How The “Savage” Challenge Is Rewriting The Narrative of Cultural Appropriation

How The “Savage” Challenge Is Rewriting The Narrative of Cultural Appropriation

By Geri Mishra

It was September 2019. Corona was nothing but a drink. If someone was not in school during school hours, it was because they were skipping, sick, or because the fire alarm had been pulled once again. The school year had just started, but the weather made it feel like summer had been extended an extra month. 

It was also the month that fourteen-year-old Jalaiah Harmon uploaded a dance to multiple social media apps, including Dubsmash and Instagram. Only a couple weeks later, several Tik Tok users adopted it, causing the soundbite used for the Renegade to emass twenty million videos on the app. 

For months, arguably even today, the Renegade was inescapable. It was being replicated by teenagers nationwide in school hallways, dances, and pep rallies. However, despite Harmon creating the dance, other influencers, notably Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, were crowned the “CEOs of the Renegade”. Furthermore, whenever said content creators would post a Tik Tok performing the dance, they would never give Harmon credit for being the original creator, despite her constant pleas. It only took backlash from the black community and several months of Harmon fighting for her rightfully deserved credit for typically white influencers to give it to her. 

What had happened to Harmon has been happening to black people for centuries. We’ve heard this story before: a black person creates something, it gains a little bit of buzz, then a white person adopts the work, causing it to explode in popularity. Sooner or later, people take notice of the appropriation that has occurred and depending on how much they care, try to reclaim it as the work of its actual creator. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

Cultural appropriation keeps happening because the world is set up in a way where it is acceptable for white people to steal from people of color—be it land, historical artifacts, or emoji skin tones that don’t match. Yes, European countries are not setting out to colonize foreign land anymore. Yes, there have been several black creators who have been given due credit for their work. That still does not change the fact that if a white person desires to have something normally acquired by people of color, they would face little to no repercussions for gaining it, with or without credit. Due to the marketability of their whiteness, they might even popularize it. Appropriators, consciously or subconsciously, feel comfortable picking and choosing from different cultures while remaining ignorant of the significance of doing so. This is because they have grown up in a society where it has been happening for years. This country was built by stolen people on stolen land. This is how the narrative has been. 

Well, until recently. While things are primarily still the same, backlash against cultural appropriation has been more prevalent than ever. And in the Tik Tok dance scene, the Renegade incident seems to have been the last straw. 

In mid-March, rapper Megan Thee Stallion posted an Instagram video of choreographer Keara Wilson dancing to her song, “Savage”. For the next couple of weeks, Wilson’s routine has been replicated by multitudes of social media users, and has since been dubbed the Savage Challenge. All throughout the rise of the challenge, Megan made sure to credit Wilson on creating the dance, and following its peak in popularity, Wilson made sure to state in her Instagram bio that she was the creator of the challenge, both subtle nods to what had happened during the Renegade era. 

The truth is, Megan Thee Stallion is a black female creative. Moreover, a rapper with a large social media presence. She has no choice but to be a student of how cultural appropriation works. Although she never made a grand statement on how she was not going to let Wilson have the same fate as Harmon, make no mistake: her pushing of Wilson as the creator of the dance was nothing but deliberate. This theory was finally confirmed when Megan released the lyric video for the song early April. 

The video has a simple premise, as all official lyric videos. What separated it from other lyric videos of popular rap songs was that it featured an animated version of Keara Wilson performing the dance, front and center. 

While Jalaiah Harmon has since reclaimed credit for the Renegade, which ended up scoring her a shoot for Teen Vogue around the same time the aforementioned lyric video was released, the damage had already been done. Charli D’Amelio is forever going to be the face of the Renegade, no matter how many collaborations she and Harmon do together. She has gained astronomical wealth and popularity due to the rise of the dance, and there is nobody who can erase that. 

However, with the release of her lyric video, Megan Thee Stallion sent a message loud and clear: Keara Wilson was going to be the face of the Savage Challenge. Any revenue and opportunities from the dance was going to go to her, and she will do anything and everything in her power to maintain that that is the case. 

Truly, the Renegade was the last straw. And during a time where for the first time ever, four black women take up the first and second spots on the Billboard Hot 100 while this article is being written (a remix of “Savage” being one of them), it is clear that the narrative of cultural appropriation is slowly but surely being peeled away. Appropriators, beware. 

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