Fashion, music, and internet memes all owe a debt to young Black women.
Black neighborhoods serve as the nuclei of our culture — especially any area where stylish Black teenagers convene. If you want to predict a trend years in advance, go where lipgloss application techniques are perfected before they hit TikTok and the next big female rap artist is selected way before you stumble upon whoever is trending. Ice Spice? Black teenage girls listened to her while you were still figuring out who Glorilla is. The makeup hack you’ll be swearing by six months in the future (slugging? Black girls have been dousing themselves in Vaseline for decades) was inspired by a Black girl’s beauty supply run before a blogger makes it go viral.
Black teenage girls are the invisible tastemakers creating and popularizing some of the biggest trends simply by being their authentic selves. It’s the everyday Black girl, without a platform or the machine of capitalism behind her, who exudes cool without having to try. A tongue-in-cheek line from “Best I Ever Had,” the song that catapulted Drake to the mainstream, is “When my album drop, bitches’ll buy it for the picture, and ni**as’ll buy it too and claim they got it for they sister.” This line encapsulates a pattern in American culture that eventually defines the zeitgeist but is rarely correctly credited.
The effect Black teenagers have on popular culture has only increased as technology makes the world — and trends — less regional and more universal. In 2018, Nielsen reported that Black consumers are in a “remarkable period of influence,” with the “highest smartphone ownership and usage of any demographic group and an unyielding desire for self-expression and image control.” TikTok itself is a shining example of how Black teenagers, especially girls, are at the center of pop culture. Black teen girls like Jalaiah Harmon and Keara Wilson famously created the viral dances that helped turn TikTok into what it is today. This means that Black teenagers are now on a virtual stage for the whole world to study — and why you see influencers from Sweden or nepo babies from Calabasas cosplaying as Black girls.
In addition to Nielsen’s findings that prove Black consumers are highly influential, the media research company reported that the preferences of Black women in particular are a main driving force. And these young women, particularly Gen Z, are demanding to be seen on their own terms — even if that means creating their own content. Creating niche communities on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok makes it easier now for Black girls to find spaces where they can be unapologetically themselves, without fear of being told they’re “doing too much.”
These communities, which often start in the bedrooms of fly and ambitious Black girls, garner attention from big brands and marketers creating influencers almost overnight. Black girls who are into natural hair, alt aesthetics, or anything else under the sun easily find community online. Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, founder of the social media and brand representation agency BrainTrust, noted that “the notion of being black and a woman is having a key moment in society, between black girl magic and black lives matter. Investments are being made to support and shape black consumerism, which is largely driven by the idea that black women influence the shopping habits and purchases of their peers.” Ferguson’s agency did a case study with the popular beauty supply store Sally’s. They found that when they leaned into these niche communities of influencers, they engaged with their followers “at a rate of 261% more than their general market peers.”
Since the invention of the teenager as the demographic that we know today, the desires and preferences of adolescents have been a driving force for popular culture. The phrase “teenager” was introduced into the American vernacular by advertisers in the 1940s, emerging as a result of postwar developments in the economy, education, and technology. The end of widespread child labor (although there are still unsettling cases within the US) combined with widespread compulsory education meant society was no longer made up of simply adults and children, but also an emerging group of young adults who had their own society outside of the home and were able to gain even more independence as automobiles rose in popularity.
In 1958, the New Yorker ran an article about young people who were too young to work but too old to be infantilized. The publication noted that the “teenage market — and, in fact, the very notion of the teenager — has been created by the businessmen who exploit it,” arguing that advertisers hopped on the opportunity to directly target this growing demographic. This rings true today: Experts estimate that Gen Z’s overwhelming buying power exceeds $150 billion.
As journalist Derek Thompson wrote, “modern culture is fully teenocratic, governed by the tastes of young people, with old fogies forever playing catch-up.” From the moment the concept of being a teenager entered the collective consciousness, their gravitational pull toward coolness began to emanate outward to the rest of society. But what even is “cool”? Thompson defines it as a positive rebellion, “breaking away from an illegitimate mainstream in a legitimate way.” America, a country built on rebellion, is constantly looking for ways to be different and revolutionary. And, historically, Black people are the go-to resource for new culture: As the prolific writer bell hooks once said, “I believe that American culture is obsessed with transgression. And to the degree that Blackness remains a primary sign of transgression, one could talk about American culture and mainstream culture as being obsessed with Blackness.”
Black culture, in a sense, is a rejection of whiteness, showing up in all the ways attempted cultural genocide couldn’t suppress our Africanness. It’s seen in our clothing, our music, our speech, and the way we carry ourselves. It also makes sense why teenagers of all races could inherently feel and relate to the rebellion in the sounds Black people created out of resistance. We see this in the counterculture of each generation embracing the newest Black music, whether that’s jazz, rock-’n’-roll, R&B, disco, funk, or hip-hop.
As Vox’s Constance Grady wrote, “Teenage girls anointed the Beatles. But you already knew that. … To be a teenage girl is to simultaneously be pop culture’s ultimate punching bag, cash cow, and gatekeeper.” Who anointed the artists that the Beatles appropriated? Black girls. They’re the ones who swooned and screamed in the presence of Chuck Berry and other Black heartthrobs of the time, the people from whom the Beatles openly took large inspiration. They were the ones hanging at the roller rinks in the ’70s being used as a test audience by DJs to gauge popularity. Lolita Shanté Gooden, a 14-year-old Black girl, wrote the first rap diss track in the ’80s, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” beginning a long tradition in hip-hop. Who other than a Black teen girl could think of turning a scathing read into a rap song? Boyz II Men, a group adored by young Black girls, began the boy band craze in the ’90s, paving the way for the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC.
Today, they’re changing the hip-hop landscape as we know it, ditching the blatant misogyny of male rappers in favor of women like Ice Spice, who embodies the aesthetic of a 2000s teenager in her velour sweatsuits and shoulder bags. In 2020, for the first time ever, there were two weeks when three female rap artists occupied the top two Billboard spots: Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj with the “Say So” remix and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” remix featuring Beyoncé, both songs that spread like wildfire. Because rap is the popular music genre with one of the youngest fan bases (48 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds claim it as their favorite), it’s inevitable that the preferences of Black teenage girls move the needle in what’s considered popular.
The same goes for fashion: Many argue that Black people’s association with style traces back to West Africa, where it’s been a long tradition to adorn oneself and reflect the beauty of the continent’s abundant resources through jewels, gold, and vibrant colors. A group of Black girls from the projects in Detroit would form the Supremes and heavily impact the style of the ’60s. The everyday young girls of the ’70s, with their Afro puffs and bell bottoms, have looks that stood the test of time. Aaliyah’s teenage fashion, as well as the looks of girl groups like Destiny’s Child and TLC, remains a prevailing symbol of the style of the ’90s. Before Carrie had her infamous nameplate necklace on Sex and the City, Black teenage girls wore them as part of a long tradition in their neighborhoods. (Patricia Fields, the legendary costume designer of the HBO series, admitted that she incorporated the nameplate after seeing a lot of kids in New York City wearing them. Statistically, it would be a surprise if most of those kids weren’t Black girls.)
In the digital age, accounts like @aliyahsinterlude on TikTok showcase how an everyday young Black girl can be at the pinnacle of style. Women like Aleali May and Teyana Taylor got their start as stylish teens who were noticed by major players in the fashion industry.
Beyond their outward style, the vernacular of these young girls has spread like wildfire. Non-Black people from all walks of life have made a habit of turning on a blaccent like it’s a filter to use when they want to be seen as sassy or cool, ready to be disposed of when it’s time to be taken seriously. Some don’t even realize they’re doing it — there’s been discourse surrounding people conflating AAVE with “internet language,” which is yet another instance that proves Black girls have a massive, and unappreciated, impact on culture. These words that are being appropriated weren’t all created in the mouths of middle-aged Black people but rather through the banter of mostly Black girls (not to mention queer youth, who deserve an essay of their own about their enormous contributions).
The influence of Black girls does not take away from the repercussions of white supremacy and global anti-Blackness. Living at the intersection of youth, Blackness, and womanhood, Black teen girls are one of the most vulnerable communities. Children are arguably a section of our population that receive the least amount of autonomy and respect with little real protection, too often treated like property or only an extension of their parents. Teenage girls of all races are dealing with a mental health crisis. The Washington Post reported that nearly 1 in 3 high school-age girls said they had considered suicide, and almost 15 percent said they had been forced to have sex. On top of that, Black girls are disproportionately sexualized and seen as more mature than they really are. And Black women and girls experience sexism from within their own communities, contributing to the erasure of Black women’s impact on American history.
While brands and investors have clearly noticed the lucrative cultural capital of Black girls, there is still a lack of respect and political support for them. This creates an oxymoronic landscape where Black teenage girls are overlooked while simultaneously being the leading curators of popular culture, with their impact (if it’s even recognized in the first place) ultimately attributed to Black culture as a whole. Despite deserving way more credit than they’ve ever received, young Black girls will remain trendsetters because, as playwright Lorraine Hansberry once said, “Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly dynamic to be young, gifted and Black.”
Ile-Ife Okantah is a cultural critic and media scholar with a master’s degree in journalism. She’s a professor at Kent State University and works as a freelance TV recapper at Vulture.