Believe it or not, Black culture is mainstream culture, but you wouldn’t know it sometimes by the way we are erased from receiving credit as trendsetters and innovators.
In some cases, we are oftentimes disappointed — though not surprised — to see others profiting off of our contributions, but when it came to A’Ziah “Zola” King and her viral Twitter thread-turned-movie, she made sure she was always credited as the originator that sparked the first tweet-inspired feature film (yes, a Black woman did that).
In 2015, King took to Twitter for a second time — after originally publishing the story on Tumblr and Twitter before deleting it — to share her wild and dangerous road trip story to Florida with strangers. What came of it was the greatest Twitter story ever told and a film adaptation at A24 that chronicled 148 tweets worth of friendship gone wrong, betrayal, stripping, sex trafficking and unbelievably real-life scenarios. The most important lesson from “Zola” is not the film’s existence itself, but how the movie demonstrates the power and influence of Black voices on social media.
“I feel like [sometimes], especially with Twitter, Black voices are kind of the main voices and many times I know, especially in this experience, people were extremely shocked,” King tells AfroTech. “Like, ‘wow, you’re still a part of this, that’s so amazing’ or ‘your voice is being heard, that’s crazy.’ And for me, I kind of felt the opposite. It was like, if my voice wasn’t going to be heard then what was the point?”
Without King’s story, “Zola” as we know it would not exist in the capacity that has impacted the trajectory of internet culture. In a narrative we don’t often hear from Black creators, a Black woman was able to maintain ownership of her intellectual property and was credited for her contributions all the way through.
In recent incidents, we’ve seen how Black creators on platforms like TikTok have had to go to great lengths to be properly cited as the inspiration behind many viral dances and trends. But in King’s case, her story offers an inspiring tale that proves that it is possible to thrive off your work as a Black creator and be the face of a movement — as long as you make the right moves along the way.
“I hope this acts as some type of inspiration for other storytellers, especially Black writers and Black creatives,” King says, “so they understand the control and agency that they have over their voice and these spaces because we kind of create them.”
King herself had never been in a position like this to control her own story through such a massive outlet, but to help her navigate her way through the film’s process, director Janicza Bravo ensured that she had another ally that understood where she was coming from. According to King, having another Black woman in the room helped her preserve the accuracy and essence of her story.
“A hundred percent. The executive producer credit wasn’t even on my mind, [but] that was something that I think only happened because I had a Black woman in the room fighting for me,” she says. “Although I had my credit, I wrote this [too] and that was always understood. I didn’t know what more to ask for or if there was room to ask for more, but she [was] like, ‘no, this is your thing. We’re here because of you.'”
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Since 2015, storytelling on social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, TikTok and others has evolved in a way where Black creatives have come up with out-of-the-box ways to capitalize on this unique skill at the intersection of technology and internet culture. Thanks to people like King, a lane now exists where it’s possible for someone to use their own stories online as a launching pad for future ventures and projects.
“I think it’s more legitimized. Even when I told [my story] everyone wanted to fact check it and that was a first for me because I mean how many people have gone viral on the internet?,” she says. “We take [those moments] for what [they are] and then we move on to the next viral moment, but here everyone wanted to fact check [my thread] on what’s real and what’s not. At the time I wasn’t understanding if it was because it’s a really good story that it’s too good to be true, or is it because I’m a Black woman?”
The film is a moving testament to how far Black creators can get in the entertainment industry if they maintain integrity and honesty in their own work. As times have evolved, technology has ushered in new eras in which we are able to create and innovate inside as well as outside of our culture. King’s belief for the art of storytelling on social media now is that “people will be more open and willing to be authentic and share themselves in that way” today and beyond.
Her biggest piece of advice for Black creators that may find themselves in her same position in the future is to “know their worth, be authentic, be loud about it, claim agency over your voice and your space and when you set those boundaries stick to them.” With movements like the recent TikTok strike, it’s possible for Black creativity to be protected in our community as the sacred entity that it is.
Gatekeeping and advocating is what allowed “Zola” to be a Twitter-inspired film that was finally able to see the light of day in theaters, but King’s journey is what ultimately serves as a powerful anecdote that shows what Black voices online can do with the right amount of support behind them.