TikTok has provided many of its users with influencer platforms, allowing them to express their talents through a variety of creative forms including dancing, makeup advice, and cooking tutorials, among other things. Since its rebrand from Musical.ly in 2017, the viral social media app has connected “TikTokers” with brand deals from a variety of companies seeking to gain more business exposure. However, with the structure of the app's algorithm, Black TikTokers receive less exposure on the app’s main “For You” page than their white counterparts, and are rarely given credit for the dances and trends that have undeniably contributed to the app’s success.
A famous example of this instance was the rise of 17-year-old social media personality, Charli D’Amelio, who rose to fame with 15-second clips of her doing the “Renegade” dance to K Camp’s viral “Lottery (Renegade)” song. These videos quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of views and likes, and began a major trend that swept across the platform where millions of users posted videos doing the dance many assumed D’Amelio created. D’Amelio, however, was not the creator of this trend –– which now stands at a whopping 22.2 million videos on Tiktok.
Credit for this dance is due to Jalaiah Harmon, a 16-year old Black girl based in Atlanta. In an interview she did with TeenVogue, Harmon created the choreography “minutes before dance practice” in September of 2019 and posted it on her Instagram page. Unfortunately, Charli gained the most attention with her own rendition of the choreography, a much more watered down version of Harmon’s complex and creative dance, and the rest of the world soon followed without crediting her. Harmon’s initial efforts to reclaim her rights to the dance failed, until video sharing social media service Dubsmash's global Head of Contact Barrie Segal reached out to her regarding an opportunity to do a report on the situation with a New York Times reporter.
This New York Times article was the catalyst for what would be Harmon’s deserved recognition for her viral dance. Following the report, K Camp, the artist behind the renegade song, reached out to Harmon and invited her to his studio to create a TikTok video to the viral hit. Harmon began to receive widespread support from millions of users who reposted the report to their social media platforms. Harmon would soon perform her original dance during the 2020 NBA All-Star game and be invited as a guest star on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
While Harmon’s success story is very heartwarming, life before her rise to fame is a reality many Black TikTok creators live in. There is a toxic culture on the platform that allows for white creators to co-opt, profit, and build success off the trends that Black people originally create. As a result, Black creators are not given the chance to develop a large following and receive brand deals and equal payout.
While people make the claim that tagging dance credits barely does any justice for the respective creators, they are in fact wrong. Lack of credit for Harmon’s dance was the main factor which drove Charli to having 127.3 million followers on TikTok, a $9 million net worth, and her own reality TV show on Hulu. If Harmon initially received credit where credit was due, she could have had an equal amount of opportunities, like Charli and other famous white creators.
The imitation of Black culture is nothing new and it is not only evident in social media platforms such as Tiktok. We see it in the appropriation of elements of Black culture such as the overuse of AAVE, excessive tanning and plastic surgery to imitate the looks of Black women, and white girls wearing certain braid styles native to the African diaspora and claiming it on their own, among other things. Famous white celebrities are notorious for practicing this appropriation, and while they are praised and are able to build capital off this mockery of Black people, Black women are demonized in the media and treated horribly.
Black culture has become so commodified and ingrained into mainstream culture that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is now being referred to as “Gen-Z slang” rather than the historical dialect that it is. White CEOs of major music corporations have been able to use hip-hop, rap, and R&B genres to capitalize off their Black artists and steal the wealth that rightfully belongs to them. Kylie Jenner’s infamous fake lips have allowed her to amass a $700 million net worth through her makeup lip kits, while Black women have been historically judged for their naturally large lips. White TikTokers are able to get away with not crediting Black content creators for their dances and build wealth off stealing their creations.
A dance strike took place in July of 2021 in which Black creators refused to choreograph any new dances to show that without the creativity of Black TikTokers, the app is essentially doomed. During this strike, white Tiktokers struggled to come up with trendy dances to Megan the Stallion’s “Thot Sh*t” while Black TikTokers sat back and watched the app’s users scramble in confusion.
When developing the app’s algorithm, Tiktok’s executive team must analyze the role Black TikTokers and Black music, as a whole, have played in the success of the app, and make proper changes that allow Black Tiktokers to gain more exposure and receive credit for the work they create.