Since high school, Sydnee McRae had liked the idea of getting paid to make videos online. After graduating, she started making beauty tutorials on YouTube, but she managed to attract only 500 followers—not nearly enough to get brands to pay her for promoting their products or even to get the occasional freebie. Then, a year ago, McRae, now 22, had a breakthrough on TikTok, the short video platform.
It was just as Covid-19 lockdowns were beginning. McRae created and performed a dance to Captain Hook, Megan Thee Stallion’s sex-positive club banger. She encouraged others to try out the dance themselves with a hashtag, #captainhookchallenge, and a tutorial video that explained her dance step-by-step. The videos were popular, attracting more than 400,000 likes. Within weeks, many of the platform’s top stars—influencers with millions of followers— performed their versions of her choreography, helping the song soar in popularity, too. In April, Megan Thee Stallion herself joined in, posting a 15-second video from her kitchen.
McRae was in heaven. “I realized, wow, I created something that people love,” she says. She started gaining followers by the thousands. Soon musicians and record labels were getting in touch, asking her to promote their songs and offering to pay her around $500 per dance. McRae found a talent manager and quit her job as a sales manager at Massage Envy in Miami.
In May, McRae received $700 from Universal Music Group to promote a new song, Out of Love by the rapper Lil Tecca, with a new dance challenge. It was a hit, too, and McRae was excited a few weeks later when she saw Addison Rae Easterling repeating her dance. Easterling isn’t quite as famous as Megan Thee Stallion, though in the world of TikTok influencers she’s the queen: She has 70 million followers (to McRae’s 1.1 million) and has made, according to Forbes, millions of dollars off her dances and lip-sync videos, thanks to deals with brands that include American Eagle, Fashion Nova, and Reebok.
McRae is Black and Easterling is White, which seemed germane when she learned from her manager that Easterling had also been hired to perform McRae’s dance and was paid substantially more. Instead of the hundreds of dollars Universal gave McRae to create the dance, Easterling had been paid thousands by Lil Tecca for just her performance. The news burned. “I’m creating the art, I’m giving you the art, without me there would be no art,” McRae says. “But I don’t get the same respect, the same amount that these White creators get.”
The phenomenon of White artists appropriating the work of Black creators—and getting paid more to do it—is as old as the entertainment industry itself. But McRae’s experience cuts against the meritocratic promises of the likes of TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, which allow creators to achieve celebrity without going through agents or casting directors. Now that there’s real money to be made on these platforms— brand endorsements on social media account for $10 billion a year globally, according to SignalFire, a venture capital firm that tracks industry data—a new class of gatekeepers has emerged. They’re corporate marketers and digital ad agency executives trying to capitalize on the new Hollywood, and most of them are White. The result, according to interviews with dozens of influencers, is that White social media stars consistently make far more than their Black counterparts, even in cases where Black influencers have more followers or are doing more of the creative work. White choreographers with followings similar to McRae’s routinely make $5,000 to create and perform a dance. McRae generally gets one-tenth that, and she has noticed the same pay disparity across the industry. Although Easterling at least credited McRae, other white influencers often fail to do so.
In other cases, Black influencers aren’t paid at all. Stacy Thiru, who gives beauty tips to her 1.5 million TikTok followers, says that before she knew what her true market value was she’d regularly accept products—wigs, for instance— in lieu of cash when she created promotional tutorials for beauty companies. “They got free promo,” she says. “All I got was hair.” Another well-known social media personality, Jordan Craig—also known as the meme-maker Ka5sh— says he became aware there was a racial gap in pay when he attended an event with a few White memers, all of whom had similar followings. They showed up in new luxury cars; Craig, who is Black, couldn’t afford a car at the time and came in an Uber. “It’s crazy to be famous on the internet and then have it not mean anything,” he says. “Literally, I was not sure where I was going to sleep last March.”
For years, marketers viewed racial messages, and especially the Black Lives Matter movement, as divisive. They inserted provisions into contracts that specifically prohibited influencers from talking about police or using the #BLM hashtag. “The country is morally divided, and actively taking a stance felt outside of their area of expertise and risky to their bottom line,” says Karyn Spencer, chief marketing officer for Whalar Ltd., an influencer management and social media advertising agency.
But last summer, just as McRae was starting to get discouraged about her new industry, that calculus changed. Americans of all races took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by police. Corporate brand managers, motivated by genuine enthusiasm—and the awareness that being tied to a popular civil rights movement would be great marketing— joined a chorus of calls for racial equality. They ghost-wrote open letters about race for their executives to sign and scrambled to feature people of color in advertisements.
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