TikTok's rich list exposes the million-dollar pay gap between white and Black creators

  • Many of TikTok's most viral dances and challenges come from Black creators, who often go uncredited. 
  • Forbes recently revealed that all of TikTok's five-highest earners were white — meaning that Black creators aren't just missing out on followers, but income too. 
  • Business Insider spoke to three prominent Black creators on the platform about how the lack of crediting, combined with fewer brand deals, has contributed to the pay gap. 
  • "At first when I asked for dance credit, in the comments I was told 'Why does it matter?', or 'It's just a dance, get over it,'" said Zach Jelks, who has created a number of viral dance routines.
  • A TikTok spokesperson tells Business Insider: "Nothing in our community guidelines or in how our For You feed works seeks to discriminate against any creator or diminish diversity on our platform."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Zach Jelks, whose TikTok account @undos boasts 3.3 million followers, has created a number of viral dance routines, notably ones set to "Camelot" by NLE and "Whats Poppin" by Jack Harlow. But most people familiar with his work don't know him. On TikTok, dances can go viral overnight, and creators can lose control of their content fast.

TikTokers with bigger followers have performed his dances without giving him credit — and he's not alone. Forbes recently revealed TikTok's seven highest earners, all earning at least $1 million a year, with Addison Rae Easterling in pole position on $5 million. The top-five earners were all white, even though young Black trend-setters like Jelks create some of the platform's most viral trends. Now some of these Black creators are fighting back, trying to get the recognition and money they feel they deserve.

"I thought to myself, there was no way this person would take credit for something they didn't create, that's so wrong," Jelks said, recalling times he's seen his dances appear on other popular users' pages. "At first when I asked for dance credit, in the comments I was told 'Why does it matter?', or 'It's just a dance, get over it.' I kept asking for credit and explaining why it was a big deal. Then people understood."

When Atlanta-based 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon's "Renegade" dance routine went viral earlier this year, it was imitated by Lizzo and Kourtney Kardashian — but it was Charli D'Amelio who was dubbed "CEO of the Renegade". She is TikTok's second-highest earner with a total earning of $4 million last year, according to the Forbes list. 

This false crediting didn't go unnoticed. Online gaming phenomenon Fortnite made an in-game emote dedicated to Jalaiah. She's since appeared in a Sufjan Stevens music video. Easterling also went on to post a video to her millions of followers of herself, D'Amelio, and Harmon all doing the dance together. The caption thanked Harmon for "teaching us the og renegade!! show her love!!"

But while there's been increased pressure on TikTok's most famous users to properly credit the Black creatives they're copying, some creators feel it's too little, too late. As the latest Forbes figures show, this is not just about clout — these creators have missed out on income, too. "I think I could have gotten money for it," Harmon told the New York Times in February. As the Forbes figures show, she wasn't wrong.

Deaundre Lewis, 20, is another creator who lost out after not getting credit for his work on TikTok. Deaundre is the creator of multiple viral dance challenges — more than 12.1 million videos have been made using his custom sound, 2liveSoundsmix, with people trying the accompanying dance routine.

"Charli, Addison, James Charles, Shaq and his son, you name it, everybody was doing it. The queen of TikTok is Charli, and you know, Charli did it about 80 times. It was literally viral. And then I barely got any credit for it," Lewis says, the frustration and hurt evident in his voice. It's clear there's no easy solution to this, either: When asked what he intends to do to address this unfairness, Lewis simply said: "I don't even know."

White people copying Black culture and passing it off as their own is nothing new — especially online. Before "Cherry Emoji Twitter," there was "Hoe Twitter," a community formed by two Black women: Jessica Fant and the late Taylor Crenshaw (aka Nicole Milfie). If you've seen the phrase "on fleek" anywhere, that was also created by a Black woman called Peaches Monroee. Even the meme of Kermit the Frog sipping Iced Tea is from Black culture — specifically, queer Black culture: The phrase "spilling tea" originates from Black gay slang.

Black TikTokers are the latest in a long line of creators who get forgotten as their work takes off. Nicole Bloomgarden, 20, is another whose name was forgotten as her "Out West" challenge went viral. "Everyone was doing it. It felt like you couldn't scroll on the [TikTok landing page] For You Page without seeing it. Then a lot of celebrities started doing it too. At that point, the dance became bigger than me, and I lost credit for doing it," she said. "I think it all came to a head when they had some of the biggest TikTok stars doing it at the NBA All Star weekend."

Could the creators on the Forbes list be doing more to address this TikTok pay gap? A representative for Easterling tells Business Insider that she was unavailable for comment. A representative for Josh Richards, fifth on the Forbes list, says that he recently created a hoodie from which 100% of the proceeds were donated to African-American advocacy group the NAACP. Many have also started putting dance credits in their captions, as where D'Amelio credits creator Amiyat Rae for her dance to "The Race" by Tay-K.

A representative for Easterling declined to comment. Representatives for Charli D'Amelio, Dixie D'Amelio (number three on the Forbes list) and Loren Gray (number four) declined to comment.

As Bloomgarden said, "it's not necessarily any influencer's fault that Black creators didn't make that list, but it does show that Black creators are not getting the same opportunities as others on the platform."

Even if top earners platformed and credited Black creators as much as possible, it's not clear that content by Black creators would receive more engagement. Although Lewis has created multiple viral dance challenges, he has relatively few followers: around 360,000. Jelks has a significantly larger following with 3.3 million, but this pales in comparison to the numbers reached by the white users on the Forbes list. Lewis said, "you don't see other Black creators with millions of followers" — Easterling and D'Amelio have 58 million and 83 million respectively. 

Some Black creators also believe TikTok's algorithm suppresses their content. There was outcry in May when a "technical glitch" meant videos tagged #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd displayed having zero views, while they were actually reaching upwards of a billion hits. TikTok has also previously admitted to suppressing posts from disabled, LGBTQ+, and overweight users because it feared wide exposure would make them vulnerable to bullying, which raises questions about what else they might be suppressing.

A TikTok spokesperson tells Business Insider: "Nothing in our community guidelines or in how our For You feed works seeks to discriminate against any creator or diminish diversity on our platform. We fully acknowledge our responsibility to not simply wish for and talk about the importance of diversity on our platform, but to actively promote and protect it."

In any case, one cause of the pay gap extends beyond the app itself: Brands also fail to pay their Black influencers fairly, or don't reach out at all, creators say. "I am friends with some of the people on [the Forbes list] and I think even they would agree that it is harder for Black people to rise to TikTok fame," Jelks said.

Whatever TikTok's future in the US looks like, can Jelks envisage Black creators on Forbes' list next year? "I think eventually there can be a Black creator on that list but unfortunately I cannot see it happening in the near future." He said he cannot see himself taking legal action against the creators copying his dances, although he plans to continue calling out those who do copy from him — and hopes they "do the right thing."

Bloomgarden is more hopeful and has been more proactive. She's now managed to reassert ownership of the "Out West" challenge: Young Thug, one of the artists behind the song, has publicly acknowledged her as the creator of the dance, and Fortnite recently released an "Out West" emote which credits her.

"I hope to keep this momentum going. I have a lot more to share with the world. I hope to use this platform as an example of how women of all backgrounds can be heard in the entertainment industry, [and] if TikTok is here next year, I hope to see a lot more Black creators on that list," she said. "Including myself."

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