiences eat it up, and usually have the audacity to argue back. This happened last November when UK artist and creator Dreya Mac's "Own Brand Freestyle" verse (“I ain't never been with a baddie...”) saw extreme success on the app before a white creator decided to “remix” it by switching out words from Dreya’s verse. Last time we checked, that’s plagiarism! Furthermore, issues like this discourage Black creators from putting themselves out there, especially since there aren’t many proper measures in place to protect creative property on social media apps.
While there's still much progress to be made, some platforms are working to change that. In January 2021, TikTok launched its Black Creatives incubator program, a three-month program focused on nurturing and developing Black creators and music artists.
"We've partnered with MACRO, the multiplatform media company founded by CEO Charles D. King that represents the voice and perspectives of persons of color, to create a grant for a select group of creators and music artists," TikTok said in their announcement. "The funds can be applied toward educational resources, production equipment, and other creative content development tools. MACRO will also advise on the selection of speakers, programming content, and professional and business-building opportunities for creators."
You could easily say the onus is on social media platforms to provide effective solutions to this endemic of social media piracy, but what measures can Black creators take to protect themselves in the meantime? One place we can start is by asking for the money we’re owed. Creators like Keona Coa have been vocal about how long it's taken to grow a following on TikTok, and how big brands often lowball Black creators when negotiating sponsorship pay. Recently, she also expressed how disheartening it is to see how white influencers are able to make more in comparison to Black creators, and her wish is for Black TikTok users to be awarded for their content the same way white creators are.
As a creator myself, I would love to see more Black TikTokers speaking up, and not being afraid to charge their worth. This isn’t the time to be shy about our money, especially when brands look to us for innovative ways to create and tell stories. If we aren’t charging the value of our time, effort, and sauce, how can we expect to be earning more? And brands need to step up, too. If we aren’t advocating for the change we deserve, when will we ever see it?