Shortly after Forbes released its “Top-Earning TikTokers 2022” list earlier this month, Black media professionals noticed that the list was surprisingly devoid of creators of color.
This, after months spent amplifying the voices and reach of Black content creators in a variety of ways— from the world’s introduction to Jalaiah Harmon, and the ways in which Black creators often don’t get credit for inventing the choreography behind some of the internet’s favorite challenges, to last summer’s TikTok strike.
These stories have definitely made an impact, resulting in companies like Ulta and TikTok itself creating programs to support the Black creative community.
Yet, while reporting that “the platform’s highest-paid celebrities collectively hauled in $55.5 million in 2021, a 200% increase from a year earlier,” Forbes’ latest list only includes one person of color, Bella Poarch, who is Asian-American and tied for fourth place.
Earlier this week, a social media post by Tish Taylor-Searcy, whose management and branding firm Brand Fetish Agency represents both social media and mainstream talents such as influencer SuperDope Q and actor/singer Jacob Latimore—revived the conversation around the Forbes list.
“There’s a lack of understanding,” Taylor-Searcy tells BLACK ENTERPRISE. “These kids get famous so quickly. But there’s a certain target audience that’s tuning into them. They lack the understanding to tap into the audience of journalists and editors. They don’t understand how to get these looks.”
That lack of awareness is not just limited to knowing how to reach the media, however.
Keith Dorsey manages a roster of social media talent with a reach of over 300 million followers. The majority of his clients, ages 18-30, built their audience on YouTube, Dubsmash, and the now defunct Vine long before the pandemic made TikTok the standard for short-form video.
He currently manages CollabCrib, which is what has become known as a content house: a large home shared by a group of artists, content creators, aspiring actors, etc. who maximize the reach of the videos and social media posts by appearing in each other’s content. CollabCrib is one of the only content houses in Atlanta and the only one exclusively hosting Black talent.
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Dorsey’s experience echoes Taylor-Searcy’s observation.
“I think our people have been having to catch up for quite a while,” he tells BLACK ENTERPRISE. “And it’s just a knowledge gap, [which creates] an income gap. A lot of the white creatives have been doing this for a while and making money and having the relationships [longer] than the Black creatives.”
Forbes’ criteria for this Top 5 ranking required TikTok creators to have earned $4.75 million between January and December of last year. Keeping that in mind, the exclusion of Black creatives underlines the need for a bigger conversation than Forbes’ omission.
In terms of popularity, Khaby Lame’s 127 million followers makes him by far the most popular Black TikToker. His reach puts him just 6 million followers behind Charli D’Amelio, who raked in $17.5 million last year, thus coming in as the top earning TikToker of last year.
By contrast, Lame, who according to AfroTech was expected to surpass D’Amelio’s numbers last summer, is only worth a reported $2 million.
In explaining D’Amelio’s success, Forbes cited not just the money made from partnerships with brands like Dunkin’ Donuts and a Hulu show co-starring her sister, Dixie D’Amelio, who came in at number two on the Forbes list.
Dorsey’s influencers have similar partnerships in play with brands including Steve Madden and Amazon. His very first management client, Robiiiworld, has his own line of products and has launched an acting career. Over the summer, CollabCrib was at the center of a Facebook Watch reality show.
In other words: these young Black creators are doing the same thing their white counterparts are doing. The difference is the support team around them—Or lack thereof.
Dorsey points out that, in many ways, creators evolving in Los Angeles, where a vast majority of content houses are located, have benefited from a system of representation that already existed in Hollywood. The concept of talent agents, managers, and publicists was already there: this new class of talent was just evolving on a different platform.
Black Creatives Struggle for Parity
For Black creatives, often times these resources simply don’t exist.
“There aren’t a lot of people reaching out to offer that level of support to social media influencers,” Dorsey says. “And if they are, they don’t have that capacity for social media. A lot of times it’s music managers that think they can go in and manage a social media talent. And it never works out. Even though it has its similarities, it’s two different things. You really have to understand how this industry works.”
So he took it upon himself to study the content creator and social media space from Hollywood.
Publicist-turned-influencer marketing consultant Joshua King did the same, though through a slightly different approach. His company, Now Influencing, has created social media campaigns for films like Straight Outta Compton, Finding Dory, and Batman Vs. Superman, helping major studios tap into the social media currency held by his clients.
What brought King to this place was a realization that, as people were learning how to leverage their social media platforms, they often didn’t know how to properly present themselves as a sellable brand. What he’s discovered about the learning curve Black creatives are experiencing is that, quite frankly, many Gen Z creatives are not interested in building the team or the system the need to attain the level of success that could land them on that Forbes list.
“In the last two to three years, a lot of influencers have started to understand how to monetize their platforms,” he explains. “In addition, there’s some confusion about what publicity is, even in comparison to what it used to be. So you have people who think they want publicity. But when you really boil it down, they want clout, which is not the same thing.”
As such, and to Taylor-Searcy’s point about connecting to wider audiences, today’s creatives don’t necessarily place the same premium on media coverage as even the generation before them.
“A lot of influencers are younger; the Forbes list wasn’t on their goals this year,” King says. “They probably didn’t know they were gonna make that kind of money. And for them, that’s enough: ‘I’ve sealed the deal, I got the bag and I have a lot of followers. I’m no longer looking for anything past that.’ But the millennials who are managing them or working in this space, we’re like, ‘No, these white influencers are getting more than them. This is injustice. This is not fair.’”
Through her work representing influencers, publicist Brandy Merriweather is working to bring equity to the media coverage and opportunities available to young creatives of color. But she’s also eager to shift the conversation.
“What you permit, you promote,” she says. “I feel like the conversations about the inequalities are so important. But it’s also important that we continue to maximize and amplify the great moments, the Black positivity moments and announcements that will continue to keep the next generation inspired and not make them feel like the poster children or help, or that they’re having to operate at a deficit. It’s almost a teetering effect: if we want these conversations to happen, the negative effect is that people slowly forget the conversations about Black positivity.”
In addition to working with media partners to highlight those positive moments, Merriweather has also partnered with two of her clients, Khalen Barry and Seth Francois, to launch Creator Equality. After helping Francios and Berry bring their experiences with racism and microaggressions to the forefront in 2020, Merriweather had a realization.
“In those moments where Black creators speak up, whether it’s on ideas or deficits that they face when negotiating, there’s a scarcity of representation that doesn’t try to milk them of the little that they do have,” she says.
Creator Equality emerged as a solution, offering pro bono PR and legal support to BIPOC content creators and tech professionals working to close the digital divide. And Dorsey expects the supporting industry needed to help catapult these creatives to mainstream levels of success is on its way.
“It’s definitely growing,” he says. “And it’s gonna keep growing because creators are being created every day. And these platforms really aren’t going anywhere. It may change. [But] just like there are talent agencies in Los Angeles that’s been around for 100 years, and record labels have been around 100 years, social media talent agencies are gonna be around just as long.”