It was July 2020, and like everyone else in the world, Savana Santos was having a terrible week. Her band’s latest tracks had flopped, her beloved cat, Gumbo, had tragically passed away, and that’s without even mentioning the whole global pandemic thing. Desperate to vent, Santos wrote a song about it, freestyling the first verse and the chorus to what would become Avenue Beat’s break-out hit, ‘F2020’: “low-key fuck 2020. Still sad, still ain’t got no money.”
Convinced that their Nashville record label—Valory Music Co, a subsidiary of Taylor Swift’s notorious former label, Big Machine—wouldn’t let them release a track with “like 378 fucks in it,” Santos dropped a snippet of the song on TikTok. When she woke up the next morning, the track had four million views. Bolstered by the virality of the track, Avenue Beat’s record label rushed them through recording a full version, f-bombs aside.
‘F2020’ is a bop, by anyone’s standards, but scrolling through the #F2020 hashtag on TikTok is a weirdly sobering experience. Users have taken ‘F2020’ and used it as a springboard to recount what supremely shitty years they’ve had, culminating in the #F2020challenge—everything from deaths, divorces, ennui and break-ups, overlayed in text bubbles over Santos’s deadpan flow. It’s gallows humour at its finest, a public mourning ritual set to a catchy jingle. Avenue Beat were touched (if a little unnerved) by the emotive reaction to the song: “It’s so strange, we want to tell them that I’m so happy you relate to the song but I’m so sorry your year has been so terrible!”
The #F2020challenge is a product of what sociologist Henry Jenkins called participatory culture. This is a culture in which the barriers for creative engagement are lowered (TikTok’s in-app editing tools really couldn’t make this any easier), and where creative expression and active participation are incentivised. As critic Jon Herman notes, this cultural dynamic is what makes TikTok videos “all punchline”—in other words, it’s much easier to be silly in 15 seconds than it is to be serious or sexy.
Fittingly, the songs that blow up on the app tend to be grittier, goofier, or just plain weird. There needs to be some element of surprise or discordancy: gross-out lyrics, bone-rattling bass, a drop that serves as an aural exclamation point, something users can hook onto as they mug for the camera. At the very least, there needs to be simple, directive lyrics, which easily map themselves onto a semaphore-esque dance routine. In terms of complexity, viral TikTok choreography tends to only be a few rungs above the macarena.
This is a world away from the slick, serious pop of stars such as Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, which tends to stick around on the charts—as Avenue Beat have discovered, and although ‘F2020’ garnered nearly 14 million views on TikTok, it failed to crack the Billboard Top 100. But then again, not every major pop star makes a splash on TikTok. Simply being a pop idol is no guaranteed path to clout: TikTok is about participation, not idolatry.
There is some evidence that the worlds of mainstream pop and TikTok’s weirdly democratised eclecticism are drawing ever closer. The campaign behind ‘Yummy’, the first single from Justin Bieber’s Changes (a heinous song which, bizarrely, has just been nominated for a Grammy) was notable because of how desperately it courted TikTok virality. ‘Yummy’ came pre-packaged with an accompanying dance routine (I doubt one would have emerged organically) and pleas to fans to “play the track on repeat at a low volume overnight” in an attempt to gain streaming numbers and knock ‘The Box’ by Roddy Rich, a bonafide TikTok hit, off the number one spot (it didn’t work, FYI.)
Even more cravenly, Bieber announced that he was entering into a branded partnership with Chipotle, and would be using the track to soundtrack branded content on TikTok during the Superbowl, making the nauseating “girl, you got that yummy, yummy, yummy” refrain even less palatable.
However, there are some established stars for whom a relationship with TikTok comes a little more naturally. ‘WAP’, the mega-hit from Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, is a prime example. In the mainstream media, ‘WAP’ has proved a rich seam for journalists to mine, with think-pieces in The Guardian and Complex pronouncing it “the epitome of female empowerment” and “unapologetic in celebrating the sensuality and sexuality of women.” The ‘macaroni in a pot’ song? Really? This praise was followed by a po-faced rejection by Russell Brand, who called it “the capitalist objectification and commodification of the female,” which spawned even more think-pieces, including a ridiculous reaction video by Ben Shapiro. And so on, and so forth.
Meanwhile on TikTok, ‘WAP’ has been the catalyst for some harmless, silly fun: goofy renditions of the iconic choreography, pranks where giggling adolescents trick clueless parents into listening to the track’s filthy lyrics, delighting in their scandalised response. As critic Jon Caramanica has noted, TikTok is really where ‘WAP’ has been taken in its intended spirit: “blue humour, feel-good titillation, something to giggle along to with your friends, something to tease your parents with.”
Ultimately, news of TikTok reshaping the music industry forever is likely overstated: the same has been said of Spotify, YouTube, MySpace, Napster, the gramophone—probably whatever the hottest new lute model was back in the 1300s. Perhaps what is special is TikTok’s refusal to take itself too seriously. During a time when everything feels far too serious, silly can sometimes be a good thing.
Racism wears many masks—some instances of it are more camouflaged than others—but unfortunately, even in industries that claim not to wear them, racism remains prevalently encountered on a daily basis. Screen Shot sat down with TikTok activist Naomi Eluwa, and dancer, actress and model Nikkita Chadha to speak about the racism they have both suffered from within their lives and careers to highlight the new tools younger generations are using to promote a message of open-mindedness, acceptance, and self-love. Times are slowly but thankfully being forced to change, and it’s thanks to the voices that quite rightly demand to be heard. Here’s how the two influencers are leading a new movement against racism.
Most of TikTok’s users are under the age of 30, and if you have a scroll through the app’s For You page, it will certainly show. Although TikTok is inherently a social media platform, it functions in a very different way to other apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter or Facebook. While all of the latter ones mostly show users content from other people they made the decision to follow, TikTok’s main feed shows content from people users don’t know as well as from the ones they follow. This implies that whoever uses the app has the potential to reach a wider audience on the platform, especially when compared with other social media platforms.
Nigerian-British TikTok content creator Naomi Eluwa, who is now 20 and studying international history and politics at the University of Leeds, has seen first hand the reach users can gain on TikTok. The rise of the now giant platform, in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place globally, both added on top of the COVID-19 induced lockdown, gave the entire world some serious thinking time, including Eluwa, known as @nayyeeohhhmeee on the app.
With the majority of the world locked indoors, the internet was the next door to freedom. Even on TikTok, which didn’t necessarily seem like the most obvious place to try and bring about social change only a few months ago, especially as the nature of the platform as it started out was light-hearted and fun, things contrastingly changed. Not to say that memes and more ‘superficial’ content aren’t welcomed on the platform anymore, but more recently, activism seems to have taken the lead role—as much as TikTok moderators try to muffle it. Now, among other reasons to hold an account, activism stands strongly out—Eluwa is evidence of that.
The young activist had only started her TikTok account in December of 2019, she told Screen Shot that “I had a private account at first, it was just me and my friends and I didn’t really take it seriously but then lockdown happened. I just started to rant on my TikTok account, I made it public too. That’s when everything started to happen.”
And it really did start to happen: “It was really scary. I got 7,000 new followers in one day. I first looked at my profile before going to bed and thought ‘oh that’s cool, I’ve got a thousand new followers’. Then I woke up and I had 7,000 new followers and I was scared! I had a few videos doing well and then also a couple of dead ones, but it was mainly this one video I did about Donald Trump that did quite well. I just got so many followers from it.”
Eluwa intended her account to be educational and informative for TikTok users, and hoped that it would feel like a welcoming and safe space for users, but she also shared that “since the comments and abuse I’ve received, I’m not sure whether my page has turned into something different. I know that I have personally changed the content I make, just for my own mental health, because receiving racial abuse every day is not fun.” Currently, Eluwa has over 65,500 followers on TikTok and more than 3 million likes.
When speaking with Eluwa, it’s easy to wonder what impact TikTok has had on her relationship with social media in general, and if her experience with it may one day affect her attempts at building a welcoming community based on education. As she declared herself, “a lack of education is the root of all ignorance,” which is sadly true, especially on TikTok. Eluwa further explained that she still loved using the video-sharing app, even though its moderators had some serious work to do. “I owe the app a lot but the community guidelines are a bit vague. For example, I did get a video removed where I’m not saying anything wrong. I can be responding to someone saying racist comments and my video would get taken down but their comment would remain where it was.”
Less than a year ago, TikTok came under fire after it was revealed that the app’s content moderators discriminated against POC users as well as disabled ones while they kept violent and racist videos on the platform. After gaining her first batch of followers, Eluwa herself admitted that she received racist, hateful comments on a daily basis. “TikTok should have a better vetting process when it comes to comments because there are so many trolls that I had to filter some inappropriate comments myself. I had to be the one to completely ban those people from my page just so I could protect my mental health. I met many of my friends on TikTok who have also received racial abuse. You can just wake up one day and there’s nothing you can do about it, you just continue to get it. It’s definitely something that needs to be looked at.”
The UK’s history is riddled with racism, that much can’t be denied. Social media has allowed people to form communities and drive change, which was well overdue. Issues are starting to come to a head, but this is only the beginning. Speaking about racism and what more should be done, Eluwa shared that she’d “like people to reflect upon themselves. When it comes to discrimination and the whole discussion surrounding it, most people react to it with rejection. And rejection only comes from people who look at something and feel uncomfortable—that’s the reason why they reject the idea in the first place. I’d like people to realise that when others talk about race, homophobia, transphobia it’s not a personal attack on anyone. It’s something embedded in the system, whether we like it or not, so we all need to reflect in order to see how we can change our actions and not contribute to it today.”
As her social following constantly grows, Eluwa plans to continue making videos educating others: Thankfully for the rest of the world, Eluwa is not stopping here. “I’m going to work on doing that: educating people. I want to turn my page into an educational platform where people can still come to learn but also where they can feel good about themselves using my page.”
Of course, people can be politically active in many different ways, be that on social media or in real life. One other young activist that Screen Shot had the pleasure of chatting to is dancer, actress and model Nikkita Chadha, who uses her influence through a slightly different platform, one still very much in the public eye, but simultaneously behind the curtain of a problematic industry: the entertainment industry.
The British Indian and West London native faced many challenges of acceptance through her own South Asian community when she first started her career. As Chadha began modelling for South Asian bridal magazines, she noticed that makeup artists on set were applying foundation that was two to three shades too light for her skin—but this wasn’t the first time she had been a victim of racism. “It’s something I’ve dealt with since being at school. I grew up in a predominantly white middle-class area and being one of the only POC people at my whole school meant I was faced with feeling ‘different’ or being an ‘outsider’ constantly and I was forced to try to ‘blend in’.”
View this post on Instagram
“Growing up, I didn’t really embrace my culture until I was surrounded by people that made me feel comfortable to express my true identity,” adds Chadha. Looking back on all three industries she works on—modelling, dancing and acting—she admits that in the end, it’s always about fitting to the idea that clients have about you and what they expect you to be. “While I think all three industries are about personality and individuality—dance, especially in the way you move, is so tailored to each individual body and what style you perform—ultimately, you are booked for a client and you have to make your talent fit that brief for whatever the job is that day.”
But Chadha doesn’t explicitly speak about racism in the entertainment industry, as she explained, “I think it’s more about being under-represented rather than racism. And yes, I do think all three industries could champion South Asian creatives more.” Looking back on the times when she had to wear lighter shades of concealer in order to appear ‘whiter’, the model explains that as disheartening as it was, especially coming from her own culture where people think the fairer skin you have the more beautiful you are, she was young and “kept my mouth shut.”
“I was not confident enough to challenge people at that time. It would be very different if that were to happen now…” From her dancing career to her acting one, as both evolved and as Chadha gained recognition, so did her self-confidence. Her advice to anyone else going through what she did? “Speak up! Especially if you feel uncomfortable.”
View this post on Instagram
Chadha has starred in many productions, from Disney’s live-action Aladdin and Marvel’s The Eternals to Rocketman and the Netflix series Bridgerton. She is also gaining strong traction in her modelling career and has become the muse of leading brands including Rimmel London, Charlotte Tilbury, and Selfridges—proving that changes, albeit slow ones, are finally occurring in those three industries. “Beauty standards have become so ridiculously unattainable, especially with the growing use of social media and celebrities and influencers constantly editing their content and having work done. It’s making it hard to see what is truly ‘real’. Saying this, I have also noticed so much more body positivity campaigns using women of all shapes and sizes, so that’s positive. I can’t wait for that to start happening in the men’s fashion industry too!”
These two activists highlight the much-needed changes that many have been awaiting for centuries. From global protests against racial injustice to the 2020 US election, many social media users took to these platforms to mobilise others and show their support for causes or issues. Although attitudes related to political activities on social media vary by race, ethnicity, age, and party, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2020, it has also been proved that over a third of social media users have used their accounts to show their support for a cause, look up information about rallies or protests happening in their area, and encourage others to take action on issues they regard as important.
Not to say that the world is racism and discrimination-free, it’s really quite far from it. However, it seems like finally the wheels are in motion, thanks to the younger generation’s approach to and use of social media. In a new age of conversation surrounding ‘inclusivity’, Eluwa and Chadha both contribute to the crucial debate in their own ways. Chadha felt like the pressure of skin lightening within South Asian communities remained neglected as a topic that urgently needs to be made aware of. Eluwa, through educational content on what has now become the biggest social media app among gen Zers.
Eluwa and Chadha do not stand alone, there are many, many more people out there standing up for the importance of inclusivity across all borders. Social change is driven by the power of numbers, and both influencers prove that no matter what industry any of us is in, and no matter what platform we use to speak through, there will be a community of people that will raise the volume behind your message to ensure it is being heard. Start by actively supporting this sentiment in your immediate surroundings, and trust that actions will gain followers. This is how the world works.