Khaby Lame: Two Hands Say More Than A Thousand Words

First he lost his job due to Corona, then Khaby Lame from Senegal became the biggest TikTok star in the world. His rise is amazing for several reasons.

Many stars had their signature move: Michael Jackson had the moonwalk, Angela Merkel had the diamond, Luca Toni had the earscrew. In the case of Khaby Lame, it is the two palms that are pointing upwards, coupled with a questioning, sometimes disappointed, sometimes condescending look. Khaby Lame is the walking emoji of a man shrugging and that has made the 22-year-old Senegalese, who has lived in Italy since he was one, one of the biggest social media personalities in the world.

In this case, size refers to the number of followers. Lame primarily posts on the TikTok platform . Last week he overtook the most popular TikToker there ever, the American Charli D'Amelio: 145 million people now follow Lame. But even those who have been on other social networks since the beginning of the pandemic, whether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, should have seen his videos and his face: As part of the constantly rotating meme machine, the short clips of Khaby Lame shared, remixed and reposted millions of times by countless fan accounts across all platforms.

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As is so often the case, Lame's success came by accident. It is March 2020, the first wave of the corona pandemic is reaching Europe and hitting northern Italy particularly hard. In Chivasso, a small community outside of Turin, the then 20-year-old Lame worked in a factory. Or: he worked there. With the start of the lockdown, he loses his job and suddenly has a lot of time that he spends in his parents' apartment on TikTok. On March 15, 2020 he uploads his first own video, with more to come in the coming weeks, in which Lame shoots comedy clips with Italian subtitles from his room that deal with his family, friends and the pandemic. The success of these clips remains manageable, they reach tens of thousands, some hundreds of thousands of views.

Look, you idiots!

That will change from November 2020. On November 22, Lame will publish a so-called reaction video: It shows a video in which a man locks a young woman to a street lamp with a bicycle lock on her backpack. Lame's response consists of a stunned look and a deliberate, slow removal of his own backpack, followed by a spread of his palms as if to say, look, you idiots, this is how you solve the problem! With 17 million views, the video far surpasses all of its previous clips.

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In response to the success, Khaby Lame continued to produce similar videos over the following months. In them he makes fun of overly complicated guidebooks or reacts to other viral TikTok clips. Above all, he lets his facial expressions and gestures work for him; the rolling of the eyes, the moaning, the demonstratively spread palms become his trademark. In April 2021, Lame will celebrate two million followers , in May it will be almost nine million. The hashtag #learnfromkhaby is trending and suddenly Khaby Lame has a new job: social media star.

"It's my face and the look on my face that makes people laugh," Khaby Lame said in an interview with The New York Times last June. His reactions are understandable worldwide, so he doesn't have to speak at all.

But it's not just Lame's demeanor and appearance that ensure a high recognition value and are therefore made for animated gifs and memes. It's also the content that strikes a chord: parodying silly lifehacks is a niche that no one has served so charmingly before. And ultimately it is also the way in which its content is produced. Social media expert Samir Chaudry described them to the New York Times as a counterpart to the often over-produced and polished videos that most top influencers now display.

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The different approach becomes clear in comparison to the previous TikTok queen Charli D'Amelio. The now 18-year-old shoots dance and fashion videos, is always well made up, usually perfectly lit and equipped. D'Amelio is the kind of influencer you 'd imagine living in a villa in Ibiza , where she works with other TikTok stars, YouTubers and fashion bloggers to produce the kind of content her sponsors want. Khaby Lame, on the other hand, sometimes films his videos in the backyardor on the soccer field around the corner, often dressed in football shirts. According to Samir Chaudry, the authenticity conveyed through the videos makes it easier to connect with the person Khaby Lame.

Nevertheless, success has not left Khaby Lame untouched. His most recent videos also suggest better technical equipment and a more luxurious lifestyle: the room he grew up with, which he shared with his older brother for a long time, has recently given way to an elegant living room. Over the past year, Lame has met Greta Thunberg, shot clips with tennis player Alexander Zverev, soccer player Paulo Dybala and singer Ed Sheeran, and collaborated with other TikTokers. He now advertises for the pasta brand Barilla and the fashion company Hugo Boss and one can assume that he has come a lot closer to his dream of buying his mother a house.

Black influencers have it harder

Khaby Lame stands out from the crowd of influencers for another reason. Although the so-called creator economy theoretically offers everyone the opportunity to make it big on the internet, only comparatively few black social media personalities make it to the top. In addition, black influencers are paid less on average, as a survey by the communications company MSL Group in December 2021 found. Khaby Lame did not appear on the Forbes list of the best-earning TikTokers, which was published a little later - although he was only a few million followers behind Charli D'Amelio at the time.

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Black influencers vented their displeasure at presumably worse conditions and a lack of appreciation last summer. Under the hashtag #BlackTikTokStrike, they refused to record videos for the then new single by rapper Megan Thee Stallion - TikTok often decides which songs make the charts today - since their content was stolen and copied by non-black users anyway and these then the views would rake in. Similar allegations against Charli D'Amelio were made in 2020: She is said to have appropriated a dance that actually came from a young black woman named Jalaiah Harmon. While D'Amelio was praised for dancing and doing so helped her popularity skyrocket, few knew who Jalaiah Harmon was.

The TikTok platform, which is repeatedly criticized for restricting the reach of individual users or groups such as the LGBTQ+ scene (which the company vehemently denies), has now committed itself to promoting black and diverse influencers more, as does Instagram.

As the first black influencer to rise to the top of one of the major social media platforms, Khaby Lame could also make a contribution to more equality - or at least be a role model for other black users. After all, the 22-year-old himself knows what it's like not to get the same rights and recognition as others: although he has lived in Italy since he was one year old, he has not received Italian citizenship to this day. Since his parents immigrated to Italy after he was born, the naturalization process is lengthy. "I can't change the laws," Lame told the New York Times last June ,"But maybe I can achieve something with my fame."

He would have 145 million supporters.

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