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Black culture has been appropriated since we can remember. Take Elvis Presley, for example, who took Chuck Berry’s signature style and sound of rock music and claimed it as his own. However, the most recent example of Black culture falling victim to cultural appropriation lies in the popular social media app TikTok.
While TikTok itself is home to many different creators with just as many distinct niches, the most prominent creators are dancers. When a new song comes out, creators — typically Black ones — put together intricate dance routines to them and upload their videos, encouraging others on the app to recreate their moves.
The problem began when popular creators began stealing dance routines from lesser-known creators and claimed them as their own, often providing no credit to the primarily Black originators. Because the content creators didn’t receive this recognition, the copy-cats received opportunities that should have been given to the originators. For example, in March of this year, one of the most popular creators on the app, Addison Rae, went on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to showcase her favorite TikTok dances and provided zero credit to the Black dancers who made them.
Instead of allowing this phenomenon to continue, Black creators have decided to take a stand and go on a strike. Their strike has been most evident with the release of Megan Thee Stallion’s newest single “Thot Shit.” The song seems to be intentionally crafted with the idea of a TikTok dance in mind, but with it being the first new track released amid the strike, the lack of Black creators making dances to it has been evident to many.
Jovanny, who goes by jay.gov on TikTok, is a Black creator with more than 250,000 followers on the platform. When asked about the significance of Black content makers to the app, he said, “Although they may not receive the bulk of the success on the app or the majority of the push on the app, the dances, the sounds, the trends, they all spawn from Black culture and Black creators… All of the biggest things on TikTok have been because of the impact of Black creators.” When asked about the dynamic between Black and non-Black creators on the platform, he added, “The dynamic is Black people create on TikTok, and white people capitalize off of it.” Beginning to see the problem?
Creators aren’t the only ones noticing this dynamic either. Michelle Fokam, an avid user of the app, has also seen the heavy presence of cultural appropriation on the platform. “We are always being taken from. What we do is never trendy until white people do it. What TikTok does is take from Black creators and turn it into ‘their own.’” She isn’t the only user taking notice, as the topic was trending on Twitter this past weekend, with thousands of users chiming in to discuss the strike. If cultural appropriation amongst the app is evident enough for both creators and users, why hasn’t TikTok done anything about the situation?
Circling back to the release of Megan Thee Stallion’s newest single, “Thot Shit,” the absence of Black creators is being felt throughout the app. White creators have attempted to create dances to the song, yet none have stuck. Jay spoke a bit about creation versus credit, as well. “Charli D’Amelio has never created a dance on the app, yet she’s the most popular person on the app. She has over 80 million followers on the platform. She’s the golden girl, and it’s simply because she does dances that Black users create. The Black content creators who create these dances put out sounds and create trends. Still, they don’t receive any of the shine.”
If white creators receive credit for the dances and trends, and get the opportunity to showcase their “talents” on late-night talk shows and media segments, why do they struggle to create original routines/dances to songs that were created for this purpose? With Black creators continuing to stick to their strike, their voices are heard louder with each passing day.
Now that the public is aware of this, one may be curious about a possible solution. The answer isn’t simple. There will never be a concrete way to police users taking and recreating dances from others. A key solution lies within the media, the audience, and executives. One TikTok user who wanted to remain anonymous had this to say: “Part of the problem is with media outlets failing to give the correct people coverage. That’s a bigger problem than TikTok.”
When media executives tend to be older, out-of-touch white men, it’s easy for outlets to gravitate toward the highlighted creators shown when one first downloads the app.
This exposes the next problem. If TikTok doesn’t promote the Black content creators on the app, but consistently promotes their white counterparts, the exposure rate is neither equal nor fair. TikTok’s algorithm is the sole controller of what gets placed on a user’s homepage — referred to as their “For You” page — when they first install the app and continue to use it. If its “For You” page fails to place Black creators and originators at the forefront, and the white creators given the spotlight fail to give credit where credit is due, it’s easy to see why Black creators are feeling snubbed.
So, they are going on strike and seem to only have one goal in mind. They want to receive their due credit for popularizing trends and dances on the app. We’re aware that history tends to repeat itself, and the appropriation of Black culture is nothing new. The only difference now is that Gen Z is taking notice of this pattern, and they’re attempting to do their part to stop this on the platform. Twenty years from now, people may look back on TikTok as a fad or a quick trend. When reunions happen and once-popular creators are highlighted for their contributions on it, Black creators should receive equal recognition.
It doesn’t fall solely on TikTok to eliminate this problem, though. As we stated before, the media is also responsible for this recognition to occur, as well. We should be seeing Jalaiah Harmon, the creator of the “Renegade” dance, and Keara Wilson, the creator of the “Savage” dance, on Jimmy Fallon as well as other creators like Phoebe Hines, Jovanny, Niccoya, and JuztJosh being given the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
It’s unclear when this strike may come to an end, but one thing is sure, this isn’t a battle Black creators are willing to lose. Gen Z knows and values the importance of being credited for their work, and they won’t stop until they are.