In one of Jason Derulo’s recent viral TikToks, the pop star attempts to eat a piece of corn on a rotating power drill. “I’ve always wanted to try this,” he says with a grin. He turns on the drill and begins chomping down before crying out in pain. When he opens his mouth, his front teeth appear to be chipped.
The video, which has been viewed nearly 24 million times, is just one of many viral moments he’s created on the platform. In another, featuring his girlfriend, lifestyle and fitness instructor Jena Frumes, Derulo displays his athleticism by hoisting Frumes onto his shoulders in sync to Krypto9095’s “Woah.” It has over 90 million views. But if you really want to be impressed, Derulo’s take on the “Wipe It Down” challenge stands as one of the best uses of special effects and storytelling on the app as he transforms into Spider-Man.
“Jason Derulo becoming a TikTok influencer is one I never saw coming,” wrote one Twitter user. His TikTok success is just one of 2020’s latest plot twists.
To some onlookers, Derulo isn’t someone you’d consider to be a megastar.
Born in Florida to Haitian parents (his real name is Jason Desrouleaux), Derulo isn’t an artist whom the world waits with bated breath to see what project he has on the way.
His fondness of sleeveless hoodies will not set trends, and his fanbase doesn’t exist as a sweat-inducing moniker that’s on standby, ready to assemble with targeted action if you have anything less than a glowing assessment of their star — see the Beyhive, Barbs, and ARMY — though this story might put that theory to the test.
Prior to the current global pandemic, which has forced life as we knew it to a halt, Derulo was more likely to be trending for a joke about falling down stairs at an awards show he didn’t attend, or his censored semi bulge that apparently had to be edited out of his performance as a live-action feline in the box office bomb Cats. But Derulo has found a new lane on TikTok with the eyes and attention of just about every Gen Z’er with a phone in reach.
Derulo’s music had its moment organically and purely as the TikTok gods intended when his 2015 single “Get Ugly” provided the soundtrack for a series of moving coming-out videos. But since then, he has built a well-oiled content creation team who help with special effects, stunt coordination, prosthetics, and makeup.
His collaborators include Australian photographer David Strib, who had previously been documenting Derulo’s travels around the world after they connected on Instagram, content creator Max Goodrich, and Frumes, who has made for the perfect costar in some of his most popular TikToks.
“With TikTok, I’m able to show who I am, whereas in other apps I didn’t thrive as much because I couldn’t show me,” Derulo said in a recent interview with Complex.
With a TikTok following of 29.3 million users at the time of publishing — surpassing those of his Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube combined — his rising popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed, even to those who have dismissed him as “corny.” (To clarify, “corny” isn’t intended to be derogatory; in the words of my colleague Tomi Obaro: “Whomst among us hasn’t engaged in some corny shit?”)
Derulo has found a new lane on TikTok with the eyes and attention of just about every Gen Z’er with a phone in reach.
Today, he’s been able to parlay his following and new affiliations into chart success and a career refresh. Along with original content creation (he posts four to six times a day), Derulo capitalizes on challenges by upping the ante with his professional production team. The results of all that hard work are hard to ignore. His account has been gaining followers at a quick rate, and each million is marked with a “milli meal,” which features a Man v. Food–style concoction like the supersized donut burger he created to celebrate 17 million followers. For 21 million followers, he collaborated with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay to make a lava cake dessert.
It’s worth noting that TikTok is a space where you can gain a following without being a traditional celebrity; the most-followed account on the app belongs to Charli D’Amelio, a 16-year-old dancer with more than 70 million followers. And Derulo is excelling in part because his peers on the platform aren’t even trying. Elsewhere on TikTok, Justin Bieber (16.3 million), Kylie Jenner (13.9 million), and Ariana Grande, (17.4 million) command large audiences with far less effort than what Derulo expends for his. Grande, for example, hasn’t uploaded a TikTok since 2016, when the app was still called Musical.ly. But while Derulo isn’t the most-followed celebrity on TikTok, he isn’t too far behind Will Smith (31.4 million), and he may secure the title if he keeps the output up.
His content has generated more than 500 million likes cumulatively, and he’s now doing collaborations with Walmart and PUBG Mobile. His most recent single, “Savage Love,” heavily samples a beat that became popular on TikTok. And while Derulo recently dismissed claims that he was earning $75,000 per post, he did hint that the actual figure was higher — but he wouldn’t disclose it, because that would be “tacky.” (The initial estimation of $75,000 came from Online Casino, which compiled a “TikTok Celebrity Rich List” and ranked Derulo at No. 6. At the time of the listing, he had 15 million followers; now, as his audience edges closer to 30 million, by that calculation, the figure is more likely closer to $150,000 per post.)
But while Derulo has chosen to collaborate with some of the platform’s most high-profile users, such as Dixie D'Amelio, Addison Rae, and the Lopez Brothers, it’s interesting to see who is left out — namely the Gen Z creators who have previously been marginalized by TikTok for being “ugly,” “poor,” or Black.
In a moment of racial reckoning both in real life and online, one of TikTok’s rising stars appears committed to maintaining the social hierarchy that positions creators who are Black, brown, low-income, or have a disability at the bottom. With few exceptions, Derulo has chosen to align himself with plenty of Tiktokers who are already popular, suggesting only a select few are invited into his kingdom.
Jason Derulo considers his role as TikTok “king” a kind of self-imposed duty.
In his Complex interview, he said, “People started to call me the king of TikTok and I was like, woah, that’s a lot of pressure. But I decided to just wear it, to just wear that crown and just kind of be a leader and support the young creators, the early creators that don’t have huge followings.”
Derulo has now positioned himself as the patron saint of influencers, hosting “hibachi dinners” in his home for them while vocalizing his support and readiness to be an ally. He told Zach Sang of the Just the Interviews podcast that he believes influencers get the “short end of the stick” and are “underpaid — even though they get paid a lot of money at this point, they make millions of dollars but [are] still underpaid.”
In a space where followers, engagement, and virality are their own currency that brands routinely hope to access, the emphasis on credit and the impact of platform sharing can’t be understated.
Today, Black TikTok creators routinely have to launch campaigns to reclaim internet cultural moments they’ve created after a white, usually more affluent, albeit talented TikToker picks it up and runs with it sans credit.
The support Derulo has extended to young creators has seemingly only been to already famous creators on Straight TikTok.
The potential of Derulo’s impact to redress this issue is evident with this TikTok edited by 23-year-old Isaiah “EyeJay” Hinton, a visual effects artist from Chicago who pitched Derulo on Twitter for an opportunity back in May. While it didn’t come with any monetary compensation, Hinton told BuzzFeed News that Derulo tagging him on TikTok has attracted 10,000 new followers, and client work has started to roll in.
In the Complex interview, Derulo said, “TikTok is a nice community, whereas I don’t think Instagram has that. I don’t think Snapchat has that.” TikTok has undeniably become one of the most exciting places for entertaining and creative content, a welcome distraction at a time when almost everything is bad — but Derulo must be either clueless about the issues on the app, or he has actively chosen to overlook them. (Derulo’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.) Critics have accused the app of racism, appropriation, and cruel and ableist challenges.
Still, Derulo has put out an open invitation for young influencers to “utilize” him.
“I don’t need nothing back,” he said on Zach Sang’s podcast. “It’s not that kind of vibe. Allow me to be a backbone for you. Allow me to be a voice for you. Anything that you need, allow me to be that.”
The support Derulo has extended to young creators has seemingly only been to already famous creators on Straight TikTok. Arguably, these collaborations have benefited him most of all. Meanwhile, Black creators on the very same platform are pleading for equity and a fair chance to achieve similar success.
A perfect opportunity to actually put Derulo’s power into action would have been in March, when Thaddeus Coates, a Black graphic design student from New York and creator of the “Hit Every Beat” challenge, was sidelined from a dance moment he created.
Instead, Derulo was among those who participated in Coates’s erasure on TikTok when he performed the challenge with 19-year-old Addison Rae (TikTok’s second-most-followed account). Even if it was unintentional, someone who positions themself at the top of TikTok’s hierarchy should know the value of credit that Coates undoubtedly would have benefited from.
Altogether, these moments raise the question of who is truly benefiting from whom, and how sincere is Derulo’s allyship?
With few exceptions, Derulo’s half-hearted attempts to welcome Black creators on TikTok mismatches his rhetoric, considering his own potentially controversial statements about how only Black people consider him to be corny. “As African Americans, we have to sometimes take a look at ourselves and say, ‘Why do we hate each other so much?’” he told Complex after claiming he would “knock out” anyone who called him corny.
“I’m always trying to bring in Black people because that's the only way we’re going to get to the next level,” Derulo said. But his recent actions on the platform — not just with Black creators but with lesser-known TikTokers — suggest there is still work to be done.
Derulo also appears to be leveraging his TikTok influencer capital back into his music career by harvesting two of the app's most viral sounds for his latest singles, but not without controversy.
During his interview with Zach Sang, Derulo pushed back against any suggestion that the song “Laxed (Siren Beat)” — created by 17-year-old New Zealand musician Joshua Nanai, also known as Jawsh 685 — was already a hit prior to his decision to sample the sound and tease an unauthorized version of his single “Savage Love” back in May.
“You get a little head start from TikTok, obviously, but it’s not going to create a hit,” he said. He argued that an instrumental alone couldn’t make a chart bid. Not only does musical history say otherwise, but it certainly didn’t stop Brooklyn producer Baauer from going No. 1 with 2013’s “Harlem Shake.”
[Derulo's] recent actions on the platform — not just with Black creators but with lesser-known TikTokers — suggest there is still work to be done.
The broader issue here, however, was how Derulo bullishly released his single with Nanai’s beat, music the teen created to acknowledge his Samoan and Cook Island heritage. Derulo initially gave him no credit; meanwhile, according to Variety, the teen was already in the middle of label discussions and exploring his options of artists who could be on the single, Derulo included.
The issue was resolved in June, and the single was officially released with both Nanai and Derulo credited on the track, which has topped the streaming charts and is currently No. 1 in the UK. But as someone who has positioned himself as a selfless defender of influencers and creators, surely Derulo should know better.
Derulo followed this up on July 3 with the release of a remix to “Coño,” capitalizing on the recent TikTok popularity of the song, which was originally released in 2017 by Dutch DJ Puri and rappers Jhorrmountain and Adje.
Beyond his own advancement, the impact of Derulo’s newfound TikTok influencer power is up for debate. Like so many figures in the public eye, Derulo has fallen in line to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement; he acknowledged this with two TikToks before returning to regularly scheduled programming. For a star who has long been considered corny and has now leveraged this into content gold, perhaps the most uncorny thing Derulo could do is start leveraging that power into visible change on a platform that has begun to confront its own issues behind the scenes. ●