To go viral is to be a comet: a spectacular beam ripping through the atmosphere leaving existential wonderment in its wake. There are comets we can conjure up quickly — Halley's, for starters — but many go unacknowledged. See, returning is the hard part, and as more time passes, observers move on to eclipses and alignments.
The internet has long operated this way. A photo of Senator Bernie Sanders seated at the 2021 presidential inauguration went from a mood to a marketing ploy at breakneck speed. It was inescapable — at least, until The Weeknd had his Blair Witch moment at the Super Bowl. Thus goes the cycle, and few are more familiar with this cycle than Black content creators.
At a time when Black Twitter is talked about like it's an entirely different app, the influence of Black culture on not only the internet but culture at large is undeniable: merch has been made, catchphrases trademarked, threads adapted into films, and celebrity statuses solidified.
There's Donté Colley, who delighted the internet with his emoji-littered affirmation dance videos and went on to cameo in an Ariana Grande and Victoria Monét music video. Rickey Thompson is a wildly popular comedian and social media sensation whose positive self-talk monologues would make Tony Robbins tremble. Like many internet personalities, Thompson started out on Vine but migrated to Instagram, where his following now exceeds five million. Kenyan newcomer Elsa Majimbo is another comedian thriving on Instagram; Majimbo's videos often show her throwing out one-line dismissals, tossing her head back, emitting a carefree guffaw, and slipping on her signature tiny sunglasses. She was recently one of Teen Vogue's five cover stars for its annual Young Hollywood issue."Black people are the best part of going online," culture critic Lauren Michele Jackson wrote in her 2019 book White Negroes on cultural appropriation. "Black culture is the fiber in the memes that are sometimes the only reasonable excuse for logging on while the world crumbles." But is that truth uniformly recognized? Black content creators of various passions say getting credit (and proper compensation) after going viral are cosmic feats of their own.
"The Joy Business"
One of the internet's latest breakout stars hails from the Richards Honda dealership in Baton Rouge, LA. Car salesman Durell Smylie went viral in December 2020 for an impromptu promotional video that shows him slithering out of the trunk of a Honda Pilot with "Salt Shaker" by the Ying Yang Twins softly playing in the background. In between guaranteeing viewers great deals, Smylie keeps repeating the same refrain, the coordinates of his constant and current location: "Where the money reside."
The phrase describes anywhere there is money to be made. It also represents hustle, the possibility of wealth. Smylie told POPSUGAR the expression just randomly came to him, but he initially used it in defense of someone he used to date who had been mocked for working at McDonald's: "It was like, 'Don't worry about what nobody say about your job, because you got a job.'" Smylie then started throwing it around among friends and family, although "they didn't pay it any mind." Smylie added, "At one point it was aggravating to certain people, like my grandmother and them."
Then, at the suggestion of his manager, Steve Irvin, Smylie used his signature catchphrase in the now-famous video. It was just for fun and all improvised. (Smylie credits his high school theater teacher, Heidi Frederic, with his ability to improvise: "She taught me so much.") When he first posted it to Instagram in October, the video received about 600 likes, the most he had ever received.
"I can't take care of me and my grandmother and my immediate family with Instagram and Twitter followers." — Durell Smylie
A few months later, while bored in his living room, he uploaded it to Twitter and went to sleep. The next morning, he was running late to work and consumed by thoughts of, "Oh my god, I'm about to get fired. I'm not going to be able to pay for this apartment. I'm not going to be able to pay my car note after a while." His concern grew upon arriving at Richards Honda and seeing his colleagues in a huddle. But they weren't discussing his tardiness; they were looking at his tweet, which had blown up overnight and was notably retweeted by rapper Saweetie.
"It really took flames when Saweetie — shout-out to Saweetie, I love her so much — reposted it," Smylie said. Though the original tweet has since been deleted, the video and its catchphrase continued to spread, with stars like Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, and Halle Berry quoting it. People also latched on to one another quote from the video, its kicker: "And that's on who? Mary had a little lamb." "I've never explained it. So, I feel like I have to," Smylie said, before launching into his explanation. "Mary is Jesus's mother. So, if you would never lie on Jesus, why would you lie on Mary?"Smylie now has over 80,000 followers on Twitter. He's made merch and appeared in TikTok's Super Bowl pregame event. Smylie thinks the relatable message of the video aided in its success. "It was something that all of us could relate to," he said. "Most Americans have a job. Most people in this world have a job, or they have some type of way that they're getting their money. So we're going where the money reside. We're going to our jobs, we're going where the money is with us."
For influencers and content creators, where the money resides is in service. "We're in the joy business," said actress Danielle Pinnock, who is half of Hashtag Booked, a social-based sketch comedy series, with LaNisa Frederick. "We're providing joy. We're providing laughs. We're providing people relief from this horrifying time right now."
Frederick and Pinnock first met as understudies in a Lynn Nottage production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2013. Frederick, who is from Ohio, was going around greeting her fellow cast members with a warm Midwestern hello and a hug. Pinnock, from New Jersey, handed her a business card. "I think I still got it," Frederick said. "I got to find it." Though they now laugh at the firm professionalism that underscored their first exchange, the business card was kind of fitting in the end, as the actresses just turned Hashtag Booked into a full-fledged LLC.
After both moving to Los Angeles, Frederick and Pinnock commiserated over shared industry obstacles and annoyances: the constant typecasting, too-light makeup on set, and the countless cardigans. "If you're going in for a young mom role, everyone always wears a cardigan," Pinnock said. Frederick added, "We're not old ladies. Why are we collecting cardigans?"
In 2018, they established Hashtag Booked as a more permanent residence for their grievances. "Of course some whiskey was involved," Pinnock said. "It was an outlet for us. It was a time when we were hashtag not booked, and if we were booked, they were in very stereotypical circumstances where you're going to be the hood hairdresser with two lines or the sassy nurse."
Hashtag Booked exists on multiple platforms, but Instagram is the brand's main hub. The account's first sketch shows Pinnock recording a voice-over audition from inside her closet with a pillow resting atop her head. Frederick and Pinnock have since gone on to parody Zoom auditions, the clothing choices of acting teachers, "urban" commercial voice-over scripts, and so on. "It is another form of theater for us in the sense that we're telling a full story with a beginning, middle, and end," Frederick said. "It just happens to be a minute."Instagram's introduction of IGTV in 2018 ushered in long-form storytelling, but even on TikTok, where uploads currently can't exceed a minute, entire history lessons are being held. Taylor Cassidy introduced her now-famous Fast Black History series during Black History Month in 2020, shortly after beginning to actively post on the app. "When I first started TikTok, I saw that there weren't very many creators on the platform that were diverse," she said.
The 18-year-old creator has since taught her audience of over two million about important figures such as chemistry pioneer Percy Julian, judge Jane Bolin, and fashion editor Elaine Welteroth. Cassidy's followers often say they've learned more about Black history from her TikTok than school. "Something really important to me is making sure that my content is compact enough to where you can dedicate your attention to it," she said, "but not so jam-packed that you don't even retain anything."
These minute-long videos take time. Frederick and Pinnock noted that as Hashtag Booked's following swelled to 34,000, so did the workload. "We definitely did not expect it to grow as it did," Frederick said. "All of a sudden, we're ushered into this world of understanding Instagram, understanding the metrics of it, the analytics of it, what it means to influence." In addition to managing the account, and of course creating the content that populates it, Frederick and Pinnock also do their own editing, graphic design, and press relations. "There is so much legwork and planning that goes into creating these sketches," Pinnock said.
There's also the fear of a professional toll. Though shrouded in humor, Pinnock and Frederick's critique of their industry is very real; it's not all been done without some bravery. "Some of these things, especially back in the day, you could not say," Frederick said. "You say it and you're blacklisted. You say it and you're difficult. You say it and you're angry."
"There's always a way to monetize and get organized and I think that's the thing that needs to be taught." — Danielle Pinnock
Fortunately, the response to Hashtag Booked has also exceeded expectations. Frederick and Pinnock have been stopped by fans while hiking, leaving a movie theater, touring Paris, and, for Pinnock, even on the CBS studio lot while headed to wardrobe for her role on Young Sheldon. "People know me more from Hashtag Booked and the social media content that I create than the actual paid TV show that I recur on," Pinnock said. "So it does have influence, and it's really changed our lives as actors as well."
"I Created Going Viral"
Long before Instagram or TikTok or the word "viral" as we now know it, there was Soulja Boy. The seminal rapper — née DeAndre Cortez Way — was an early adopter of YouTube, uploading his first video in March 2006, a few months after beta testing of the platform was complete. The video shows Soulja Boy teasing music while reclined in the passenger seat of his car. It's still up and has nearly a million views. A year later, his debut single, "Crank That," would break digital records and spawn a dance craze. "I really finessed the whole game," he said in an interview for BET Digital's I Went Viral series.
Soulja Boy has gone viral several times, like when he got emotional (and used cash to wipe away his tears) during a Whitney Houston tribute, or the time he took credit for Drake's career while on The Breakfast Club in 2019. That interview was spoofed by Saturday Night Live shortly thereafter. His songs are also sampled often: Ariana Grande was accused of plagiarizing his "Pretty Boy Swag" in "7 Rings," and Beyoncé sampled "Turn My Swag On" in "Hold Up," which she cleared in advance. "That's how you supposed to do it," Soulja Boy told BET. "Y'all gotta take notes from Beyoncé."
I Went Viral Producer Brook England said Soulja Boy's episode is among her favorites in the interview series. "I fought so hard for this episode, actually," England said. "It was the longest episode as well because he went viral so many times." In fact, the day before England and I spoke, Soulja Boy tweeted, "I created going viral." She said it was a "good feeling" seeing that.
When asked why people are quick to dismiss Soulja Boy's impact on internet culture, England said, "Because he's young and Black, basically." Yes, he's a "character," but it's more than that. "Whoever wins the internet is king. So to say that this guy really started 'going viral,' you're saying that this young Black man is king." But if someone like, say, Justin Bieber were to make the same claims, "there would be no shortage of celebrations for him." England added, "Sometimes people just don't know how to accept the message when it comes from a messenger they didn't expect."The goal of I Went Viral was to right many of these wrongs. Another interview that stands out for England is one with Kayla Newman, also known as Peaches Monroee, who went viral in 2014 with the invention of the word "fleek." Her video, which originated on Vine, showed Newman hyping herself up after getting her eyebrows done for the first time. "Eyebrows on fleek," she said at the time. To this day, Newman doesn't know how the word came to her. "That happens to me all the time," she told BET. "I just say stuff."
The word quickly went through the too-common cycle: celebrities started using it; it was put in songs, on T-shirts, and in commercials; and Newman reaped none of the rewards. According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, neither "fleek" nor "on fleek" are currently trademarked. Legal search engine Justia shows applications to trademark both phrases in 2015, but communication seems to have stalled in 2019.
Newman has since launched a jewelry shop on Etsy and was recruited to promote an eyebrow product for Rihanna's Fenty Beauty in 2019. In her I Went Viral interview, Newman said it was her dream to one day open a beauty bar and start her own cosmetics line.
"We're learning all these things as we go," England said. "Her family didn't know how to monetize off of that situation, and it was really kind of a sad situation, because all of these brands had made so much money off of this phrase and off of this work and this girl didn't even really get the credit."
"I Deserved the Credit"
Jalaiah Harmon was 14 years old when she choreographed one of the most popular dances in recent memory. Harmon had been listening to the song "Lottery" by K Camp and the moves came to her "at the last minute." So, after returning home from dance practice in September of 2019, she filmed the dance as a duet with a friend and uploaded it to Instagram and Funimate, a video editing and sharing app.
Like many recent trends, the dance is fast, complicated, and involves a lot of arm movements. It also borrows from prior trends, like the woah. Harmon thinks these factors were part of a "formula" that made the dance become popular: "It was 'Lottery' having the perfect beat and lyrics, plus my mash-up of all the latest dances." The video gained solid traction on Instagram (it currently exceeds 700,000 views), but it really thrived on TikTok. By that point, however, it was simply referred to as the Renegade, and no one credited Harmon, much less knew she created it.
"The moment I realized that my dance went viral is when several of my friends and followers started tagging me and sending me the videos with celebrities doing my dance," Harmon said. Since the Renegade and TikTok gained popularity around the same time, it became a rite of passage for celebrities new to the app. TikTok's top two most-followed creators, Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, also did the dance, further complicating the search for its origin. Harmon said, "I was so excited, but sad at the same time that no one knew I was the creator. I was never mad that other people were doing my dance, I just felt that I deserved the credit for creating it."
Establishing legal ownership over a dance is notoriously difficult to do. (Even Alfonso Ribeiro of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lost his copyright battle over the Carlton.) But Harmon really isn't interested in that. She just wanted credit. "I think if I had gotten the proper credit in the beginning, it would have meant a lot to me because certain opportunities don't come every day to Black creators," she said, "but I know everything happens for a reason."
Credit isn't that difficult to dole out, either. In our conversation, for example, Smylie was eager to praise Joanne the Scammer, Saucy Santana, and even Peaches Monroee. "None of them get the attention that they deserve, in my opinion," he said. The same goes for Hashtag Booked's Frederick and Pinnock, who rattled off Nicole Byer, Mona Swain, and Edward Mawere as peers and influences. "None of us eating, none of us eating," said Pinnock, "but when we eat, we all going to eat." On the value of crediting creators, Cassidy said, "It makes sure that the culture is recognized, and makes sure people realize this isn't just pop culture, this is Black culture."Opportunities eventually did come for Harmon: she appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, received a shout-out from Michelle Obama after performing at the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, and landed a spot in Forbes's 30 Under 30 list. D'Amelio and Rae also set the record straight and did the Renegade with Harmon herself.
"She got the attention she deserved because social media went amok. As they should have," said Smylie, who was outraged at the lack of recognition initially given to Harmon. "She should have been paid. She should have been respected because she started a cultural movement on TikTok. She should have been verified and respected by all these social media platforms, because she did it on all platforms."
This lack of credit can't be excused by forgetfulness or a lack of research. It's typically another manifestation of cultural appropriation or, as is often the case with internet trends, digital Blackface. In White Negroes, Jackson described cultural appropriation as being both "everywhere" and "inevitable." It also reinforces existing power structures. "If appropriation is everywhere and everyone appropriates all the time, why does any of this matter? The answer, in a word: power." Jackson continued, "When the oppressed appropriate from the powerful, it can be very special indeed. And yet. When the powerful appropriate from the oppressed, society's imbalances are exacerbated and inequalities prolonged."
Cultural appropriation is also a selective tool: it adopts the positive while ignoring the negative. "Everybody wants the insurgence of blackness with the wealth of whiteness," Jackson writes. "Everybody wants to be cool without fearing for their lives. They want blackness only as a suggestion, want to remain nonblack, keep centuries of subjection and violence at bay with the prefix non- firmly in place."Appropriation also exists in activism. Though the last year solidified Black Lives Matter as one of the biggest protest movements in the nation's history, empty pledges and performative gestures abounded. "Everyone really just Jenny Craig-ed the Black Lives Matter movement. We were all on the fad diet. People put their black squares up, and then they're still stealing the sh*t," Pinnock said. "They're still stealing the stuff. They're still exploiting Black creatives, creatives of color."
"I was never mad that other people were doing my dance, I just felt that I deserved the credit for creating it." — Jalaiah Harmon
"Payment. Dough. The Money."
Credit isn't the only demand. Capital is also important in achieving a more equitable ecosystem. "The due diligence comes from reparations," Frederick said. "It comes from acknowledgement. It comes from allowing Black people to get the acknowledgement that we deserve. It comes from putting money in our pockets. It comes from not only having a seat at the table, but letting us have a table." Simply put: "Payment. Dough. The money."
Smylie sprung into action immediately after going viral. Saweetie retweeted the "where the money reside" video on Dec. 14, 2020, and Smylie submitted a trademark application that same day. Smylie initially applied to copyright the phrase after reading suggestions from his followers. "I didn't know the difference at that time," he said. Copyrights protect artistic works and intellectual property, while trademarks protect logos, names, phrases, and anything else used to sell products and goods.
Smylie's advice for other viral stars: "Whenever it's your time, it's your time. And whenever your time does come, make sure you own everything that walks past your desk." He added, "Make sure you're involved in every decision, and even the decisions that happen behind closed doors, that people try to do behind your back."
"Let's find these resources that were originally not allowed for us," Frederick said. When she mentions Hashtag Booked's growing team or a trademark attorney to family members, they make remarks about the cost and complex process. "There's no concept of it because [my family was] just trying to survive. We were just trying to make do, so that business sense, that's not being instilled," she said. "It becomes a detriment and it doesn't help us grow."
Frederick and Pinnock think there should be a handbook for rising viral stars. "There's always a way to monetize and get organized and I think that's the thing that needs to be taught," Pinnock said. She listed a few ways to start: make spreadsheets with contacts you've made along the way, create a reel with your top posts, draft a cover letter or press kit, and, most importantly, ask around. "Somebody next to you has the resources that you need, trust and believe."
Some experts and professionals are willing to offer their services in exchange for access to a large following. Take the case of Tessica Brown, who recently gripped the internet when she mistakenly used Gorilla Glue in place of hairspray. After Brown shared several failed attempts to remove the glue, Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Michael K. Obeng, who has a chemistry background, came up with a solution, flew Brown to Los Angeles, and successfully performed the $12,000 procedure free of charge.
"His name is everywhere. I have researched him . . . His advertising worked," Frederick said. "Tagging and commenting, that's currency now," Pinnock said. She added, "I'm not getting no plastic surgery, but can he be my primary caretaker?"
"It's a Part of My Story"
Airing it all out helps put an end to the exploitative cycle, and things do appear to be looking up for many creators.
Cassidy is hoping to translate her TikTok success into a podcast. She's also been posting more to her YouTube channel. Harmon is still dancing, optimistic that another one of her creations will catch on. "I didn't want to only be known just for the Renegade, but as I've gotten older, I've realized it's a part of my story and will always be a part of me," she said. "My team, my family, my supporters, and my love for dancing keep me motivated, and I would never let one thing that didn't happen the way I wanted it to keep me from living out my dreams."
Frederick and Pinnock are constantly writing and pitching. Frederick is developing a project about Chicago public schools, and she's also writing about her upbringing in an "extremist" doomsday church. Pinnock is working on an animated project and an adaptation of her one-woman stage show Body Courage. Hashtag Booked merch is in the works, as is a television adaptation, but they "can't say any more than that" at the moment.
"We want to be a hub as well, where we can take in the stories that people don't have a home for yet. So that's something a little longer term, but this is a dynasty," Frederick said. Pinnock quickly quipped, "You got the Dynasty wig on, too."
Smylie, meanwhile, has his sights set on starting a makeup line and releasing a single around spring break. "I know how to write raps a little bit because we used to play around with it when I was in college. And, everything I do is improv," he said. Nicki Minaj is a big influence, and it's his dream to meet her one day.
He's also still working at Richards Honda, although he's now only available by appointment. "Too many people were coming, too many people were calling," Smylie said. His sales skills remain intact, and he easily transitions into car talk: "If you don't have a specific vehicle, I will come to the dealership at a certain time. I will give you my schedule, let you know what's going on, when I'll be back, and we'll be able to orchestrate some type of deal."
Smylie is "extremely grateful" and "extremely humbled" by the attention he's received, but that's not — and never has been — his endgame. "I didn't want to be a famous person," he said. "I wanted to be a wealthy person, because I can't take care of me and my grandmother and my immediate family with Instagram and Twitter followers."
"That's the only thing that truly matters to me, at this point," Smylie added. "I'm not going to say I don't care to be famous, because I've met a lot of nice people. I've met a few celebrities that I've always dreamt of meeting, but all of that does not pay your bills. The banks and all of them, they don't take hugs and kisses. They take ones all the way up to hundreds."