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This post is authored by Kiana Fitzgerald, Music Journalist and Cultural Critic.
In June 2014, a precocious teenage Black girl nicknamed Peaches Monroee hopped on the now-defunct video-sharing platform Vine to share a personal announcement. “We in this b*tch, finna get crunk,” the message began. Then came the phrase that would dominate pop culture for years to come: “Eyebrows on fleek.”
When Monroee, whose real name is Kayla Newman, invented this phrase on the spot, she had no idea the impact she would soon make.
The term “on fleek” spread like wildfire throughout the Black Vine space, and Black culture at large. It became the community’s contemporary, insider way of saying “I’m on point.” However, it didn’t take long for the phrase to be co-opted by brands. “Hashbrowns on fleek,” the diner chain Denny’s tweeted in September of 2014. Not to be outdone, rival restaurant IHOP would tweet “Pancakes on fleek” less than one month later.
The tweets elicited responses that ranged from confusion to amusement to outright frustration.
Despite her hyper-popular phrase taking over pop culture, Newman didn’t see a dime of revenue. “Everyone has used the phrase/word but I haven’t received any money behind it or recognition,” Newman revealed in 2017 in the campaign summary of a partially successful GoFundMe, which she started to raise money for the launch of her own beauty line.
And thus began—and ended—another tale of Black people creating a cultural moment and being swiftly swept aside.
Late last year, it seemed as though history was set to repeat itself. In December 2020, a car salesman named Durell Smylie, who goes by Relly B on social media, recorded himself comically stepping out of the trunk of an SUV. Upon setting foot on the ground, Smylie immediately begins an entertaining spiel that goes above and beyond any car salesman pitch ever heard before.
Toward the end of the video, Smylie begins repeating an earworm of a phrase, telling potential customers where they can find him: “Where the money reside, where the money reside, where the money reside,” he says liltingly, with a megawatt smile on his face.
It took all of a few days for the video to spread across social media platforms, with the term being turned into a viral hashtag. Music stars like Megan Thee Stallion and Mary J. Blige have since used the phrase as captions on their social posts. Other people in the Black community have borrowed the phrase to speak their own dreams into existence. Meanwhile, a creative bunch took the time to recreate Smylie’s video, in homage, which he approved of.
However, Smylie called out a white person for doing the exact same thing.
The individual in question recreated the original video in an attempt to sell cars at another dealership, using Smylie’s mannerisms, vocal tone, and key phrase. “Please stop posting that colonizers casserole version of my video,” Smylie tweeted in early January. In a follow-up tweet, which quoted a video of a Black woman’s near-exact replication of Smylie’s video, Smylie explains the difference between the two examples. “Just so we clear – THIS is appreciation and not appropriation!” he posted. “I’m not being arrogant or none like that me and my team just want to make sure #wherethemoneyreside STAYS IN OUR CULTURE.”
The difference here is the recreations made by Black people were done in jest intracommunally, and in genuine support of Smylie, while the white person was deliberately looking to capitalize off of Smylie’s persona for his own material gain.
When questioned by supporters and curious minds about how he was going to save himself from an “on fleek” future, Smylie said he was in the process of trademarking his signature phrase, something Kayla Newman struggled to do. (In a 2017 interview with Teen Vogue, Newman stated that she still hoped to trademark “on fleek,” despite the passing of a number of years. According to public records, her trademark application has been suspended since 2019, due to being “abandoned.”)
What brands should know
While Smylie is taking steps to legally protect his own viral slogan, the issue at hand is that companies and entities outside of the Black community consistently attempt to insert themselves into the cultural narrative, for the sake of profiting.
No leg work is actually done to build a relationship with the Black creatives, much less actually provide any kind of compensation for that creativity.
There are lessons to be learned from these examples of appreciation vs. appropriation. There are also questions that should be raised—and answered—before ever repurposing content created by Black people:
- Is our company in any way connected to the Black community? Further, do we have more than one Black person on staff, if any?
- Will our usage of this viral content come from left field?
- Can we reach out to the creator of the viral content directly and establish a relationship with that person?
- If at all possible, can we collaborate with the creator for our own inspired content?
In answering these questions, it should be abundantly clear whether or not a company can or should co-opt a phrase for its own gain.
Kiana Fitzgerald holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism (2011), and a master’s degree in new media in mass communication (2013) from Texas State University. She’s been a freelance writer, multimedia reporter, academic and editorial researcher, photographer, social media strategist, collegiate instructor, web developer, and more.
She’s worked for NPR, and more recently Complex Networks where she interviewed artists, critiqued albums, songs and videos, both mainstream and underground. As a Diversity and Inclusion Fellow at True Blue Inclusion, she researched, analyzed and presented the effects of politics on media and culture and continues to write and analyze DEI efforts today.
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