TikTok Was Built on the Backs of Black Creators. Why Can’t They Get Any Credit?


“You’re in for a rude awakening. Get in,” Missy tells Torrance after a heated argument in the school parking lot. A few moments later, the ladies arrive at East Compton High School to confirm their fears: A former Toros cheer captain has been stealing routines from the Clovers for quite some time, leaving new captain Torrance in a tense rivalry.

Clovers cheerleader Lava pierces through Torrance Shapman’s skin with just one line: “Were the ethnic festivities to your liking today?” Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) and Missy (Eliza Dushku) are standing outside of the East Compton High School, in front of Clovers members Isis (Gabrielle Union), Lava (Shamari Fears), and Jenelope (Natina Reed), after watching the Clovers perform at their school’s game, baffled and embarrassed that the routines Rancho Carne Toros—Torrance and Missy’s cheer squad —previously performed were actually stolen routines from the Compton cheer squad. Isis’s words sting even more: “Every time we get some, here y’all come trying to steal it, put some blonde hair on it and calling it something different.”

Originally launched in 2000, Bring It On is largely disguised as a cheeky teen flick about rival cheerleading squads competing for the coveted Nationals championship. But in this particular scene, the movie pares down the fluff and reveals itself as a critique on the injustices that plague the Black and brown community, particularly when it comes to white people benefiting from the intellectual properties of Black people. Sound familiar? The appeal of the iconic teen flick isn’t just Union’s fiery quotes or the “bitchin’” cheers we recite to this day; instead, it’s a testament to how the age-old tale of appropriation still persists to this day, especially on social media platforms like TikTok.

Mya Nicole has been a part of just about every popular short-form content app ever created— Dubsmash, Musical.y, which turned into the app du jour, TikTok. The track runner is also a self-taught dancer, so TikTok is where she thrives most. “Dance has also just always been that one thing that’s been a part of me,” Mya tells ELLE.com over the phone. TikTok has become a place where she meets and learns from other creators, including her right-hand and fellow Texan Chris Cotter. Virality isn’t always awarded to the first person to create a routine to a song on TikTok, but the earlier the better. In true TikTok fashion, Mya and Chris met up the day after Cardi B released her latest single “Up” to create their own routine. “When a song comes out, everyone wants to know who’s going to make the next viral dance. So [Mya and I] were like, Why don’t we make it up?” Chris says. The duo’s creative process is collaborative and oftentimes freestyled. “We find the part of the song that really sticks out. I come up with something, he came up with another move, we put it together, and done.” Mya and Chris’s “Up” routine was complete in 15 mins and posted on TikTok on February 8.

new challenge ft @cchrvs 🔥🔥 #upwmyaxchris

The Texas duo’s routine became the unofficial “Up” dance on TikTok, garnering so much attention the Jimmy Fallon show invited TikTok star Addison Rae to perform it—and countless other viral routines choreographed by other creators—during a segment on the show. On March 27, the official Fallon Twitter posted a clip of the segment where Rae was tasked with teaching Fallon eight viral TikTok dances (Do It Again” – @noahschnapp; “Savage Love” – @jazlynebaybee; “Corvette Corvette” – @yvnggprince; “Laffy Taffy”- @flyboyfu; “Savage” – @kekejanjah; “Blinding Lights” – @macdaddyz; “Up” – dc: @theemyanicole); “Fergalicious” -@thegilberttwins) but not without criticism. For one, Fallon held up cards with the names of the dances on them, but nowhere in sight were the names of the creators who choreographed each dance.

TikTok, like several other short-form apps, has always been a launching pad for trends and emerging stars, but also serves as another medium for Black art to be stolen and appropriated. In a perfect world, posting an 8-count routine and helping an artist’s song go viral on the app would result in exposure and opportunities outside TikTok’s walls, like center stage on national TV. And for many of TikTok’s white creators, this “perfect world” is just one upload away—regardless of whose toes they step on along the way. For Black creators like Mya and Chris, center stage is just a pipe dream as they watch others enjoy the fruits of their labor. Mya admits she was initially happy when she saw Rae perform her routine on Fallon, but once the high wore off, she realized she and Chris were robbed of a moment that would have provided them an even bigger platform and opportunities.

NEW DANCE ALERT! 🚨 if u use my dance tag me so i can see🤗 @theestallion #writethelyrics #PlayWithLife #foyou #fyp #foryoupage #newdance #savage

“I sent it to Chris like, Dang, that could’ve been us performing our own dance, that we put our work into. We could have done that. I thought about all the other people and their dances too, because that could have been all of our time on to show what we put our work into,” Mya says. The 15-year-old believes we should give Rae some grace. “Addison Rae doesn’t deserve so much of the hate. But, at the same time, a lot of what the people on Twitter were saying was true. We have to fight for what we want and opportunities or this will keep happening. Closed mouths don’t get fed. Everyone posting in support of us helped me and Chris get on the show.”

Speaking to TMZ following the Fallon debacle, Rae explained: “I think they were all credited in the original YouTube posting, but it’s kinda hard to credit during the show. But they all know that I love them so much and I mean, I support all of them so much. And hopefully one day we can all meet up and dance together.” But Rae is just a symptom of a larger problem, one that extends beyond TikTok: white creators co-opting and capitalizing off the backs of Black creators. When you compare the lives of the Charli D’Amelio’s and Addison Rae’s of the app, top creators who have leveraged their TikTok fame to full-fledged careers as influencers—Rae and D’Amelio ranked number one and two on Forbes’ TikTok’s Highest Earning Stars list in 2020—to that of their Black contemporaries, it reaffirms the notion that being “twice as good to get half of what they have” isn’t enough anymore. TikTok doesn’t directly pay users, but recognition from the app can eventually result in revenue. Black creators are relegated to the sidelines while someone else is publicly recognized for their hard work.

Y’all hit this and DC: me

Shortly after the Tonight Show backlash, Fallon (like Torrance in Bring It On) attempted to right his wrongs by inviting the original creators of the dances on the show—virtually. On a large screen that showed a Zoom conference call, there sat all the creators beaming with happiness to finally be recognized for their work. It was a lazy attempt to remedy a situation that could have been prevented from the very beginning by giving proper credit the first go-round, not following public criticism. Why does it take public uproar and criticism for Black creatives to be given their flowers? Have we not learned from the “Renegade” moment last year?

Last February, Charli and Addison were invited to perform the viral “Renegade” dance, created by Jalaiah Harmon, during the 2020 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Twitter went into a tizzy as the then 14-year-old watched from her home in Atlanta. The NBA eventually gave Jalaiah her flowers, but the damage was already done. It’s been over a year and still, we’re singing the same tune. Social media has become a neverending cycle of appropriation, uproar, and apologies that could easily be avoided if large platforms like Fallon learned from past instances instead of perpetuating this problematic pattern.

It’s no secret internet culture (and music, and fashion, the list goes on) is led by Black creatives. We’re the blueprint many look to to determine what’s cool. Still, the cycle of appropriation spins on. How many times do we have to protest and fight for others to give credit where credit is due? In the wise words of Gabrielle Union’s Isis in Bring It On, “I know you didn’t think a white girl made that s— up?”

[Read More…]