DJ WhySham’s fast-and-furious TikTok career began with a text.
That’s how she fielded a tip from a fellow Boston hip-hop artist named Cakeswagg. The rapper had been uploading videos to TikTok since the end of last year. A few gained traction, but most flopped. Ultimately, Cakeswagg decided, she doesn’t have the right oomph to make it big on the app.
“But Sham! Sham is such a character,” Cakeswagg said of that fateful November message. “I texted her and said you need to be on TikTok.”
A few days later Cakeswagg woke up to hundreds of new TikTok followers, a couple dozen texts, and a tag on DJ WhySham’s first viral TikTok video. Over the next two months, Dorchester-based DJ WhySham would continue to flood the social media platform with videos featuring her own work and that of other Boston artists — especially the city’s Black women hip-hop artists.
That is, until her account was taken down for mysterious “community violations” in early April, WhySham said. Now she’s working to reconnect with 46,000 lost followers under the brand-new justdjwhysham moniker.
What happened over that short time, however, demonstrates TikTok’s ability to elevate and amplify Black women’s voices in a world that consistently works to do the opposite. That’s not to say the video-sharing app is without fault. See: Debate over content being lifted from Black creators, reports of accounts taken down for unspecified reasons, and charges of activism being flagged as hate speech. But the social media platform has also provided a huge global audience for WhySham and the city’s other Black women artists. For seemingly the first time, their work traveled far beyond the Boston music bubble.
Many more Black voices in New England are taking advantage of the platform. Kahlil Greene, a senior at Yale University, posts TikToks on “debunking America’s hidden history.” One of his first videos, refuting the popular narrative of Martin Luther King Jr. being a pacifist, got over 1.3 million views. For Greene, the app’s “For You” feature (where users find suggestions tailored to their interests) makes it far easier to go viral compared with posts on Instagram or Facebook.
“I posted it right before MLK Day, so I was able to tap into the general public’s consciousness around who is MLK, especially after George Floyd. It was the first MLK day after that huge racial reckoning,” said Greene, who now has over 236,000 followers. “The videos are one-minute. They’re very engaging. So I think all of those things come together to make it a really great place to share content that can reach a lot of people.”
That general “consciousness,” also known as increased white interest in the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, has coincided perfectly with the rise of TikTok. Black creators suddenly find themselves turning to an app that is perfect for disseminating information and art to a relatively new, white audience.
The phenomenon isn’t lost on Boston’s community of Black women rappers. Brandi Artez, also known as Brandie Blaze, is used to performing for white eyes. A decade before her music went viral on WhySham’s TikToks, Artez was performing at venues on the North and South shores. White fans were her first fans.
Although she’s seeing another surge of white interest in her music, Artez has learned not to tailor her music to that audience. “The music that I make is particularly for Black femmes,” she said in a Zoom interview. “I don’t write depending on who’s listening, but I’ve gotten some big opportunities. And I don’t know if that’s because I’m more palatable to white people. It’s something I think about. Like what is it about me that I’m able to get access to these spaces.”
Cakeswagg is also aware of that omnipresent white gaze. Although so much of American art is made and influenced by Black people, white people hold power and therefore act as gatekeepers. It’s hard not to keep that from affecting the content she curates, Cakeswagg said.
“As a Black woman in hip-hop it’s hard because you have this large white audience sometimes who wants me to rap about the struggles of being Black,” Cakeswagg said via Zoom. “I’m coming from the inner city and urban society, like that’s what they want us to rap about.”
DJ WhySham’s career has always been tied to social media. She started on Facebook and Instagram, promoting her sets at the weekly Haley House poetry slams and sharing bits of her work online. A few of her Instagram posts went viral last year, but TikTok has been a new, powerful platform. Within hours of her first post, her phone crashed from an overload of notifications.
“People said they were finding me on their ‘For You’ page,” WhySham said over Zoom. “I had to Google what that meant — I literally had no idea.”
But WhySham learned quickly. In her free time she watched successful TikTok stars and took notes on their approach. She also put together weekly DJ sets for the app, interacted with followers, and, most importantly, invited local musicians to share the virtual stage. Her latest album, “Finally,” also features local Black women including Cakeswagg and Brandie Blaze.
When WhySham’s account was taken down, she spent hours e-mailing TikTok support, researching how she might have run afoul of the platform’s policies, and brainstorming ways to retain her audience. She’s not sure if she’ll ever regain access to her hit account, but she hopes the new handle eventually provides the same opportunities for herself and the other Boston artists.
“I’ve had people say, I didn’t know there were female rappers in Boston,” WhySham said. “Now our work is just out there. People who’ve never heard my name or their names know us. This is just the beginning.”
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at email@example.com.