Kahlil Greene, the 21-year-old TikTok creator elected Yale’s first Black student body president in 2019, is adept at those skills, which he uses regularly to educate his more than 400,000 TikTok followers and 30,000-plus Instagram followers. Greene’s TikTok is full of content that spans decades — from the Hidden History series, highlighting forgotten or unknown moments of Black American history, to History of Cultural Appropriation, focused on sharing historic moments of uncredited Black inspiration.
The “How Everything on this App Originated with Black People” series is on its fifth installment, with each racking up hundreds of thousands of views. The videos call out the hypocrisy of progressive creators utilizing Black culture as viral trends — from the “ice in my veins” pose, which originated with Black basketball players, to the now widely used phrase “sheesh,” a sound of appreciation used in response to someone showing off, which has roots in luxury “drip culture” originally popularized by Black rappers. Greene begins each video with the blunt reminder that “Most of Gen-Z culture is just a whitewashed version of Black American culture.”
Greene first amassed a following on Instagram last June. He created two massively shared infographics, one about the origins of Juneteenth and its significance to Black heritage and late emancipation, as well as one about the sanitization of social justice movements. In the latter, Greene specifically called on activists to use more direct, explicit language when discussing issues like police brutality, replacing overused phrases like “current events” with more precise word choices like “anti-Black racism.” The posts were liked by more than 50,000 people and reposted by celebrities, including the popular DJ Diplo. Greene gained thousands of followers overnight.
Those posts inspired him to stay vocal about topics he was learning about online, in his everyday life as a young Black man, and through his courses as a history major in the social change and social movements track at Yale University. Following his student body election for the 2019-2020 school year, he wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post supporting Yale’s diversity admissions and (admittedly limited) support of Black students — a response to the Trump administration’s decision to sue the school for discrimination against white and Asian American applicants. He gained national attention and was even interviewed by CNN’s Don Lemon.
Though he’d already been in the spotlight for a few years by the time he started his now hugely popular TikTok account in January 2021, he still wouldn’t call himself an influencer. He doesn’t even like social media that much. “It might be a bit ironic or hypocritical. I have a huge platform and I should use it,” Greene said. “But I don’t want to sound super noble. This, being a public figure, has never been the trajectory for myself.” At the same time, his TikTok account allows him to combine many of his true passions — history, social justice, and public speaking — in a way that’s accessible to many people his age. And that’s success in his eyes.
But he was apprehensive at even starting the account, which he did after finally caving to the pressure of his friends. “[TikTok] seemed like it was just full of dancers, and dancers that were stealing Black dances at that,” Greene said. “My first video was a quick TikTok made out of passion on MLK Jr. Day, because I had seen so many people posting quotes that were really pacifistic.”
Greene wanted to highlight some of King’s lesser-known quotes, ones relevant to this year’s social justice organizing. Greene started the video with this quote from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, one of Greene’s favorites:
I have come to the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action…”
That first video got 1.4 million views and 300,000 likes, propelling his account onto the For You Pages of millions. He made it into a four-part series and continued growing his account with further videos discussing cultural appropriation, the origin of Black names, and other hidden histories. He also shares book recommendations and news, and collaborated with another creator, @charlotteyun, for a video about anti-Asian hate.
The account has become a source of (sometimes startling) history lessons. “The videos that get the most clicks are the hidden history videos, the shocking stuff,” he said. His video about clothes made from the skin of formerly enslaved people has 1.1 million views. “I say that history is gossiping about people in the past. It’s also about conflict, disagreement, inflection points, and who comes out on top,” Greene explained.
When fellow TikTok creator Addison Rae appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, teaching viral TikTok dances almost all originated by Black creators, Greene felt the urge to call out the complicity of his fellow app users directly — he even posted a brief video alluding to how easy it is to “steal” trends on TikTok. And then, earlier this month, Saturday Night Live aired its “Gen Z Hospital” sketch, which was criticized for equating “Gen Z slang” with African American Vernacular English (AAVE). “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Greene explained. He saw it as yet another instance of viral TikTok trends being conflated with Black culture, without credit. So he started brainstorming his new series.
The first videos in “How Everything on this App Originated with Black People” have covered a variety of the most popular trending poses, vocabulary, and sounds — one video, explaining the original of the “swag” or “f-boi” face, was even commented on by singer (and TikTok creator in her own right) Lizzo, who said she had long known the expression as “lightskin face.” Each video shares how the trend first “blew up,” how it’s currently being used, and its history in Black culture. For example, TikTok’s “swag” face has been credited to a non-Black TikTok user (@itskingchris) and popularized by yet another non-Black user (@josh1morris), Greene explained, but the expression was used for years by young Black men making fun of “lightskin” stereotypes.
Greene says his own personal connections inform most of the TikTok trends he highlights. “A lot of it comes from personal experience. The ‘lightskin face’ video — that came from my experiences in middle school. I had lived it,” he explained. It was a trend he and his friends were engaging with long before TikTok was a thing.
Using his own experiences as a starting point for video ideas, Greene then researches for primary sources and further reading, and always links his sources. “I think very critically about my videos before I make them. I don’t make videos just to make them,” he said. “And I feel comfortable going toe-to-toe with someone who disagrees. It’s similar to fighting for policies as a president and being able to argue on multiple points.”
Fortunately, most of his videos get positive responses. And, unlike many creators, he doesn’t want to start online debates unless it’s necessary or productive.
He does recall one video that got a lot of pushback — an explanation of how the Beatles were credited for music created by Black people. “I think people thought I was being disingenuous. They commented that the Beatles were politically progressive, but I don’t think that comes with mutual exclusivity — they could still be exploiting Black people,” Greene explains. The response was a perfect example of how people often miss the difference between individual actions and an institution, like the music industry, consistently discrediting Black influences. Greene doubled down on his video, posting a follow-up with further explanation and even covering other famous rock bands with similar histories, like Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys.
Greene’s videos are part of a decades-long fight against creators, celebrities, and brands that repackage Black experiences as novelty trends, jokes without context, or aesthetics without history. This form of appropriation taking place through TikTok is a tired re-emergence, despite the work of Black activists. With history consistently repeating itself, young activist creators like Greene will continue fighting for the appropriate recognition of Black creativity until users see how their social media behavior is influenced, inspired, or downright stolen from Black Americans.
Moving forward, Greene wants to continue with public speaking and eventually attend business school. He doesn’t see himself making online content in this space forever, but for now he’s still building up a huge repository of online content that he hopes has facilitated that discussion.
After his term as student body president ended in September 2020, Greene took a break from school so he could eventually finish up his senior year when classes resume in person. In the meantime, he’s working for Rhymes With Reason, a Black-owned education startup that uses Hip Hop to foster childhood literacy. It was a TikTok that connected him to the organization as well, after he featured the group in a video critiquing comments by former First Lady Michelle Obama. In the video, he shared Rhymes With Reason as an example of an organization embracing Black American interests to inspire the next generation, in contrast to the former First Lady’s comments about Black children’s desire to be “ballers” getting in the way of a higher education. “That’s a stereotype. Instead, you should be using those interests to pique kid’s curiosity in other topics,” Greene said. The organization’s founder reached out after seeing engagement from the mention, and now Greene helps expand the organization’s online exposure within their growth strategy and branding team. His TikTok and Instagram fluency no doubt helps.
“My value for TikTok comes from coming up with creative ideas to communicate these topics, innovating online academia, and communicating to my followers — making it accessible. They should be able to internalize it,” Greene said. “That’s what I value the most. But, the views are nice, don’t get me wrong.”
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