Social media has become a place of refuge, particularly for the Black community. And as the world shifts in response to COVID-19, the novel virus affecting hundreds of thousands worldwide, we’ve seen an increase in social media activity — especially on the prominent short-form video app TikTok.
From Elizabeth Warren’s hilarious take on “Flip the Switch” to Megan Thee Stallion doing the #SavageChallenge, we’ve watched everyone from Justin Bieber to Mariah Carey replicate a dance made popular on the social media platform. At the heart of many these viral moments are Black creators. And as a record 3.3 million Americans have filed for unemployment, many are looking for safe and reliable ways to make money amid the coronavirus pandemic. Getting credit for creating a viral moment can mean the difference between paying your bills or not during this gravely difficult time.
We witnessed just how easily TikTok videos can lead to internet fame with Jalaiah Harmon’s “Renegade” dance. But it wasn’t until her choreography, which the 14-year-old Atlanta native created in September 2019, was performed by others that she received credit. Before that, TikTokers like Addison “Rae” Easterling and Charli D’Amelio shined in the spotlight as potential creators of the routine. Later, Harmon received a shoutout from K Camp, the artist who recorded “Lottery,” to which Harmon’s dance is performed. And in February, she teamed up with Easterling and D’Amelio to perform the dance together — five months after she first created it.
Harmon told The New York Times in February that she was happy to see her dance across the internet, but she wanted to receive credit. Understanding that viral moments often result in increased social media following, media opportunities and more, Harmon said she felt she could have built a name for herself.
“I think I could have gotten money for it, promos for it, I could have gotten famous off it, get noticed,” she said. “I don’t think any of that stuff has happened for me because no one knows I made the dance.”
Keara "Keke" Wilson, whose TikTok handle is @keke.janajah, recently went viral after creating a catchy dance routine to rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” After first posting the dance to TikTok on March 10, she watched her views skyrocket to millions in a matter of a week after posting it again a day later and cross-sharing on Instagram. Soon afterward, Megan Thee Stallion shared Wilson’s dance on her Instagram page, and it wasn’t long before Janet Jackson, Tamar Braxton and others joined in on the challenge. Now you can’t scroll through your Instagram timeline without seeing someone’s attempt at the routine, especially with so many people staying home to combat the spread of coronavirus. The 19-year-old Mansfield, OH, native expressed how significant receiving credit can be for Black creators.
“It's very frustrating when the credit is not given where credit is due to us young Black people,” Wilson tells R29Unbothered. “I can't speak for others, but I feel that I have done something really cool and the whole world is doing what I have created.”
Wilson, a former cheerleader and competitive dancer, says the recognition has led to paid opportunities.
“Knowing that people are reaching out to me and want to pay me to dance to their new song or beats has been an awesome experience for me,” she shares. “This encourages me to continue to do what I love to do, which is dance.”
Though TikTok does not provide sources of income directly, the platform has raised her profile. Wilson, who says she’s always had a passion for dance and wants to one day become a youth choreographer, currently creates routines for TikTok songwriters. She’s also received nods from artists like R&B singer Queen Naija and KaiCash, who currently has a single with Chris Brown. Her dance has been covered by The Root, and she was also interviewed by writer Danielle Young on Instagram Live.
“The love and support from all the views, likes and followers — I wouldn't be where I am [without them],” Wilson acknowledges.
The platform has also opened doors for influencers in the beauty industry. In early March, Rihanna opened Fenty Beauty’s first TikTok house as a means to support five beauty TikTokers — Emmy Combs (@emmycombss), Makayla (@makayladid), Savannah Palacio (@savpalacio), Kamaboko Gonpachiro (@challxn) and Dawn (@thedawndishsoap). The group appeared on Fenty Beauty’s TikTok account, sharing makeup tutorials, collaborating on viral posts and more. This undoubtedly created a valuable opportunity for mass exposure that could ultimately lead to monetary gain.
Like so many social media platforms before it, it’s becoming increasingly clear that TikTok is a driver of potential revenue. To be frank, not receiving recognition can leave a hole in your pocket. This reality becomes that much more salient in the wake of a pandemic, as many are left trying to find new ways to support themselves and their families.
“At this point, it's like it's messing with money,” Dubsmasher Essence Marie told Yahoo Lifestyle in February of social media creators not being properly credited for their work. Essence, like Harmon, has seen her work recreated across social platforms, without receiving credit as the originator. “It's like, so many opportunities that could have been ours have been taken away from us because of the fact that people don't know that that stuff has originated from us.”
“TikTok's team builds connections with creators — offering insights and inviting them to unique opportunities for the many communities who are coming together through TikTok,” the company shares. “Creators love TikTok because it’s real and fun, and we work to make sure that they not only have the tools they need to be their best creative selves on TikTok but also continue to have a positive experience. Ultimately, we’re focused on ways to inspire creativity, bring joy, and add value for our community.”
In February, TikTok invited Harmon and others to perform different versions of “Renegade” during the NBA All-Star game. That same month, the social media platform hosted its first-ever #MakeBlackHistory Creator Summit as a means to honor those at the center of creating the culture that attracts many of its users.
Kudzi Chikumbu, Director of Creator Community, TikTok US, said in a blog post that month, “We believe that TikTok, at its best, creates opportunities for users to create content that resonates with others and helps them build a stronger community. We recognize that for many users TikTok allows them to showcase their creativity and reach new heights, and it's important to us that we are celebrating the diverse voices that exist on the platform.”
The actions TikTok has taken in recent months are commendable, but the platform could do more to protect its users’ creative capital in the future. In cases similar to Harmon’s, it’s clear there’s still room to better ensure appropriation doesn’t drown out Black creators.
In the meantime, we as users of these apps can ensure we’re doing what we can to give influencers their flowers. Wilson says even the smallest gesture can go a long way.
“[It’s as simple as] tagging the creator and giving them credit where credit is due.”