The 21-year-old creator and Yale’s first Black student body president is considered one of TikTok’s first historians.
The phrase “the kids are alright” has re-entered popular vernacular thanks to the efforts of young people like Kahlil Greene. The 21-year-old TikTok creator, public speaker, youth advocate, and Germantown, MD original has been a fixture on screens around the globe because of his “How Everything on this App Originated with Black People” series.
For those unfamiliar, the self-described “Gen-Z historian” expounds on lesser-known aspects of American history like the Tuskegee medical experiment, as well as Black pop culture, such as how slang like “no cap” and “sheesh” sprouted from melanated minds. With more than 448,000 followers on TikTok and 42.7K Instagram friends, Greene’s call-outs against the hypocrisy of those against critical race theory or against those propping up a whitewashed narrative have a significant impact in how these social media platforms educate and entertain others.
Greene’s work comes as cultural misappropriation and copyright have taken center stage in the ongoing #BlackTikTokStrike debacle, which is about the exploitation of Black creativity and combating digital Blackface. His historical research, which stems from his studies at Yale University, and where he was also the university’s first Black student body president in 2019, regularly informs his content that directly highlights Black American history and moments of uncredited Black inspiration.
Below, Greene digs in on the intention behind his online work and what post-#BlackTikTokStrike changes he’d love to witness once the demands have been made.
EBONY: How did you conceive the show “How Everything on this App Originated with Black People” and why did you choose TikTok over the other social media platforms?
Kahlil Greene: I’m arguably relatively new to TikTok. I only started in January and when I made it, I had these thoughts related to issues involving social justice and Black history. I’m a history major at Yale right now, where I study the history of social change and movements. So, a lot of my content is related to what’s going on in the world. My friend, Eileen Wang, suggested that I should join the platform; and what spurred me on to make my first video was because on Martin Luther King Day, I saw a whole bunch of quotes from the late civil rights activist, but they were only the pacifistic ones.
I created a video where I used some of the equally powerful quotes from Dr. King Jr. After highlighting the issues with only idealizing him as a non-violent revolutionary and sharing those sayings, I started picking apart how the FBI and CIA targeted him, and actually sent blackmail letters attempting to convince Dr. King Jr. to commit suicide.
From there, people who were beginning to follow me were responding. ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that was real,’ was the most frequent comment. After that, I started making more history and hidden history videos, which led to my videos on the history of culture appropriation.
What were your intentions behind your content and what have been your most memorable reactions?
I always make content for an audience, obviously; but really, I make content that is really interesting to me. Right now, I am being very intentional about social media, to where I am producing content in a pattern or in a routine. I’ll look at what the people are talking about, what’s happening in the news, and respond directly to those topics. I only make content if there's something in my brain that I wanted to get out. That’s why if you look closely at my TikTok videos, you’ll see maybe three weeks of it is me just producing stuff from current events.
One of the most memorable videos I can recall is your piece about how white folks used to use Black babies as alligator bait in Florida. What generally grabs your attention before researching to create these videos? And, how do you decompress and reground yourself after learning and sharing such traumatic experiences?
To your point, the research that I’ve done has come from family members, from growing up elsewhere, and the in-depth research you spoke about. A lot of the emotional labor and the shock-and-awe hits me hardest when I first learn about these stories. And now, what I’m trying to do is just craft the best, most well-researched videos with links and source material that places all my arguments in one place.
I am not emotionally investing into these narratives because I experienced it when these things were first told to me. I am seriously just trying to make sure that my arguments are airtight. For example, with the “Black babies are used as alligator bait” video, people were saying that it was fake news I was sharing. But I would take their evidence, which tried to debunk what I was talking about, with another that debunked the debunking and had my citation ready to go, too.
The goal in all of my videos is to make sure that the information is valid, that the viewer knows that it is valid, and that I’m not doing it for clickbait or to elicit an emotional response. I am doing it to share history.
Do you find yourself immersed solely in building out your content? Or do you get a chance to converse with other creatives in the space?
Right now, especially, I’d say it is the latter that I enjoy most. I haven’t worked with Lyniece, for example, but we did an Instagram and Facebook campaign where we were featured together. I’ll comment and share my thoughts on other people’s pages and there are other non-Black activists and advocates that I engage with. But when it comes to developing ideas, I focus more on doing the work to put out the content through research and effort.
I like having a difference of opinion, and so I will always try—no matter how much I grow or how big my platform gets—to pull ideas from the dome. I’ll have these ideas from my own head because I want to be able to take ownership of my ideas and critical thoughts.
How do you balance your academic aspirations with the rewards that come with being a heavyweight in the content creation space?
If anything, it is the other way around. The videos I produce don’t influence my academics. I am playing on making a longform video about the Moynihan Report, and doing my college thesis on that. I haven’t been back in school full-time since December after taking this last semester off.
[Ed. note: This interview originally took place on 06/30/2021.]
I think doing these videos will really affect the things I do, but not so much since the history, social change, and social changes I study aren’t limited to only Black history. These are things that are hot topics, but some of them are topics that can only be brilliantly talked about in certain Black communities. And the reason why coming to my page is of interest to them is because I am posting content that is relevant to them as my family, or as something that comes up in conversations that I’ve had.
How do you feel about the ongoing #BlackTikTokStrike happening on the platform? In general, what sort of changes within the space would you like to see?
I’ve dismissed myself from TikTok implicitly for a while because TikTok bans a lot of my videos, which I find super annoying. I still post Black history content, but I think that the strike centers more on Black dancers than myself or others. I’m on a very different side of TikTok than what they do—Black Education TikTok, while focused mainly towards Black people and highlighting the root of our own ideas. I’ll explicitly tell people to follow me on Instagram, and all of my content will be there because I’m not a big user of TikTok at the moment.
The demands [being asked of the Black TikTok community] are a good thing. TikTok, for all of its sponsorships and its explore page, just does not do enough for Black creatives. Instead, they use their imitators to prop up the platform. And with the strike happening, it is important to show that Black users are the ones behind the content TikTok uses to spotlight white dancers and content creators instead.
We know that specifically for dancing, there are biases against Black people where companies give sponsorship and promotion to white people over the originators of the content. Jimmy Fallon shouldn’t have Addison Ray on his show and not credit any of the originals. [Ed. note: After having Ray on The Tonight Show, Fallon followed up by recognizing the creators of those popular dances.] I have yet to see a 10-point list of demands from those behind the #BlackTikTokStrike, but it is something that needs to happen and can change how others create moving forward.
How would you want your content to continue to grow outside of the parameters of the internet? Or do you think that your work is the best place for this to live on?
My content is best for online consumption. Between all the different social media platforms, obviously there is a lot of flexibility for growth, but I am more of an internet person. I don’t think creatives should target having a TV show because the internet is where everything lives. Podcasts, reels, and videos are a huge thing these days, but I like my information bite-sized.
For other ideas I may have, I do public speaking. If there is any way to expand my ideas, I would want my public speaking career to grow and take off. But for the most part, for me, I am very fine with just creating on the internet. Why? Because the internet is a big space and there are a lot of people you can reach with it. I’m not trying to monetize my content, where people out in the world have to pay to see it—but I am trying to leverage it into making a living as a public speaker or through sponsorships.
[Content creation] is all I do. I don’t have a job or an internship right now. Making videos is what is supporting me. I’m not struggling; don’t get me wrong, as I’ve been thankful to God to be successful. So, I would want my content to grow online for the foreseeable future.
Is there anything else that you’d want the EBONY readers to learn about you before we sign off?
Outside of what we’ve talked about, I would want people to follow and subscribe to stay connected to what I put out. There is going to be more content. I hope to grow and expand as a content creator, plus diversify what I am sharing. I will continue to do more research projects and deep dives into Black history. I’m going to respond to contemporary news happening in almost-real-time, and keep it all very unique and to my own style.
There is no one writing my content or putting the work in, so I want everyone to know that all of these ideas are coming from my mind, heart, and intentions. I hope everyone continues to support me and thank you to EBONY for engaging with my content as well.
Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.