In the rink, Atlanta native Beauty “Katera” Couch is known as a pandemic skater — a new class of Gen Zers who took up the hobby for entertainment at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
“My friend kept calling me every day during the pandemic urging me to come to the rink,” Couch said. “I went to Sparkles of Smyrna, and I was introduced to the atmosphere, the style, and the culture. I fell in love with it.”
A trained hip-hop dancer, Couch says that her love for dancing easily translated to four wheels as many of her peers incorporated familiar moves to the culture, giving her a new hobby to take pride in.
Five months into her journey, Couch decided to take her passions to TikTok and Instagram, posting videos of her skating progress. At first, she says it was just a way to document her progress and showcase new skills to her friends.
“I didn’t start with the intention of going viral,” Couch said.
But things quickly changed when she posted a video of her “slow-walking” to “Splash Waterfalls” by Ludacris that gained over 13,000 views. Now, the full-time college student has racked up more than 1 million likes and 74,200 followers on TikTok and 102,000 followers on Instagram, all engaged in her skating journey.
That’s why the growing nationwide movement to ban TikTok concerns Couch, who believes the move would have larger implications for Black creators like herself. Black users make up nearly 30% of total app users globally, attracted to the connection with Black creators who are reaching niche, marginalized communities and turning their platforms into brands overnight.
“I was encouraged by other Black creators here in Atlanta, who are getting money from TikTok and Instagram,” Couch said. “We’re getting to the bag.”
From TikTok, Couch has been able to monetize the app through the creator fund, but also in other ways. “I’ve started teaching classes to people who want to learn how to skate, worked with artists like Mulatto and secured brand deals,” Couch said.
On Dec. 7, Republican Georgia Sen. Jason Anavitarte announced his intention to create legislation banning the app statewide, citing its potential threat to national security. Since then, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has already taken some action in favor of Anavitarte’s proposal, banning the app from being used or downloaded on government owned, issued, or leased devices. The ban also extended to Telegram and WeChat, two instant messaging apps.
“TikTok is malware produced by Communist China to spy on Americans and influence our elections,” Anavitarte said in a prepared statement. “It is a national security threat and has no place in Georgia.”
Across the country, GOP lawmakers have been proposing bans on the short-form video app in recent years. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has also shared similar views to Anavitarte, while states like Alabama, Nebraska, Maryland, Texas, Utah, and North Dakota have already banned the app on state-owned devices. On a federal level, the U.S. Senate also approved a proposal that bans federal employees from downloading and using the app on federal owned, issued, and operated devices.
However, Black creators migrating south to Atlanta, a hub for social media influencers, argue that a ban would not only affect reach for creators but financial opportunities.
“Many people have been able to gain income through the creator fund as well as different brand deals,” said TikToker Simone Umba, who works full time as an influencer in digital creation spaces. “The ban will have a domino effect because when you have one state do something, the other ones are going to look at it and say that that plan is adaptable for them.”
TikTok is ground zero for Umba’s brand SimplySimone, a casual, informative guide to pop culture. The 25-year-old creator has been able to grow her page to 231,600 followers while amassing over 74 million likes. As a part of the creator fund, any video Umba makes that receives over 100,000 likes qualifies for monetization. Umba says it’s the instances where she makes videos on certain topics and items for particular companies that pay the most money, like the ad she created for Tubi, a streaming network, during the 2022 World Cup.
TikTok “has been extremely helpful because I’ve been able to grow as a platform base,” Umba said. “I’ve been able to meet people and network and gain opportunities to work with different people and go to events.”
Like many other Black creators, Umba has considered exit plans to other platforms that can potentially support their brands in the event that TikTok is banned.
“There have been multiple times where there were a couple of scares where the app could basically go away, and we would tell people to migrate to Instagram or YouTube to get content from us,” Umba said. “We’re doing that now, and a lot of people are expanding to Patreon and Fanbase as alternatives. So I feel like in the scenario, if I were to leave, that would be the last option for me.”
For Couch, the app hasn’t been a comfortable space for Black creators like herself, who still feel that their content is never truly appreciated or respected. Historically, white creators have been paid more through the creator fund, received major brand deals, and have, in some instances, received reality television shows and movie deals.
The issue touches particularly close to Atlanta for Couch, who says the “Renegade Challenge,” a TikTok dance popularized in 2020 by white creators Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Addison “Rae” Easterling, still hurts the Black creator community. The hip-hop dance set to “Lottery” by rapper K Camp, which has 164.1 million videos in its search, was actually created by Black, Atlanta native Jalaiah Harmon, who was 14 years old at the time. Despite being the sole creator of the dance, it wasn’t until five months after its popularity that Harmon finally received credit. The D’Amelio sisters and Easterling have since apologized but, to Couch, the damage is irreversible amongst her community.
“It’s like everything good we have, they take from us,” Couch says. “Look at what they did to Jalaiah [Harmon] and that was right here in Atlanta. Those girls went on to have millions of followers and deals that they gained off the backs of Black creators. Now that all the white people are rich, they are ready to ban the app.”
That’s why Couch believes the banning of the app is more than just protecting national security. In her opinion, it means waging war on her marginalized space that has only benefited her life for the better.
“If this passes, I’m not even going to lie, I wouldn’t say it’s a personal attack on Black people, but that’s crazy because a lot of us in Atlanta, especially the skate community, this is how we make our money,” Couch said. “If you are on TikTok and you’re influencing people, this is the ticket to start your journey out. So I feel like it’s going to affect me in a way because now I’m losing networking, I’m losing people who actually genuinely want to follow me.”
In the coming weeks, Anivitarte says that he “plans to work closely with Gov. Brian Kemp to create an executive order to ban TikTok on government-owned devices or personal devices used to access government systems,” with hopes of a statewide ban for all users living in Georgia.
In the meantime, Couch says that she will continue to use her platform as a means of positive influence for as long as she can.
“I feel like TikTok and Instagram are definitely putting my foot forward,” Couch said. “It’s going to lead me to places that I never thought I could go to before. And I hope that with that platform, I’m able to take other Black creators with me. I want to use these platforms to encourage everybody else that they can do it too. So it’s not just about the follower and not just about the money. I genuinely want to encourage others that they can be a positive influence as well.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified the headquarters of instant messaging app Telegram. Its operational headquarters is in Dubai.