A recent virtual meet and greet with Nicki Minaj hosted by TikTok received backlash for reputedly giving opportunities to non-Black attendees over Black creators. Many creators say that the disappointing event is emblematic of how TikTok fails its Black community.
An email reviewed by NBC News announced that the app was "kicking off Black History Month" with an "exclusive virtual TikTok creator Meet Up." The email invited creators to a Feb. 8 Zoom event, where attendees would have the opportunity to meet Minaj, "brainstorm content ideas" and preview her new music.
The limited time to ask Minaj questions was "dominated" by non-Black voices, BuzzFeed first reported last week.
Anthony Hyland, 29, questioned why TikTok would promote the event as an “exclusive” celebration of Black History Month if it planned to invite non-Black creators. The poet and public speaker, known as ispeak1906 on TikTok, has 1.5 million followers and was able to get into the Zoom call.
"Not that they couldn't invite other communities," Hyland told NBC News. "But the majority of the creators there should have represented the demographic of the event that [they] were holding, and that was not true."
A spokesperson for TikTok said that the company deeply regrets how the event was handled, and acknowledged the strained relationship many Black creators already have with TikTok.
We fell short of providing the experience we intended and we are profoundly sorry for the negative impact caused by our missteps. #BlackTikTok, we hear you, we value you and we will do better."
"This month, we invited creators across our diverse TikTok creator community to attend a virtual Black History Month event with Nicki Minaj in celebration of her new music," a TikTok spokesperson said. "We fell short of providing the experience we intended and we are profoundly sorry for the negative impact caused by our missteps. #BlackTikTok, we hear you, we value you and we will do better."
The event is the latest instance of Black creators expressing their frustration over the app's policies and what they argue is favoritism toward non-Black creators.
During the protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020, Black creators said they noticed a significant decline in engagement, and alleged that TikTok's algorithm was suppressing Black Lives Matter content. In protest of largely white influencers profiting off uncredited dances choreographed by Black creators, TikTok's Black community went on "strike" last year by refusing to create dance content for Megan Thee Stallion's "Thot S---."
Later that summer, TikTok flagged hashtags related to "Black Lives Matter" and "Black success" as "inappropriate" but allowed tags like "white supremacy" and "white success." The company said it had inadvertently banned the phrases because of a hate speech detection error and had since fixed it.
Some creators, including Hyland, now say they are seriously reconsidering whether it's worth staying on the app.
Technical issues added to the confusion
Over 400 creators were invited to the event, a TikTok spokesperson said. And the event was part of TikTok's larger programming for Black History Month.
Because of a technical mix-up, the original call was capped at 300 participants instead of the Zoom maximum of 1,000. Organizers had to restart the call, the spokesperson said, and send all invitees the link again. Attendees were individually admitted to the event from the virtual waiting room to maintain security.
Black TikTok creators said they were frustrated over the sheer size of the virtual event, as it only added to the time constraint. Some Black creators did not receive the link to the event for up to 10 minutes after it began, according to Hyland.
Many who did receive the Zoom link, creators later posted, were funneled into a virtual waiting room and waited for up to 40 minutes to join the call. At the time of joining the meet-up, Hyland said he saw only 100 participants on the Zoom call.
The creators who were invited had the opportunity to submit questions for a Q&A session during the call. There was limited time for questions, and the majority of the creators randomly selected to ask Minaj questions directly were not Black, Hyland said. He and other creators said that selecting questions from Black creators should have been a priority.
I’m looking through the gallery ... if I had to give a percentage, I would say between 75 to 85 percent of creators on that Zoom were not Black.
-TikTok creator Anthony Hyland, on the app's recent black history month virtual event
"I'm looking through the gallery. ... If I had to give a percentage, I would say between 75 to 85 percent of creators on that Zoom were not Black," Hyland said. "And of the six questions that were available to be asked to her [Minaj] only two came from Black creators."
The TikTok spokesperson clarified that more than 60 percent of the 10 selected questions were from Black creators, but that at the end of the event, Minaj went off-script and began responding to attendees whose questions weren't on the preselected list.
TikTok apologized to some attendees for the confusion, and cited "extensive technical issues with production" in an email reviewed by NBC News.
"We wanted to create an event to celebrate Nicki with our creator community, as part of our overall Black History Month programming," the email said.
But not all of the attendees received the apology.
Creator Ms. Dollee, who has 316,300 followers, posted a video about how she waited in the event waiting room for 35 to 40 minutes, only to never be let in. When perfectlykelsey, a creator who is not Black, commented, asking if she had received TikTok's apology email, Ms. Dollee was even more confounded by the ordeal.
"Not only did I not get into this secret Nicki Minaj meeting that I was invited to yesterday, but I didn't even get the apology email!" Ms. Dollee said in a follow-up video. "My girl Kelsey literally DM'd me the apology email ... Do better, TikTok. And thank you, Kelsey, because I wouldn't [have] saw this without you."
Some creators say event was performative
The event also made creators like Alexander Tucker, 24, feel as if TikTok was "more willing to put on a show for Black History Month than actually give credence to the Black creators that it was due."
Tucker, who has 105,500 followers on his account imjustzander, said he wasn’t invited to the event.
"You had a Black artist who is very, very, very well known all across the world. And you invite people who cannot relate to the Black experience to the event," he said. "That doesn't even make sense."
He said that it would be understandable if TikTok had invited non-Black creators to "sit and listen" to the conversation among Minaj and Black creators, but that he thought it was disrespectful that the non-Black attendees took spaces away from Black creators.
"There were Black people who were invited that could not even get a space in the call," Tucker continued. "So if you're more concerned about inviting all of these people, rather than the people who the event is actually for, it just shows that it's more performative than it is for uplifting the Black community."
Tyra Blizzard, 24, questioned whether non-Black creators would even attend the event if it featured someone other than Minaj.
Blizzard, who has 825,500 TikTok followers on the account tblizzy, said she was not invited to the event despite receiving an email from TikTok inviting her to be included in what appeared to be an unrelated program highlighting Black creators.
She said that she responded to the invitation with questions about which content would be featured and other details about the program, but did not receive a reply from TikTok.
"If this were George Floyd's family member, or Trayvon Martin's family member who was at the center of this call, none of them would have attended," Blizzard told NBC News. "People were going because they were a fan of Nicki Minaj."
Minaj addressed the backlash in an Instagram Live after the event. In a recording captured by SipPink Podcast, the rapper said, "I hear you guys. I heard what y'all were saying and let me see if I can schedule something else for you guys."
A TikTok spokesperson said the company is in talks with Minaj's management.
A spokesperson for Minaj did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Apologies from non-Black creators were mixed
The non-Black creators who had the opportunity to ask Minaj questions during the limited time were widely criticized by other TikTok users for taking up time at a Black History Month event.
The creator bryanthediamond responded to the criticism by telling viewers that he's a "strong supporter of people of color and Black Lives Matter" and cited his Brazilian heritage. He also said that he has Black family members. In a response to the apology, Blizzard called it a "step by step guide on how not to apologize to the Black community."
Hyland took issue with an apology video posted by white TikTok creator Josh Helfgott, who's known for his series "Gay News." The series highlights LGBTQ moments in pop culture.
Event participants were explicitly told not to film or photograph the call, and those who were caught (many of whom Hyland said were Black) were removed from the meeting.
Helfgott, who was selected to ask a question, reportedly asked Minaj to say "Gay News" after asking her about her LGBTQ fans. Hyland accused Helfgott of inappropriately using the event to promote his series, and suggested that Helfgott was recording Minaj to use for content.
Helfgott did not immediately respond to NBC News' request for comment.
A spokesperson for TikTok said that race had nothing to do with whether or not a creator was removed from the call. Because the event included a preview of Minaj's unreleased music, anyone seen filming was removed.
Hyland and Blizzard did point to one non-Black creator's apology that was not only sincere but also shed light on the unfair treatment of Black creators. Blizzard appreciated that the creator didn't try to defend their attendance, and instead used the platform to point out the double standard to which Black creators are held.
In a video posted after the event, creator asif.tv, who is Latinx and uses gender-neutral pronouns, said they thought they were attending the event as a "guest" since they had been invited to events celebrating Indigenous People's Day and AAPI month. After thinking about it, they said, they pointed out that other heritage events hosted by TikTok priorities creators of that heritage, even though they were open to the larger TikTok community. They also questioned whether Black History Month received the same fanfare that Latino Heritage Month did on the app.
They noted that Latino Heritage Month dominated TikTok's discover page and that the app hosted multiple events, gave out gift boxes to Latinx creators and promoted their content. By contrast, TikTok users have to scroll halfway through the discover page to see anything about Black History Month.
"TikTok really needs to step up in honoring Black creators not just now, but always," they continued. "When I tell you the way TikTok embraced and stepped up my community and my culture during Latinx Heritage Month, it was amazing. ... It's upsetting that Black TikTok is not getting that love, especially given how much this app feeds off of Black culture."
TikTok launched a variety of initiatives for Black History Month, including the entrepreneurial mentorship series #SupportBlack and the weekly livestream programming #BlackTikTok Live, which highlights Black creators, musicians, businesses and organizations. The programming also includes the upcoming iHeart Living Black! event on Feb. 23, which will feature livestream performances by Lizzo, H.E.R., and other stars.
And in an effort to acknowledge Black creators for their contributions to the app's culture, TikTok released a manifesto called Culture of Credit, which encourages users to properly attribute trends to its originator.
Some Black creators say they may leave TikTok
Some Black creators say the outreach efforts are too little and too late.
Blizzard, who is based in Canada and cannot apply to the U.S.-only TikTok Creator Fund, is especially frustrated that the app appears to "shadowban" her content whenever she tries to promote her monetized platforms.
She told NBC News that when she shares links to her Patreon, PayPal or YouTube channel — where she can actually make money — the comments with the links are not viewable to the public. Blizzard said she pinned a comment promoting her YouTube channel on a recent TikTok video but couldn't see it when she checked the video's comments from her partner's phone.
Blizzard says she's "exhausted" that she can't monetize her educational content about racism, and compared it to an unpaid full-time job.
She also pointed out that her posts about racial injustice, the Black Lives Matter movement and Black history receive significantly less engagement than her other posts, which she attributes to TikTok's algorithm failing to promote them. White and non-Black creators who make content about race, meanwhile, are "praised" for it, garnering more engagement for them.
The email she received from TikTok, inviting her to be featured in a program spotlighting Black creators only to never follow up, added insult to injury.
"Even within the whole Nicki Minaj thing, Black creators need to be compensated for the work that they do on this platform," Blizzard said. "We talked about how Black women are so underappreciated and treated poorly despite being the backbone of so many communities. ... We include all the necessary nuance and research and all of the information to help people understand it. And then we'll see a white creator or non-Black creator just water down the message completely and get praised for saying Black women are underappreciated."
The TikTok spokesperson said that the app’s moderation does not take the user’s race or ethnicity into account when flagging a video or promoting it on users’ For You Pages.
Tucker was similarly frustrated that his content about social issues, especially about racism he said he's experienced, receives less engagement and receives more backlash than a white creator speaking out about racism would. He said he also noticed that white creators with smaller platforms and less engagement than his receive account verification and brand deals, while he and other Black creators are still denied verification.
Hyland added that the lack of transparency around obtaining verification is particularly aggravating, and said that it appeared to disproportionately affect Black creators. TikTok's website simply states that "there are a number of factors considered in granting a verified badge."
As long as I’ve been on this platform, I have constantly seen the Black community struggle.
-Tiktok creator Alexander Tucker on tiktok
"As long as I've been on this platform, I have constantly seen the Black community struggle," Tucker continued. "They are constantly gaslit by non-Black creators and pushed to the side. Non-Black creators get to thrive and have all of these amazing opportunities. It's not that hard to do the bare minimum and just make things actually equal on all sides."
Hyland believes that if TikTok doesn't make more of an effort to compensate its Black creators — who create many of the app's trends and generate traffic — they'll leave. He said that many creators he knows have already started migrating to other platforms, and he's considering doing the same.
"I think TikTok as a whole needs to be more careful [with] how they are continuing to treat their Black content creators," Hyland said, noting Facebook's declining users. "If the entire base of your users that are creating the trends, making the app cool, up and leave, you will be broke."