Black Teens Are Breaking The Internet And Seeing None Of The Profits
Young creatives are using social media to shape the culture we consume. But what happens when they don’t own their work?
Kayla Newman started her Vine account to record herself commenting on the minutia and mundanity of high school life. This was nearly two years ago, when she was 16. For her handle, Newman chose a nickname made up during an annual visit to her grandmother in Georgia: “Peaches Monroee.” She added the extra “e” because it looked playful, she explained over email.
Like a diary, Newman began filming herself daily, though she has since slowed down to meet the stresses of senior year. When she’s riffing as Peaches, Newman takes videos of herself from the passenger seat of her mom’s car in her neighborhood of South Chicago. She and her mom dance at a stoplight in one early Vine; she offers an impromptu speech on self-confidence in another. In the video everyone knows, uploaded on June 21st, 2014, Kayla admires her precisely arched eyebrows: “We in this bitch. Finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. Da fuq.”
I know the line by heart. Such is the nature of internet virality. As of this writing, Kayla’s original “On Fleek” Vine has generated over 36 million “loops,” or replays. That’s where any sensible person stops the tabulation. A month after Newman’s upload, someone named Kevin Gadsden reposts her Vine to YouTube, where it acquires around 3 million views. The expression “on fleek” passes through the clutches of Ariana Grande, who vines herself singing it in August 2014 for another 9 million loops, and then through those of seemingly every other social media-literate celebrity outfit that fall; corporate entities like IHOP and its rivals employ the phrase in an effort to feign cultural relevance; talk show host Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper exchange vaguely unpleasant jabs about its meaning. “On fleek” ascends to near-officialized language.
It’s impossible to track the chain of ownership from there on out. In fact, the chain becomes more like a swarm. Put plainly, there is no recognized ownership. The phrase Newman gave the world was used to sell breakfast foods and party cups, but it only belongs to her in an intangible sense, on the rare occasions in which people choose to give her credit.
“I gave the world a word,” Newman said. “I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated. But I also feel that good things happen to those who wait.”
What things come to those who innovate? And who can be called an innovator? When we talk about technology, the designation of “digital innovator” is usually reserved for the engineers who create platforms or the entrepreneurs who instruct them to. Rarely do we see that language applied to the users populating those platforms, though they are tech’s bread and butter. A cursory glance at the user-generated content rising to the top of the internet heap reveals how much of it is produced by black teens, members of a burgeoning Generation Z who experiment with the iPhone gaze.
In an article for The Guardian, writer Hannah Giorgis argued that content-sharing among black users and consumers constitutes a “21st century meta-language” that gives place to dances, songs, memes, and other “sociolinguistic phenomena” that are compelling enough to make the leap from the producer’s specific context to even the most corporate of marketing campaigns. Evidence teems. In August 2015, Dancing with the Stars shot a promotional campaign featuring mostly white celebrity has-beens doing Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” a song and attendant dance popularized on Vine. In one breathless appearance on Ellen, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton tried it too. In those moments, black teens’ internet production becomes a means for communication and entertainment. Their names as creators are harder to find.
Cultural sharing is ancient. That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia.
Denzel Meechie, 20, was physically spent when he called me. After we talked, he headed back to an Atlanta dance studio to record a video of himself and his crew improvising to songs from Drake and Future’s just-released mixtape. Meechie is a dancer, first by habit and then by trade. He’s influenced by Les Twins and the fluid lines of ballet, but he isn’t inclined to rehearsing. In his videos, his preferred backdrop is the chrome of industrial spaces. He likes inventing dances that follow songs he’s moved by, something he posits elevates the impact of any given track. The Vines on his account, @SheLovesMeechie, have been viewed over 200 million times; his choreography has influenced the way many people move.
“It’s never planned,” Meechie said. “[We] just go for it, and after we have a lot of takes, me and my director will cut in and put the best six seconds on Vine. If we got a good longer take, we’ll put it on YouTube.” His first big break came as a surprise. “I went to the gas station one time, and I danced to this one song. It went viral, and all of a sudden my social media started growing because I was flooding it with dances.” The song was “Plug Snitchin” by the Houston group Yung Nation. It hadn’t been close to a hit before Meechie danced to it; afterwards, the crew found traction.
In mid-September, YouTube shut down Meechie’s channel, which had accrued hundreds of thousands of subscribers. “I had too many copyright strikes,” he said, referring to his use of songs without explicit legal permission from labels. According to Meechie, labels contact YouTube and demand his videos be taken down, often without the knowledge of their own artists, some of whom pay him directly to help boost their buzz. “And it’s crazy, you know, because the artists ask me to put the videos up.”
As prolific and internet-known as Meechie and his crew are, they are multiple steps removed from owning, in a tangible sense, their art, leaving them vulnerable to both YouTube’s whims and to having their creativity lifted by outsiders. Atlanta, where Meechie is from, is legendary as a place where teens generate culture, and then go uncompensated as their style and tastes are usurped by a corporate machine hungry for Black Cool. Cultural sharing is ancient. That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia. The propensity to share predates the young black creators doing so online. But they ought to claim lineage. Remember, for instance, the blues.
K.J. Greene’s 2008 essay, “Lady Sings the Blues: Intellectual Property at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” published in The Journal of Gender, Social Policy & The Law, situates the American conundrum of race and proprietorship at the specific moment of blues music production. Blues leans on an unpredictable meld of instrumental prowess and rapid improvisation, and not on a premeditated, capitalist-conscious calculus. “Black artists had no input in [copyright law], and examination reveals that it is in some respects incompatible with Black cultural production in music,” writes Greene, arguing that multiple copyright standards were specifically structured to preclude black blues artists, especially women, from claiming ownership. “The idea/expression dichotomy of copyright law prohibits copyright protection for raw ideas,” Greene wrote. “I contend that this standard provided less protection to innovative black composers, whose work was imitated so wildly it became ‘the idea.’”
Intangible things like slang and styles of dance are not considered valuable, except when they’re produced by large entities willing and able to invest in trademarking them.
Part of the reason the originators of viral content are stripped from their labor is because they don’t technically own their production. Twitter does, Vine does, Snapchat does, and the list goes on. Intangible things like slang and styles of dance are not considered valuable, except when they’re produced by large entities willing and able to invest in trademarking them.
Dana Nelson, founder of D.F. Nelson PLLC, a New York City firm specializing in copyright and music law, says outmoded intellectual property law needs updating for the digital age. “Copyright law and intellectual property in America does not follow the creative production of artists. Rather, it protects the interests of companies,” she says. “I think it is now harder to distinguish a non-commercial (fair) use from a commercial one.” Whereas Meechie’s dance videos are considered a threat to record companies’ bottom line, his cultural production—and Kayla Newman’s “on fleek,” too—is treated as ripe for the taking by those same companies.
In some sense, the roaring debates over white appropriation of black slang, music, and dance have worked as an avatar for circumstance of the independent black creator in the digital age. But the analog is insufficient. Intellectual property and viral content should be interrogated from a legal standpoint, Nelson argues. The copyright statute under which Meechie’s YouTube account got flagged and then taken down should be re-examined, as should the legal gray areas that leave individual creators like Newman in the cold.
But Meechie is young, and he has plans. The immediate one is editing the video of him and his crew dancing to Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” As of this writing, the clip has been viewed over 135,000 times on his new YouTube channel, but he still has a ways to go before he can reach the numbers on his old account. When I ask him how feels about his position as a simultaneously powerful shape-shifter of music and a disenfranchised net artist, he simply says he’s “dancing for now.” And, like Newman, he’s still waiting on those things good things to come.