Why Is It So Hard for Black Creators to Get Their Due?

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Rolling_Stone_Creators_BlackCreators - Credit: Brandons Eye Photography; Sun Moon; Tyler Hogan; Courtesy of Pablo, the Man
Rolling_Stone_Creators_BlackCreators - Credit: Brandons Eye Photography; Sun Moon; Tyler Hogan; Courtesy of Pablo, the Man

By June 2021, Erick Louis was tired of seeing fellow Black creators on TikTok getting ripped off. Viral dance videos helped songs like Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” shoot up the pop charts, but the more those dances were copied, the less the people behind them were credited. Black creatives would share a dance, but it wouldn’t become a trend until a white creator — Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio being two big examples — with a bigger platform performed it.

Things came to a head when Megan Thee Stallion announced she was releasing a new song, “Thot Shit.” Her songs “Savage” and “Captain Hook” had spawned viral dance crazes that were copied and mimicked thousands of times over — and Black creators were worried it would happen again.

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So Louis made a video encapsulating what they were feeling: In the clip, he gets ready to dance, then abruptly sticks up two middle fingers as text pops up: “Sike! This app would be nothing without Black people.” “My video just ended up being the one that somehow became the face of this ‘dance strike,’” Louis says of that initial TikTok, which quickly amassed more than 500,000 views. “Those feelings — that tension, that anger, that frustration — already existed.”

Nearly a year after the dance strike — in which a group of creators very openly refused to participate in viral dances — Black creators on TikTok still face challenges when it comes to getting their due. In response to the complaints, TikTok took a series of steps to show support for Black creators. This included a page titled “Crediting Creators,” which outlined how to properly acknowledge originators of a trend, a TikTok for Black creators incubator program, an initiative to #SupportBlackBusinesses, and a partnership with MACRO to award $50,000 grants to 10 creators.

@theericklouis

If y’all do the dance pls tag me 🙄 it’s my first dance on Tik tok and I don’t need nobody stealing/not crediting

♬ Thot Shit – Megan Thee Stallion

Vigilant TikTok users, meanwhile, have focused on adding “Dance Credit (DC)” or “Inspired By (IB)” in their video captions. But as Sydnee McRae, a content creator on TikTok, puts it, “It’s never been a level playing field for Black and white creators. I don’t really think [those changes are] gonna make a difference.”

Part of the problem is there is no real recourse for those who want credit for their dances. Laws defining copyrighted material are complicated for Black creators: For starters, the law is broad when it comes to choreography. It’s defined as a sequence of dance moves that are “an original work of authorship that’s fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” explains Jeanne Fromer, a law professor at New York University. A dancer can’t copyright just one movement; there has to be a series of moves that unfold throughout a routine to be considered copyrightable.

Even if a dance creator does receive a copyright, their power is limited. Are they going to sue people who don’t credit them in their captions? Though several choreographers — including Keara Wilson, who started the “Savage” challenge — were able to copyright their dances, that was largely symbolic. Christopher Sprigman, a law professor at NYU, says it’d be difficult if Wilson, for example, wanted to sue people for copying the dance online without credit. But the copying itself might also give the dance its cachet. “What makes the dance important socially is that lots of people do it,” he says.

Creators should think of themselves as businesses, says Shontavia Johnson, associate VP for entrepreneurship and innovation at Clemson University, and explore different avenues to make money, such as licensing dances for video games, dance classes, and selling the dance for a commercial. “So many people want to go viral — and I get wanting to go viral, and [wanting] the business opportunities that can come out of it,” she tells Rolling Stone. “But eyeballs don’t often equal dollars.”

Madhavi Sunder, professor of intellectual property at Georgetown Law, notes that this is much deeper than just digital dances — in fact, she says, appropriation is foundational to this type of law. “How we define property has often been premised on the theft of native lands and theft of Black labor — intellectual as well as physical labor — through enslavement,” she explains. Copyright laws are “rife with biases about what counts as art. The Black TikTok strike seems to fundamentally be about distributive justice: Who gets the money?”

Louis, who made the viral TikTok of himself refusing to dance, says he’s been booted from the app multiple times after speaking out. “I think I’ve built a presence online like I have a target on my back,” he tells Rolling Stone. Lately, Louis notes, he watches what he says. (TikTok says it “unequivocally does not moderate content or censor accounts on the basis of race.”)

Now, creators who might have used TikTok to show off a new piece of choreography are thinking twice. Jaylin Hawkins, a cultural and music critic who goes by Pablo the Don on TikTok, says they haven’t seen a new viral dance trend organically take over the app in quite some time. (This March, for example, the only dance trend that seemed even mildly popular was the choreography to High School Musical’s “A Night to Remember.”) TikTok recently tweaked its algorithm, with a goal of diversifying the types of clips that show up on For You pages. Hawkins believes this is moving people away from dance content. “They want to be the short-form version of YouTube,” Hawkins says.

Fannita Leggett, a creator with more than a million followers on TikTok, seconds Hawkins’ implication that the app is moving toward content with “sustenance.” She says this is why creators are diversifying their content and trying new things — like the rise in “Get Ready With Me” videos, fashion, and comedy videos. Dancing on the app, meanwhile, has lost its allure for her. “Everybody and their mama can do these dances,” Leggett tells Rolling Stone. “It’s just not exciting to watch any more.”

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