Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. Now, back in the early '90s, if you wanted to get your fix with sketch comedy, Saturday Night Live was not the only game in town. In Living Color created by Keenen Ivory Wayans, ran for five seasons on Fox. Unlike SNL, its cast was predominantly Black, as were many of the show's writers. While the Wayans' family members and cast members, including Jamie Foxx, went on to have very successful careers, the biggest name to emerge from the show was a white comedian, Jim Carrey.
Jim Carrey: Somebody stop me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A group of Black artists paving the way for a white performer's successes, hardly uncommon in the entertainment industry. In recent years, this pattern has emerged time and time again on TikTok. Black creators invent a dance, white users perform that dance, and the influencers, who get the most followers and money out of these viral crazes, typically end up being white. Now, we saw this in March when influencer Addison Rae went on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to teach the host dances that had mainly been created by Black people. In response to the backlash over Rae's appearance, Fallon invited the creators of those dances onto his show the following week.
Jimmy Fallon: On our last show before break, we did a bit with Addison Rae, where she taught me eight viral TikTok dances, now we recognize that the creators of those dances deserve to have their own spotlight. Right now, some of the creators will join me to talk about how their dance went viral and then perform the dance themselves. Up first, we got Maya, Nicole, Johnson, and Chris Carter, who created the viral dance to Cardi B's WAP.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After Megan Thee Stallion released her latest single earlier this month, Black creators on TikTok decided to try something different.
Kaptin: I never thought I'd live to see the day that we actually go through with it and see just how much some of y'all need us, especially with making dances that you're going to rip off and say that y'all created it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's a TikTok user who goes by the handle @kaptin.kenuckles, explaining why many Black creators decided to go on a strike.
kaptin: Yes. For my melanated brothers and sisters of all of the African diaspora, we are on strike. Yes, we are on strike. We're not making a dance for-- Sorry, we're not making a dancefor them, we're just going to let them keep flailing. It just shows how much y'all need us to steal a dance and to say that it's a new big thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Instead of making a new dance to Megan Thee Stallion song, they want white TikTokers to see what happens when they don't have a dance created by Black people to copy. Here with me now to discuss this strike is Tonja Renée Stidhum, entertainment writer for The Root. Thanks so much for being here, Tonja.
Tonja Renée Stidhum: Thanks so much for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Let's just be honest, I'm old. I'm not a TikTok user, but you are. [chuckles] Talk to me about when you first learned about the strike.
Tonja Renée Stidhum: The Erick Louis, so it's T-H-E E-R-I-C-K L-O-U-I-S. I saw his video, he started making the rounds on Twitter actually, which is a very common for TikTok. When it goes viral, it goes over to Twitter. Basically, he uploaded a video with Megan Thee Stallion song. I'll be radio-friendly, I hear you say, thought-ish in the background. He seems to be getting ready to bust out like an eight-count to the song, which is usually right for a TikTok dance. That song was very, very applicable to TikTok dance, but instead, he took his middle finger to the camera and captioned it, this app will be nothing without Black people.
It was so brilliant because white TikTokers simply copied the video without knowing that it was a dupe. It definitely proved that they just copy and paste the Black creators' work without any sense of context, reverence, or respect. The original content, "that came out of that" from the Black creator drought is just that the white creators were like flailing about on the camera. It was hilarious, and we were all making fun of them, and proving that their own rhythm and creativity, so to speak, is not existent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's pause here for a second because I want you to help us understand what's at stake. Now, I don't want to say that maybe my friends and I used to always make fun of the three or four lovely white kids in college who would come to the Black parties and dance. We were like, "They are having a good time. I see them trying there." It's not that I'm unfamiliar with the racial flail in this sense, but talk to me about what's at stake that's different than what was happening at college parties in the pit versus what's happening on TikTok?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: Yes, it's very significant difference because, of course, at first we were having a good time and joking about it and roasting them, but then as it starts to evolve, we started seeing that it was pretty much a strike, similar to a labor issue or the fight for workers' rights. The Black creators decided to stop making these dances, stop creating these dances because they knew that white TikTokers were appropriating it and stealing their content without crediting them, and they weren't getting any other benefit for their own creations, which was abysmal. They strike again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is the benefit?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: Yes, that's a good question, because there's some popular TikTokers, such as Addison Rae, or maybe Charli D'Amelio, who have a bunch of followers. They have in the upper multi-millions of followers. Of course, brands and corporations, they want to get in on that with marketing. It's like free marketing, for them for these TikTokers, these popular TikTokers to maybe promote a brand or promote something. They get these sponsorships, they get these agency reps and other major deals from this platform. Again, they're doing this without crediting the Black creators.
When we do call them out on it, they may throw out a statement here to placate or what have you, or they're like consolation prize, such as like the aforementioned Jimmy Fallon appearance where he invited the Black creators after the fact, after that he platform Addison Rae with these dances that the Black creators created. There's this virtual signalling that leads to no real intangible reward for the Black creators who deserve it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me understand this in the context of this longer history. I'm thinking back to a time when music industry would have- actually Black musicians perform the music, but then would literally put on the cover, on the album cover white musicians in order to cross over, in order to sell, and then you maybe come forward to an Elvis time where the music, the dance actually comes from Black folks, but who aren't sold or played on top 40s mainstream radio, and instead, Elvis ends up with the credit for things that are created by Black creators, but in the TikTok context, aren't all TikTok accounts equally available to everyone?
In other words, I'm asking, if I'm just a free-market person, wouldn't I just say, "Hey, look, people prefer to see the white folks doing it, and that's who they're following."
Tonja Renée Stidhum: That's the thing. These white creators have this privilege because there is this whitewashing, right of standards of beauty, and such things as that. They're usually pretty much pushed to the forefront of these things anyway because of how society pretty much presents them. What's funny about TikTok and what's great about TikTok as a platform and the creation of the platform is that it's unique and that it allowed creators to receive credit.
It limits that amount of recirculation theft that happens when you download, upload a video, recirculate it over and over because they place a watermark on the video over and over, but in this case, we have other creators who are recreating the dance. They're making their own video and making their own content, but not actually crediting the original creator and saying that this is their dance.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I find it stunning and really smart to put the watermark. That's indicative of understanding how that intellectual property works. Have you heard about other possible ways that Black creators are thinking about protecting what they're creating?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: The copywriting thing is the biggest one that I've heard of so far, but other than that, what I do here is a lot of Black creators trying to sound the alarms to TikTok itself for basically penalizing people, I think would be an ideal situation, who don't credit these original creators because they made the platform to credit these creators with the watermark, of course. That was their original intent. I think they should go forward with that attempt for sure because though they released a statement, which is pretty close to bare minimum, in my opinion, I'd ideally like to see them penalize this theft.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about what an outcome of this strike might look like because, for real, I would like to see a Megan Thee Stallion dance. I'm not going to see it till it comes to Twitter, because, again-- [chuckles] Once it gets over there, I'll be able to see it, but I am wondering, in the context of the strike, how many folks are participating, and what do they see as the outcome or the endpoint that they're going for?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: It's an interesting point because even when, let's say, a TikTok makes a viral video, it also benefits the artists. Megan Thee Stallion numbers have gone up to the stratosphere, basically, because of these viral dances with other songs of hers, such as Savage, which Keara Wilson made a dance for. Like in this case, they're not doing the dance at all, and so the numbers aren't as good. Of course, because Megan Thee Stallion is a Black woman, of course, I'm rooting for her and her song, and I want her to win, so there's like an aspect there and basically an effect there that happens, but then also, again, I think the priority here is the Black creators because when we talk about those numbers, the record label is who's ultimately profiting and benefiting from that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You spoke with Keara Wilson last year, she's the one that did the Megan Thee Stallion Savage dance, can you tell me a little bit about that conversation? What stood out to you?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: I found her dance and I actually recreated it myself. I think I put it on Instagram or something. This was before I created my own TikTok account, which I have now. Her dance stood out to me because it was so catchy, it was easy to learn, it was so fun. She was so fun. I loved her facial expression, and she actually said this to me, that she always had these very animated facial expressions, which is dancing, but we did have that conversation about their appropriation of TikTok, because it started with the Renegade dance.
That conversation's within The New York Times, and with Keara, we were able to continue that conversation. She definitely made that point about while she may not know every white TikToker and where they get that from, she definitely noticed the trend that these dances that they create, they blow up into the stratosphere, but without them benefiting from it. Maybe you'll get a little sponsorship here or there, but then it's not at the level that these Addison Raes are getting at all.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is it possible that the white folks just don't realize that this is what they are doing?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: I don't think so. Not anymore, because I think even Addison Rae made a comment or a statement, I'm notifying everybody that, yes, you should uplift and support these Black creators, but again, I think it was a bit of virtue signaling because I don't think anything was actually done about it. I felt like maybe it was something to alleviate any backlash against her personally and her PR, but I think it would be ideal if some organized effort with these people, with these creators who have this privilege, to then lean back and pull these Black creators up, use their privilege, use their platform to do so.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just let me back up a little bit because I want to get also just a little bit of the big history of TikTok here. The dances, has this been in part of a quarantine thing, like, has this been about us being home and having really nowhere else to go and dance except our own living rooms?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: You know what? I think that had a huge impact on it. The lockdown definitely did. Even following this, this is the journey with Black TikTokers, I have definitely lauded them over and over for their creativity. Not with just the dances, but with these editing skills. You probably saw a few videos that went viral with how these creators edit their videos. They're so creative, and it's so, so big that, again, big corporations are seeing these things such as Disney are seeing these things and seeing their talent.
I'm like, there's so much undiscovered talent here, and they're able to do this on this platform. That's what's the beauty of this platform. It's like this universal way of getting out there, but again, I think there's some other underlying factors that makes this pretty much the standard of white supremacy keep going, even with something that seems universal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm going to make my 19-year-olds sit down and actually get me on TikTok.
Tonja Renée Stidhum: I love it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who should I be following? Is that a thing? Is that what you do? Do you follow people? How does that work?
Tonja Renée Stidhum: Yes. You should definitely follow like the Keara Wilsons, that's a lot of comedians that are out there where Black TikTok. The Eric Lewis is a great one, that I mentioned before. There are so many great ones on it. Even Black TikTok, if you follow that hashtag, you will find a whole bunch of things that would definitely tickle your fancy. I would love, Melissa, to see you create one of the dances that they do in the future.
Melissa Harris-Perry: No, no, no, not, no. I feel like I could hear my husband right now hearing the segment and being like, "That woman is not your friend, do not let her talk you into that." Tonja Renée Stidhum is an entertainment writer for The Root and has just laid down a gauntlet of a challenge. I don't know, my soul might have to do this. Thank you so much, Tanja.
Tonja Renée Stidhum: Thank you so much, Melissa. It was great talking to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is what happened at my house last night when I asked my daughter Parker, who's home from college this summer, to help me prepare for this segment. We're doing a segment on the show about TikTok and I need an account. Can you help me set it up?
Parker: Let's do this. If you sing to it, it might download faster. Now it asks for things you're interested in, be careful because then you'll get a bunch of kids my age shaking their butt.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I don't want that, but wait, you missed class on TikTok. You weren't making TikTok, you were just scrolling through it.
Parker: Oops. Start watching.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Wait, it literally went immediately to a white girl dancing. Wow.
Parker: You see how their dancer would be on face?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It literally went immediately to-- Why can't we see Black people stuff?
Melissa Harris-Perry: He is making some kind of peach cobbler. Yes.
Parker: Do you want to like this?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, I want the like this.
Parker: Then like it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. [unintelligible 00:15:40] It's the deal though, I want to choreograph a TikTok dance challenge.
Parker: Start off with that.
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