Earlier this week, Addison Rae, a TikTok influencer with more than 79 million followers, became the center of online controversy after Jimmy Fallon brought her on The Tonight Show to demonstrate eight TikTok dances. Rae is white, and the creators of the dances—many of whom are Black—were not credited in the video.
On Saturday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s new podcast about internet culture, hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher talked to the teenagers behind one of the dances: Mya Johnson and Chris Cotter, who came up with the popular moves for Cardi B’s latest No. 1 hit, “Up.” As Johnson and Cotter noted, the outlines of this latest controversy are all too familiar: Last year, Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s biggest star, increased her own follower count by popularizing a dance known as the Renegade, which was originally created by 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon. Below, you can read a transcript of the conversation (which has been edited and condensed for clarity), or you can listen to the whole episode using the player below.
Madison Malone Kircher: Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourselves?
Mya Johnson: Yes. My name is Mya. I’m 15 years old. I was born in Texas, and I am a freshman in the ninth grade. I’m an influencer, and I run track.
Chris Cotter: I’m Chris Cotter. I’m 13 years old. I was also born in Houston, Texas. I’m in eighth grade, and I play baseball.
Rachelle Hampton: Could you take us through the process of how you came to create this extremely viral dance?
Johnson: We first made this dance about a month and a half ago. We knew that we were going to link the next day. We were sitting in our rooms on FaceTime and we are big fans of Cardi B. And her song “Up” was popping at the time. First, we got which part of the song we’re going to use. And we just liked the beat and everything. Me and Chris came up with our own dance moves, and we put them together. And then we linked up in downtown Houston, and we just made it happen. And it went viral ever since.
Kircher: When did you notice the challenge was starting to go viral on TikTok?
Johnson: When we first posted it, we posted it on all platforms and a lot of people reshared it. I know Cardi B has reshared our challenge twice on her story on Instagram, and she reposted it on her TikTok. That has helped a lot. And then I just think our challenge is really good. Everybody wants to do it: people that are younger, even adults, all these teachers. Everybody’s doing our challenges.
Hampton: What was it like seeing Cardi repost it?
Cotter: We were excited. We felt really grateful that she reposted us. It was actually our second time getting reposted by her, because we both got reposted back in August, September for “WAP.”
Hampton: Tell me about the moment when you saw that she reposted it.
Cotter: I remember I was laying in my bed, and Mya had FaceTimed me, and she was like, “Chris. Cardi B just reposted our video on Instagram.” And I was like, “No way.” Then I went to go check it out, and I was talking about it to all of my friends. Mya was talking about it to her friends. And everyone was excited.
Johnson: Not a lot of people as big as her would repost the type of dancing that we do. And she’s done it so many times. She’s even posted friends of ours, which is very nice and kind of her.
Hampton: When you say “the type of dancing that you do,” what do you mean?
Cotter: Usually you will see people, if they do repost somebody dancing to their song, it will be the whole entire song choreography, in a dance studio. But for us, the way that we dance it’s like people that … make actual challenges, rather than going into a studio and making an actual whole choreography.
Hampton: How would you say that’s different choreographing for a whole song versus a challenge?
Johnson: It’s a bit shorter. That’s why I feel like our challenge went viral so fast, because it wasn’t that long, and it was something everybody could do.
Hampton: Actually I’m curious as to what it’s like going viral on TikTok. Especially for a dance challenge. It seems like a mixed bag.
Johnson: For me, I love it, because we get more exposure to our pages. It’s really nice. And it’s just amazing seeing all these people do your challenge. And not only that, we see people that we’ve looked up to that’s on TV, that’s famous on TikTok.
Cotter: China McClain—she did our dance. It was just really rewarding for us to see. And it was really just overall a great experience.
Kircher: Obviously your dance challenge blew up this week for a totally different reason aside from it just being excellent. When did you first find out about Addison Rae performing your dance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon?
Johnson: I found out maybe the exact day that she performed. People were tagging me on my Instagram, like, “Dang, Mya, your challenge is really that big.” It’s on TV, people are tagging me in it. I’m like, “Wow.” My first response was, “Dang, that’s crazy.” I’m happy, and I’m like, “She’s really doing all the moves that we came up with.” But then when you sit down and think about it, it’s like everybody’s time is going to come. I started to feel like it should have been our time to do that. And even the other dancers. I just felt like that would have been our time to shine, and I’m pretty sure that the creators of those other dances would have wanted the same.
Cotter: I was actually in school. I remember Mya had sent me a post and it was the main post that everyone was talking about, when they put me and Mya’s video next to the video of Addison actually doing the dance. And I saw it, and I looked at the comments, and I was just amazed that she went on national television and actually did our dance. And then I felt also bad at the same time, because she was getting a lot of backlash, and I feel as if she shouldn’t have got that much backlash, because I feel like it’d be hard to credit somebody in the middle of a show. I was happy, but at the same time, I didn’t want me and Mya to be going up while she was getting brought down. I wanted both of us to be getting lifted up and maybe even collabing in the future and just getting together and going up to the top together.
Hampton: Credit’s really important, but I think what a lot of people who aren’t on TikTok don’t understand is that it also translates to money, right?
Johnson: That’s right.
Hampton: I mean we can’t really talk about the dynamics of this without talking about the racial dynamics on TikTok, which are the racial dynamics of America, where Black creators are creating amazing content that then goes viral with a largely white face. I’m curious as to how y’all feel about that, having been on TikTok for years at this point, seeing this cycle every few years and now being at the center of it.
Johnson: We’ve always seen people such as our friends, like Jalaiah, the girl that made the Renegade, we personally knew her before she blew up. We knew her before Renegade. We’ve seen her credits getting stolen, and we felt so bad, hoping that it never happens to us. It’s crazy. But then on top of that, a lot of people that are not my race, they like to take our stuff and water it down. But why not give credits to the people who made the dance?
Cotter: I definitely feel like it’s much easier for the beauty standard, which, it’s really sad that people have set the beauty standards to be Caucasian, blond hair, blue eyes, whatever it might be, and they go out here and they steal content from hardworking Black creators like me and Mya, and they just completely … what people like to call “whitewash” it.
Hampton: You said that you’ve witnessed this cycle happening before. Did you feel a sense of déjà vu when it happened to you?
Cotter: Basically I remember whenever we saw Jalaiah, and we saw her create the Renegade, and then we saw it become viral on TikTok, the dance on TikTok was actually much different from the dance that Jalaiah had created. There goes the quote-unquote “whitewash” term that they did, and they changed up her dance. And then that got famous, and Charli D’Amelio, Addison, all these other people, they got famous for that dance, basically. Because everybody thought it was their dance, because they did it all the time, never tagged Jalaiah. That was the first fiasco of credit. It was the first big one. And whenever we saw it, we had a lot of sympathy for Jalaiah, and we just felt really bad for her. And then whenever Jalaiah finally got that moment, whenever she flew out to L.A., collabed with people, was performing everywhere, got on the Ellen show, got verified and gained followers, we were so happy, we were so relieved for her. And that was actually about a year ago now. And I remember the entire time that everything was happening, we were just praying that it didn’t happen to us, and now it’s actually happening to us. That’s basically how we’re looking at it right now. We could potentially be the next Jalaiah basically. It was crazy that people never ever gave credits to any type of dancers until that whole entire thing happened, and they started receiving backlash for it.
Hampton: Speaking of the backlash, have you heard from Jimmy Fallon or from Addison, in light of everything that’s happened over the past week?
Johnson: Myself, I haven’t heard from Addison, but she has contacted Chris. The Jimmy Fallon show, they just DMed me today. They want us to be on the show. We’re going to see how that goes.
Cotter: Addison, actually, after the entire thing, ended up following me on TikTok, which is really strange. I was like, “You took my dance and now you’re following me.” And then she didn’t follow Mya. And then I was like, “That’s really weird.” She followed me, and she contacted me, and she wants to actually link up with me and Mya and do a collab.
Kircher: I’m curious how you two became friends.
Johnson: We both were big Dubsmash influencers. And so we got Instagram and we DMed each other.
Cotter: I posted on my story that I was at Chick-fil-A, and she was like, “I live right by that Chick-fil-A.” And I was like, “Wow. Really? We should link up some time.”
Johnson: We did our first link in person at the outlet mall.
Kircher: What do your friends think about your online fame?
Johnson: My friends, they’ve known me before the fame. A lot of them, they don’t really look at me as famous, but when I go to track meets or I’m going to the mall, a lot of other people come up to me and say, “Hey, can we take pictures?” And it’s just crazy that people come up to me and do those types of things.
Cotter: Yeah. It’s the same thing for me. I’ve been friends with all of my friends before I was an influencer, but it was cool for them because they got to watch me grow my platform more and more over the year. And then actually they didn’t really see me as an influencer or famous. Then whenever we actually go out in public, go to malls, and people come up to me and they say, “Are you Chris from Instagram? Do you want to take a picture? Do you want to take a video?,” now they see how I actually am.
Kircher: Chris, you brought up the side-by-side video, which has gone extremely viral. It’s funny to watch. I’m curious, how did the two of you think Addison performed your challenge?
Johnson: I mean like… We definitely could have been better, only because we have a lot more energy. She did good. She could have put more energy into it, though.
Cotter: Yeah. She definitely lacked energy. And especially at the ending part, she completely changed up what we did. She just started doing her own little thing, and it was just like, “I don’t know about that.”
Kircher: If Addison Rae was talking to us right now, what would you say to her?
Cotter: I feel like Mya would definitely have some words for her, but I personally, since she follows me now, I’d probably just talk to her and ask her when she wanted to go to L.A. and link up and dance.
Johnson: I feel like my attitude would be the same, even if she was to follow me or wasn’t following me, I still want to let her know how I feel about it just because we made the dance. I would just tell her, “no bad blood,” just tell her straight up how I feel and then call it that. And I wouldn’t mind making a dance with her. It’s not that I don’t like her. I like her. I love Addison. I’ve watched her TikToks. I follow her on TikTok. I’ve been supporting her.
Hampton: When someone is so big on the platform, does it make you hesitate about how you react to something like this?
Cotter: We would handle it the same way we’d handle it for anybody. Followers don’t intimidate us.
Johnson: At all. I’m going to always stand on how I feel and what I say.
To hear the full episode, including more analysis of this controversy, subscribe to ICYMI.