As dances go viral on TikTok, black content creators find they are left out of the fame

Kerry Justich
·9 min read
A group of predominantly white TikTok influencers are getting fame and recognition for performing viral dances on the app. But a group of black content creators are the unknown faces behind the moves. (Photo: TikTok)
A group of predominantly white TikTok influencers are getting fame and recognition for performing viral dances on the app. But a group of black content creators are the unknown faces behind the moves. (Photo: TikTok)

When it comes to social media trends, there’s hardly a kid between the ages of 14 and 24 who hasn’t heard of TikTok superstars Charli D’Amelio and Addison “Rae” Easterling. Together, they have nearly 50 million followers on TikTok alone, have become synonymous with viral dances like the Renegade, Holy Moly and Gimme Sum, have performed in public arenas — the most recent being the NBA All-Star game — and have even been signed to United Talent Agency (UTA) and William Morris Endeavor Entertainment (WME), respectively, to work on launching digital content.

Essence Marie and Anayah Rice, meanwhile, are two of the biggest names in their community of dancers on Dubsmash and together have amassed nearly 2 million followers on Instagram. Still, they've been unable to amass the following of Charli and others on TikTok. That’s because, when it comes to viral dance videos, there seems to be a parallel universe, based largely on race, in which white kids dominate on TikTok while everyone else seems partial to a 2014 app that actually predates TikTok: Dubsmash, a short-form video sharing platform where burgeoning content creators can showcase their talents, mainly in dance and comedy.

The troublingly segregated backstory began blowing up last week, when The New York Times published a feature about 14-year-old Georgia native, Jalaiah Harmon, and her creation of the “original Renegade.” This coincided with a tweet from K Camp, the artist behind the song “Lottery,” by which he gave Harmon a shoutout for helping with the success of the song through her viral dance. Just two days later, Harmon finally had her big break, performing her dance at the NBA All-Star game and receiving recognition from the likes of Kim Kardashian and Michelle Obama. She has since appeared on The Ellen Degeneres Show.

While neither D’Amelio nor Easterling responded to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment, each graciously responded to news that Harmon had created Renegade by posting a video featuring Harmon, in which the three did the original choreography together. But that overdue recognition was hard-won, and observers say that the delayed Renegade credit is just the tip of the iceberg in the viral-dance world — and just the latest, most visible example of cultural appropriation to dominate pop trends.

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A tale of two platforms

Dubsmash establishes viral dance challenges by collecting them on an Instagram page called “Dubsmash Challenges.” There, it’s evident who the creator of the dance is, and credit is given through a specific hashtag. However, as the dances go viral, which some define by hopping from platform to platform, credit gets lost.

“When it’s transitioned, your name gets lost along the way,” Essence, 15, tells Yahoo Lifestyle of her dance challenge that she’s seen take off, without her name attached. It’s called Crash Flow, and she originated it on Dubsmash before it made its way to other social media apps like Instagram and TikTok. “That’s understandable,” she says. “But at the same time, it shouldn’t be that way. Y’all don’t know who we are, yet y’all been doing our stuff for so long.”

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Essence has been dancing on Dubsmash for two years, where she says there’s an understanding among users when it comes to the importance of giving credit where credit is due. That belief is echoed by Barrie Segal, Dubsmash’s head of content.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the young black creators and Dubsmashers have a really deep and sophisticated understanding of why giving credit is important, and the opportunities that can come as a result of giving credit,” Segal tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Whereas many white creators do not.”

She additionally points out that Dubsmash is a place where many cultural movements and trends begin.

Meanwhile, regarding the most-followed people on TikTok alone — many of whom who have formed a content creator collective called the Hype House — those influencers are predominantly white.

While the Hype House declined to comment on this story for Yahoo Lifestyle, a spokesperson for TikTok responded by pointing out that the app hosted a #MakeBlackHistory Summit for Black TikTok creators over the weekend and shared the following quote, courtesy of Kudzi Chikumbu, director of the creator community for TikTok U.S., from the summit’s recap blog: “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."

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Rice, the 18-year-old South Carolina teen responsible for the popular TikTok dance called Holy Moly, breaks it down for Yahoo Lifestyle: “The big influencers are white on TikTok and the big influencers are black on Dubsmash.”

Still, Essence says, “It was never supposed to be about race.”

“At this point, it’s like it’s messing with money.”

LaJuné McMillian, a new-media artist and creative technologist behind online database the Black Movement Project, however, believes that race is unavoidable in understanding the issues at stake.

“The appropriation of black movement — the exploitation, the erasure of black movement — isn't a new thing,” McMillian tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “America was built off of black movement… and then to see, just, historically, how we even brought the movements from our ancestors here and transform them and use them to reconnect with one another to build new histories, new stories for us and our futures.”

Artists accused of appropriating black movement have come in at a steady clip over the decades, directed at people from Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin to Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus. Now, the movements that have connected a community of Dubsmash creators, say many observers, are being used for the greater benefit of the TikTok influencers appropriating them, consciously or not.

“At this point, it's like it's messing with money,” Essence says. “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.”

While Harmon might’ve had all eyes on her as she performed at the All-Star game, another black content creator, Nicole Bloomgarden, watched online as the same group of TikTok stars, including D’Amelio and Rae, performed her own dance Out West at the same event.

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But these content creators are finding that their true fans, at least, have their back. Following the Out West performance at the NBA All-Star game, one person on Twitter wanted to make sure Bloomgarden got her due.

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And that means a lot to dance creators like Bloomgarden. “I love that people are doing [my dance], but I would also love for people to know where it came from,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Defining ownership

McMillian points out that no matter how simple the ask for credit may seem, the request comes from a place of serious importance.

“What this problem is really pointing at is this really foundational issue. And that is serious,” she explains. “Ownership — and even defining what ownership means — is really important for us and for our younger folks, to be able to have the space and the time to reconfigure what that means for them. And not to just, you know, have that taken away as soon as they move.”

Protecting black movement by something like copyright is a complicated issue, McMillian goes on to explain, adding that it’s difficult to work “within this sort of legal system that’s never really protected us in the first place.”

Essence acknowledges that the nuanced understanding of black movement and the way that certain TikTok stars have appropriated it is not something that everyone can relate to or even understand — especially since the apps involved cater mainly to young adolescents. “[White content creators] don't really understand, and they're not in our shoes — and we can't make them be in our shoes — so they don't feel the way that we feel. And I understand that,” she says. “That’s just how it is in the world.”

But as TikTok continues to grow, it’s become more and more clear that it brings very real opportunities to gain fame — and that there can be a lot to lose by missing out on it. This was made crystal clear through Harmon’s recent experience.

Harmon, who did not immediately respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment, created the Renegade in late September — but only started to make headlines last week.

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”I hope that debate about whether or not credit is important is over, because you pretty much just showed why and how it can be important,” Segal says in reference to Harmon’s sudden media blitz. “But I hope the conversation keeps going, and I think that it's going to take people continuing to push on social media, and continuing to get into the habit of tagging.”

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