A Canadian Instagram account owner and his business partners who recently sold their content creation agency for $116 million to the Warner Music Group has been forced to respond to allegations of profiting from “digital blackface”.
Warner paid a reported $US85 million ($A116 million) for IMGN Media, which operates several brands across social media, e-sports and entertainment.
Its most well-known property is the meme-sharing Instagram account Daquan, which has 15.5 million followers.
Daquan’s profile picture appears to be a stock image of a young black man being told off by his mother (a mask was recently added).
But when reports of the sale started hitting the internet, some people were a little miffed to see a picture of Barak Shragai, who along with Dor Mizrahi, runs IMGN media.
OWNER RESPONDS TO ‘DIGITAL BLACKFACE’ ACCUSATIONS
If you’ve watched enough Australian television over the years you’re probably familiar with blackface as a concept and the racist connotations it tries to exploit for cheap laughs, but now there’s emerging criticism of a new concept – “digital blackface”.
Instagram and Facebook banned actual blackface last month, but its digital equivalent has been the topic of discussion online for a number of years, recently gaining further prominence after a Wired cover story about its proliferation on TikTok.
The magazine’s culture writer Jason Parham described a “disturbing and ongoing form of content production that suggests a twisted love of black culture through caricature”.
One TikTok user quoted in the piece describes it as “low-key racism” when white creators on an app with an accused and unfortunate history of censoring black creators go viral taking and “remixing” content from black ones.
Mr Parham wrote that on Facebook and Twitter, “instances of digital blackface are either text-based (abusing black vernacular) or image-based (trotting out memes or GIFs of black celebrities)”.
By contrast, on TikTok “creators embody blackness with an auteur-driven virtuosity – taking on black rhythms, gestures, affect, slang,” he wrote.
Some thought that was the case with Daquan’s Instagram account: which frequently uses the N-word and other “black” slang, as well as the darker skinned emojis available on Android and iOS.
In 2018, the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney wrote on the phenomenon, similarly giving the example of “black reaction GIFs” you might have seen posted in comment threads on Facebook or Twitter.
Popular examples include a GIF of Michael Jackson eating popcorn from the Thriller video, and actor Kayode Ewumi slyly tapping his temple in character as Roll Safe from BBC mockumentary #HoodDocumentary.
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While some were quick to accuse IMGN of profiting (very handsomely) from digital blackface, the actual owner of the Daquan Instagram account, while still remaining anonymous, was forced to defend himself.
“I wanted to come on here to address some false claims I’ve been seeing online,” he said in a statement on the Instagram account’s Story.
“Daquan is run by me, a 23-year-old Ethiopian from Canada. There’s a picture of my business partner floating around that articles are falsely claiming is me. There’s only one person behind this account and that’s me – the same person who started this in 2014,” he said.
HOW IS AN INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT WORTH MILLIONS?
With the alleged digital blackface scandal aside, you might be wondering how an Instagram account could make tens of millions of dollars.
According to Mr Shragai, it’s because it provides a way to effectively reach the people most sought after by marketeers (particularly in music): teens.
“Gen Z are the hardest audience to reach and engage with, and that’s what IMGN does best,” Mr Shragai told Brand Storytelling last year.
This is also the reason the modern music industry is obsessed with TikTok, mainly populated by teens and particularly potent at making unknown artists into hit makers.
Mr Shragai said the new partnership with Warner “not only offers us greater investment and support, but an entrepreneurial environment to continue growing our business, with the people running our accounts having editorial independence,” telling the Calgary Herald the company was “excited to partner with them as we take our company into the future”.
If you’re interested in trying to replicate Daquan’s success, his advice is to focus on content first.
Mr Shragai said this, and his anonymity, was Daquan’s competitive advantage over other accounts.
“He made sure from day one that it’s a brand, not a personality,” Mr Shragai told The Atlantic. “The fact that there’s no face, it allows it to become an editorial brand.”