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TikTok’s Black dance creators are on strike

Megan Thee Stallion, winner of the Best Collaboration award for 'Savage' (Remix), attends the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Awards at The Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Emma Mcintyre/Getty Images)
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Black TikTok creators are the brains, beauty and brawn behind some of the Internet’s most famous dances. Think the Renegade, Savage, the Out West challenge and the Git Up challenge.

Credit has been harder to come by.

It’s a familiar pattern by now: A new song comes out, and within a few hours, a Black TikTok user has invented a wildly popular dance to go with it. Soon everyone is doing the dance — moms, dietitians, and notably, White teenage girls with a whole lot of followers. The viral clips they share often give no credit to the dance’s Black creator, who can only sit back and watch as their moves go viral without them.

Infuriated by this trend, a movement of Black TikTok artists has effectively called a creative strike: A new single from Megan Thee Stallion is burning up the Internet, and they’re refusing to make any new dances for it.

“I’m so here for the #BlackTikTokStrike,” Twitter user Zakiya Soleil wrote Tuesday. “All these influcers making bank off copying black creaters. Let it last all summer. Respect and pay black creaters!!!”

Black creatives have long expressed frustrations about their work being misappropriated.

In 2018, Epic Games was sued after being accused of stealing popular dances from the rapper 2 Milly and other Black artists, and turning them into digital animations for characters in the video game Fortnite. (The lawsuit was later dropped). Two years later, TikTok apologized to “our Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed” after the company was accused of censoring videos related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Outrage grew again last summer when Charli D’Amelio, 17 and White, went viral with a dance to “Lottery (Renegade)” by Atlanta rapper K Camp. The so-called “queen of TikTok” gained millions of followers before she acknowledged the dance’s Black creator, Jalaiah Harmon, whom the New York Times eventually profiled.

Many other Black TikTokers have shared similar stories. In February of last year, Nicole Bloomgarden watched the viral dance she’d invented, “Out West,” being performed at the 2020 NBA All Star Game by D’Amelio.

“I don’t believe I should have been the one invited to the finals game,” said Bloomgarden, a 21-year-old public relations student who has about half of one percent of D’Amelio’s 118 million TikTok followers. “But it was kind of like, ‘Oh, look at my dance being performed at this huge stadium arena, and no one knows who created this dance. No one knows it was me.’"

There have been some improvements over the years. D’Amelio now tags her videos with the dance creator, and TikTok says it has taken steps to better support Black creators.

But many Black creatives still feel alienated, undervalued and taken advantage of — and this was the week some decided to stop putting up with it.

The final straw for many was a new trend in which TikTok users — many of them White — dance to a line from the Nicki Minaj song, “Black Barbies.” It goes: “I’m a … Black Barbie/ Pretty face, perfect body.”

“It’s just really weird that it was that specific part of the song,” said Erick Louis, a dancer in Florida with about 200,000 TikTok followers. He appears to have inspired the strike on the evening before Juneteenth, by posting a gag video set to the music of Megan Thee Stallion’s latest single.

“Made a dance to this song!” reads text on the video’s first frame. But as the song continues, Louis raises his middle fingers to the screen. “Sike,” reads the text. “This app would be nothing without Black people.”

The strike took shape over the following days — mainly by loose agreement in hundreds of Twitter threads, comment chains and by various creators on their respective TikTok accounts. There is no penalty for scabs; some Black creatives still made new dances this week. But early figures suggest the strike is already changing TikTok’s artistic landscape.

The new Stallion track (whose name is unprintable in this newspaper) had been used in only 37,000 TikTok videos as of June 25, according to TikTok. That compares to more than 22 million videos based on her pre-strike hit, “Savage,” 2.5 million for “Captain Hook” and almost 1 million for “Cry Baby.”

In a statement released Wednesday, TikTok emphasized that their "teams have continued working to elevate and support Black voices and causes.”

But many strikers see the problem as deep and systemic.

“Black folk have always been aware that we’ve been excluded and othered,” said Louis, who normally posts politically-themed videos. “Even in the spaces we’ve managed to create for ourselves, [non-Black] people violently infiltrate and occupy these spaces with no respect to the architects who built it.”

For Bloomgarden, the strike has practical consequences. She said every uncredited video takes her further away from her goal of being able to dance for a living.

“We put in so much work to this,” she said. “We’re hustling, we’re coming up with things. I’m just trying to create. I’m trying to have people take me seriously.”