White women seem to be the only ones getting signed to talent agencies, invited on television, and making entire careers from showcasing TikTok culture, says Micha Frazer-Carroll, and Black creators have had enough
Black TikTokers have had enough, and they have gone on strike. Verlede week, a sprawling group of Black TikTok users, who are known for creating freely available viral dances for other users to jam out to, announced that they would not be creating a dance for rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s recent release “Thot S**t”, which was pegged by industry insiders and social media users alike to be a viral dance sensation. Their demands? That Black creators, who choreograph the bulk of TikTok’s most popular dance routines, are recognised for their labour.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day that we’d actually go through with it and see just how much some of y’all need us,” said TikTok-famous creator capnkenknuckles last week, in reference to white users’ failed attempts to create a substitute viral dance in the midst of “strike” action. “Especially with making dances that y’all can rip off, and say that y’all ‘created’ it.”
Capnkenknuckles is undoubtedly referring to the string of incidents in recent years in which high-profile white TikTok users have co-opted and benefitted from the dance creations of less decorated Black users. Most notably, the then 14-year-old dancer Jalaiah Harmon created a viral dance in 2020 to K Camp’s “Renegade” – but her contribution was largely buried in the media and on the platform. To add insult to injury, the more recognised 20-year-old social media star and dancer Addison Rae was invited to perform the dance, and other Black users’ TikTok routines, on US television on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in Maart. This is not the first time this pattern has played out – TikTokers of colour have long accused the platform of systematically suppressing their content – but strikers are determined to make it the last.
The strike is both funny and fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because it draws attention to the increasingly co-dependent relationship between TikTok and the music industry. If the decision not to make a choreographed dance routine to “Thot S**t” can be considered disruptive enough to be a low-key form of “industrial action”, then it’s worth having a look at how the factory line works. TikTok is now an established hit-maker, with users’ choreographed dance routines playing an integral role in the chart success of songs such as Cardi B’s “Up”, Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”, and Kiwi singer Benee’s “Supalonely”. This process has only been fast-tracked by the pandemic, as the initial lockdown drove both TikTok teens and record labels onto the platform.
Not only is this pipeline changing how we dance – with intricate, energetic upper-body movements becoming the new style – it’s also changing the way our music sounds. Weird production parts, raps with quotable or conversational lyrics, trap beats, big bass drops, and a 15-second segment that particularly bangs, are often part of the formula. Take Justin Bieber’s empty song “Yummy”, which has an undeniably catchy chorus but was instantly recognised by critics as essentially being made for TikTok. Bieber joined the social networking platform on the day of the song’s release, and instantly started uploading videos of himself lying in bed topless, bopping along to the song. It was embarrassingly desperate, but arguably it worked: vandag, the hashtag #YummyChallenge has 2 billion views on TikTok, and the song inevitably peaked at No 2 on the US Hot 100.
Nothing about the TikTok-to-chart-hit pipeline is inherently bad or evil. It has evidently provided young people, Black and non-Black, with a space for creativity and humour. En, as British indie rockers The Vaccines pointed out vroeër hierdie week, artists thinking about how their music will translate to TikTok isn’t that different to considering how it might work in a club, on the radio, or in the background of a TV ad. But it’s worth thinking about who’s doing the heavy lifting to get these songs in people’s heads: primarily young Black creatives, who have to agree to play ball to get the process going. If they don’t, made-for-TikTok songs – whose appeal, at their worst, is largely unintelligible to those who aren’t on the platform – risk getting lost in cyberspace.
The strike also clearly points towards the way in which inequality interacts with so-called “cultural exchange”, reigniting an old conversation about the co-opting of Black people’s contributions for white people’s profit. Ja, the framing of Black creators as deserving of “reparations” might be a crude analogy when it comes to intellectual property in the online realm. But Black users are right to be pissed off that white women seem to be the only ones getting signed to talent agencies, invited on national television, and making entire careers from showcasing TikTok culture. As YouTuber Tee Noir has gesê, the gains that white TikTokers have made from the creations of Black users aren’t only about clout: they’re also financial.
In light of this, many of these teens have been investigating what the law says. Unfortunately for them, it would likely prove difficult for creators to get their dances legally recognised as their own. In England and Wales, copyright law suggests that you need written or filmed evidence that you were the first creator of a dance, and that anyone accused of infringement didn’t come up with the routine independently. Intussen, US law distinguishes between social dances, like the conga, and “choreography” performed by experts. It also doesn’t afford protection for “simple” dances made up of shorter sequences – a contention that came to a head when Alfonso Ribeiro, who played the goofy-dancing Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, unsuccessfully sued the creators of videogame Fortnite for using a version of the “Carlton dance” in the game.
None of this bodes well for TikTok trendsetters who might be looking for financial compensation when they see their dances at American football games or on Jimmy Fallon. But then again, isn’t this all counter to the spirit of social media anyway? Apps like TikTok, along with Twitter, Tumblr and many of their forebears, are premised on the idea of instant shareability and replicability. In 2021, it’s baked into virtually every social media platform, and it’s why hashtags, challenges and meme formats work the way they do. Nietemin, young people have been pointing out that there is more TikTok could do to ensure creators are at least credited for their complex viral dance sequences – for example, allowing users to sort through videos chronologically.
Despite all the hubbub happening on TikTok, the collective action that has swirled around this most recent saga is nothing new. As Ribeiro took legal action against Fortnite, Black rapper 2 Milly did too – for his own dance, the “Milly Rock”. Before that, Black people were frustrated with Miley Cyrus twerking at the 2013 VMAs (Video Music Awards), and even before that, Madonna cherry-picked from Black ballroom culture and brought Voguing to the mainstream. In the clubs and the streets, no one has historically been able to stop people from doing the running man, the electric slide, the dab or the woah – least of all artists, who always stand to benefit from cultural exchange that is a mix of manufactured and organic. But the intensely formulaic and extractive nature of the TikTok dance-trend pipeline has simply handed creators the means to actually name what’s happening. They’ve thrown an unexpected spanner in the works, and I, vir een, am living for it.