A platform where dance “challenges” thrive, sparked by individual creators and then snowballing into other users trying to show they can do it too, video-sharing social network TikTok and going viral go hand in hand. From those with a knack for moving rhythmically, to less graceful mother and daughter duos, all types of TikTok users like to get in on a dance challenge, usually started by one person and then closely imitated by thousands of others. Sometimes they are meticulous copies of an artist’s own routine, other times a new take inspired by a song, but in all cases, the idea is to be a close to perfect as possible. Over the past year, TikTok has seen dance challenges based on rapper Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ single, featuring Megan The Stallion, and artist Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ release.
But something shifted this year. After US rapper Megan The Stallion’s ‘Thot Shit’ song was released, it was the ideal track to launch a thousand dance challenges, following in the footsteps of her feature on Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ release, which had sparked copies and new dances by eager TikTok users.
Instead, black Tik Tok creators, primarily in the US, who lay claim to being the true originators of many of the dance videos, went on strike, staging a digital walkout. Using the #BlackTikTokStrike hashtag, they drew attention to the “preferential treatment” of white TikTok creators, from ripping off dance moves from black creators, to reaping monetary gain from mass views, all without crediting the original creators — a clear case, they argued, of cultural appropriation. Strikers aimed to draw visibility to the exploitive practice, one that is rooted in history on a wider scale.
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Amanda Bennett is the founder and creative director of define&empower, a Black feminist education and consulting collective that has a TikTok following of nearly 25,000. The 27-year-old from Durham, North Carolina, is also a PhD student studying Black feminism, and made a viral video explaining the strike.
“I see so much gaslighting of Black people who speak out to demand equal rights. I wanted to produce videos that communicated the historical precedent of white people unethically profiting off Black people’s labour and culture,” she tells i. “Black creators are tired of white people profiting off our work and appropriating Black culture.”
Many black people aren’t satisfied with the current status quo – with white people not only consuming their culture, but failing to respect it at all, in return. “We’ve seen the way older generations of Black creators have been disrespected and erased, and we aren’t having it anymore,” she says. “It’s not enough to ‘appreciate’ Black culture anymore. Black artists and intellectuals deserve to be cited and compensated for their work.”
Though the TikTok strike was concentrated in the US, founders of Ignition Dance Company, a Dancehall and Afrobeat dance-education platform based in South London, Shelaine Price and Verona Patterson say that black British creators in the dance space are impacted by the same treatment, too.
Dancehall, a style of music and dance that originates from Jamaica, has had a heavy influence on mainstream music globally, especially in the UK, underpinning the Jungle and Drum & Bass scenes of the nineties. Price says that appropriation and exploitation of this type of content dilutes it. “It isn’t just about learning moves, dancehall is a subculture and a way of life,” says Price, who also teaches dance at London universities. “It’s what you eat, the colours you wear, how you talk, how you walk, it’s a lot deeper than that.”
Adding, “So, why are so many people trying to capitalise off teaching dancehall, when you can’t teach a culture that you aren’t part of?”.
The idea that culture is for sale is how appropriation happens, says Patterson. She also points out that the systemic nature of blocking black creators from opportunities has left some of them unable to access education around business negotiation. Something she says that their white counterparts feel more comfortable doing.
“We know people who have worked for big music artists for free, because they aren’t sure of how to negotiate or elevate themselves to a place of power,” she says. “These same teams will go to white dancers, and they’ll be paid, without being lowballed or asked to work for free in the first place.
“Part of combatting this is about investing in our own communities and spaces, so we can be the businesses that offer black creators fair opportunities, while upholding and protecting the culture in a way that only we can,” adds Patterson.
Speaking of her pre-teen daughter, Price says she once noticed her watching a dance challenge on TikTok, and recognised the moves as belonging to a dancehall artist, who created them some years ago. She notes that her dance students have often shown her new TikTok challenges that are “bad rip-offs” of dancehall trends from decades ago, too. Not only is appropriation of new content from black creators rife, but Price stresses that young black people are being “resold” moves from white TikTokers that originated in their communities to begin with.
“I educated my daughter about the origins of black dance and music for this reason,” she says. “Because as the generations move on, the kids are further and further away from the family elders that came over here from Jamaica, and in a sense, more vulnerable to not being able to spot when something that is already theirs is being sold back to them by white digital creators.”
This goes beyond TikTok. The point of the initial strike was to raise awareness of appropriation on the platform, but also racism within society. Like society, the internet operates on racial lines, where black users and creators are discriminated against in more than one way. “As we saw in the recent New York Timesdocumentary ‘Who Gets to be an Influencer?’, Black creators are often forced to operate on a fraction of the budgets that white influencers receive,” says Bennet. “A lot of Black influencers are also discriminated against by social media algorithms because of their skin tone and because they are talking openly about Black history.
“Many white people are still ignorant not only of the true history of racism and colonialism, but also of the ways that the consequences of those violent systems continue to structure our workplaces and economies,” says Bennett.