In a TikTok video from June 18, Erick Louis, a 21-year-old content creator and dancer in Orlando, Florida, nods and bounces along to Megan Thee Stallion’s latest single. “If y’all do the dance pls tag me,” he captioned the video. “It’s my first dance on Tik tok and I don’t need nobody stealing/not crediting.”
But the joke is, there is no dance. Seconds later, with his lips pursed, Louis flips two middle fingers at the camera and walks away. “SIKE,” the caption reads. “THIS APP WOULD BE NOTHIN WITHOUT BLK PEOPLE.”
By Thursday, the video had racked up 127,700 likes on TikTok and had spread rapidly on Twitter. “Yt people have no idea what to do with this sound because a black person hasn’t made a dance to it yet,” read one viral tweet.
Megan Thee Stallion’s song lays out dance instructions plainly in the lyrics: Place your hands on your knees and twerk. But compilations of TikTok users fumbling — holding hands, moving their hips from side to side, waving their arms above their heads — have gone viral over the past week.
Some tweets suggested that Black creators on TikTok had seemingly agreed not to choreograph a dance to the song, which would force non-Black users to come up with dances on their own and prove how essential Black creators are to the platform. Many Black creators have created videos to the song and there is a popular non-dance trend related to the audio, but the message was clear.
“Black people carry the app,” Louis said. He posted his video to articulate sentiments he has seen circulating in the Black online creator community. The strike itself is not a true strike or boycott. Black users, including Louis, are still posting to the app. It’s more of a symbolic awareness campaign that consists of an agreement not to dance to Megan Thee Stallion’s song.
“Similar to the ways off the app Black folks have always had to galvanize and riot and protest to get their voices heard, that same dynamic is displayed on TikTok,” he said. “We’re being forced to collectively protest.”
The music video for Megan Thee Stallion’s single makes a similar point. It begins with the rapper calling a politician, alluding to the outrage spurred by “WAP,” her flamboyant single with Cardi B, released last summer. “The women that you accidentally trying to step on, are everybody that you depend on,” Megan Thee Stallion says. “They treat your diseases, they cook your meals, they haul your trash, they drive your ambulances, they guard you while you sleep.”
Essential workers are portrayed by Black women in the music video — as garbage collectors, grocery store workers, office staff, waitresses, police officers, surgeons and nurses — underlining the idea that the labor of women of color supports the economy.
Black creators’ concerns run deeper than simply obtaining dance credits or more brand deals. “We are being exploited, and that’s the core issue Black folks have always had in terms of labor,” Louis said. “These millions of likes, that should all translate to something. How do we get real money, power and proper compensation we deserve?”
According to Li Jin, founder of Atelier, a venture firm that invests in the creator economy, these tensions stem from systemic inequalities in the online creator industry. “The issue here is ownership,” she said. “The worker class is disenfranchised and does not have ownership over the means of creation and distribution.”
More creators, especially those from marginalized groups, are looking at the skyrocketing valuations of technology companies and reconsidering their relationships with certain platforms.
“People realize these tech companies are worth so much, they’re valued so highly, and the tech CEOs and employees are gaining so much wealth.” Jin said. “But the platform participants, the creators, have been left out of this equation. There’s an undertone of economic inequality, which broadly is the issue of our time.”
“My hope is that we realize this is an entire class of work that didn’t previously exist,” she added. “If we don’t offer this class of workers protections and rights, they’re going to become increasingly disenfranchised.”
Kaelyn Kastle, 24, a Black content creator and member of the Collab Crib, said she wasn’t participating in the strike, but supports what it represents. “The strike to send a message. The business models of these apps, they have us out here overworking and being underpaid,” she said. “We’re working long hours but at the end of the day we’re still making little to nothing, and we Black creators are making even less.”
Kastle said that many of her peers who want to participate in a strike can’t because of the dip in engagement it may generate. “When you’re working on these apps, they’re funding most of your life, so your back is against the wall,” she said. “If you don’t post for a day or two, you’ll open your Creator Fund like, ‘Wow, I haven’t made any money.’”
A spokesperson from TikTok said in a statement: “We care deeply about the experience of Black creators on our platform and we continue to work every day to create a supportive environment for our community while also instilling a culture where honoring and crediting creators for their creative contributions is the norm.” The statement cited a recent blog post outlining the company’s work with the Black creator community.
Even before the strike, dance trends on TikTok were declining, and the trends associated with many top audios have not included dances. The trend most popularly associated with Megan Thee Stallion’s song, for instance, is not dance related.
Top creators like Charli D’Amelio and Michael Le have transitioned away from dancing toward more vlogging and YouTube-style content. As the pandemic wanes, average users are also spending more time outside their homes creating a more diverse range of content.
“The shift away from dance takes even more of the megaphone away from these Black creators,” said Kwasi Ohene-Adu, founder of Groovetime, a platform for creators to own and monetize their dances. “Those big people on TikTok have gained the popularity from Black creators’ dances, now they’re transitioning away and Black creators are left high and dry.”
Many people who work with Black content creators hope that the strike can open a conversation about equity and payment.
“There has to be a broader conversation about creators having equity in these startups,” said Isaac Hayes III, founder and CEO of Fanbase, a subscription-based social media platform. “Instagram and Facebook make billions. How much of that is being passed on to the creators, especially those who drive millions and millions of views?”(Authors: Taylor Lorenz and Laura Zornosa)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)