African greeting videos: are they exploitative and racist or just a fun way for creators to make a living?

Wishes Made Visual

African greeting videos have exploded in popularity. Are they empowering or Blaxploitation?

'These videos speak to an African fetishizing so typical of the West.'


Abderrahemane Nejam


Posted on Feb 17, 2024   Updated on Feb 16, 2024, 5:37 pm CST

In an African forest, a group of shirtless male entertainers film themselves dancing and cheering as they wish someone happy birthday in heavily accented English. One member of the group holds a photo of the birthday boy up to the camera and kisses it multiple times.

Then they get the next photo from the pile and do it all over again for another person on the other side of the world whom no one in the group will ever meet.

Commissioning customized messages is nothing new. In recent years, Cameo popularized the service for a wider audience. Today you can hire anyone from a world-famous celebrity to a random stranger to record a message of your choosing at a price ranging from $1 to thousands of dollars. For the right price, that person will say or even do whatever you want, within their chosen limits, of course. It can be used as a thoughtful gift or a quick gag.

Given that this type of service has a low-entry barrier, the supply quickly far outweighed the demand. In recent years, creators hoping to make quick cash creating custom videos have tried various strategies to stand out from the crowd.

For some in the industry, that’s involved leaning into over-the-top cultural stereotypes.

The trend appears to have started with South Asian creators, typically from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh. Today, it’s evolved to include creators in Africa. Imagime surprising ur friends with this birthday gift 😂😭 #birthdaygift #fyp #greetingsfromafrica ♬ original sound – UniqueWishes.Shop

Over the last year, African greeting videos have exploded in popularity. A recent search for “African birthday wishes” on TikTok revealed thousands of videos that follow a similar format and feature muscular, shirtless African men saying various things in stereotypical accents. Most are simple “happy birthday” messages, though there are also versions of the men saying strange things like “sorry for giving you an STD.” In some videos, the men wear modern garb; in others, they’re costumed in clothing that’s meant to appear tribal.

The videos typically cost between $30 to $70 with extra fees to customize the greeting, such as by using two photos or receiving a second “funny” edit of the original. The websites advertise in multiple currencies from around the world and offer to create greetings in any language, indicating that this is a global trend—judging by the engagement online, an extremely popular one. TikTok accounts promoting websites that sell the greetings have followings ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands; several have millions of likes.

People who order the videos rave about them and the overwhelming majority of comments online are similarly positive. Many express interest in buying or receiving one. “The content I deserve,” an observer recently wrote on a TikTok in which the men wished happy birthday to “daddy Gabriel” and urged him to “shake that a** you sexy boy!” A far smaller number find the videos an off-putting form of Blaxploitation. They wonder if the sellers are marketing racist tropes and question whether performers are getting paid their fair share.

In November, a TikToker posted a stitch with one of the African greetings captioned “somethin don’t feel right…” and included #isthisracist. When a commenter wrote, “I’m lost, what’s wrong?” the creator replied, “Something about it feels… off.”

@chopped_livr #stitch with @FridayWorldwide somethin don’t feel right… #happybirthdayedward #africanbirthday #africanbirthdaywishes #isthisracist ♬ original sound – Jenn Jackson

Most of the companies the Daily Dot contacted did not respond. The few that did reply declined to comment.

One wrote, “At this time, we regret to inform you that we are unable to accommodate media coverage requests. However, we encourage you to explore the comprehensive range of services we offer. Our team is dedicated to providing tailored solutions to meet various needs, and we believe our services could be of value to you.” (Multiple AI content detectors indicated that this was written with artificial intelligence.)

According to their websites, the companies that sell African greetings ensure performers are adequately compensated. Some are purportedly run by the creators themselves.

Nearly all the businesses that offer the service use similar formatting in their websites and social media accounts. Most claim that the price offered is a steep discount; many also promise 10% off the first order. Some include the same errors, such as “we are the shooting team self-employed website,” or are written in broken English, which may indicate the use of online translators or AI.

The Daily Dot looked up the registry information for eight sites that sell these greetings; all used proxy registration services in foreign countries, none of which were in Africa. (Using a proxy registrar masks the name and location of whoever owns a domain.) Three of the eight used the same registrar in Canada; two used the same Arizona-based registrar. All but one site was created last year.

This gives the impression that multiple African greeting companies may be operated by a single entity that does business under different names.

“Those who commission these videos speak to an African fetishizing so typical of the West; one that presents Africans as docile bodies with little or no autonomy,” Sighle Nutli said.

Irrespective of who owns the businesses and how the money is distributed, some experts take issue with the videos themselves. They believe that the businesses are either selling racism and exploiting the performers, or that the creators are selling caricatured versions of their race and culture as entertainment. However, more than one acknowledged that creating the videos may be a form of self-empowerment, particularly if the performers own the business.

Some companies explicitly deny that the people in the videos are being taken advantage of. “We believe in fair payment and sustainable business practices,” one’s website states. “That’s why we maintain close communication with our partners and ensure that they receive a fair share of the profits.” The site sells videos by performers on three continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.

In 2022, BBC Africa Eye released the documentary Racism for Sale. In it, the team highlighted how custom greetings videos are part of an exploitative business managed by wealthy middlemen. It also reported that there is a more insidious demographic who enjoy these videos. One customer ordered a video of African children enthusiastically saying racist and dehumanizing statements about themselves in Chinese—which they did not appear to understand—that was widely shared on Chinese social media.

The documentary revealed that some business owners disguise themselves as public service organizations or charities to gain the trust of the community. It claimed that some take advantage of performers’ poverty to pay them extremely low wages. One actor told BBC Africa Eye that they were paid about 50 cents per day to create these videos.

Sihle Ntuli, a poet and the editor-in-chief of New Contrast, South Africa’s oldest literary magazine, is somewhat conflicted by the videos. “From the perspective of someone living in South Africa, who identifies as Zulu, I do find these birthday grams to be extremely problematic, however, I do understand why some would agree to participate in their filming,” Ntuli said.

“For me the exploitative element is these participants somewhat renouncing their identity and ethics for financial gain,” he added.

He believes the consumers are part of the problem.

“Those who commission these videos speak to an African fetishizing so typical of the West; one that presents Africans as docile bodies with little or no autonomy.”

Ntuli described feeling “dismayed” after watching the videos on TikTok and said he wondered “about the dignity of Africans and whether a line has ever existed that those from the West would dare not cross.”

Sakuna Hughes is a professor of ethnic studies at Santa Clara University. She pointed out that capitalizing on racial stereotypes has been around for centuries. “I would say this is nothing new. America’s first form of pop entertainment was blackface minstrelsy. Driven by white supremacy, it fueled anti-Black racism as white men blackened their faces to ‘imitate’ Black people,” Hughes said.

Hughes traces the modern iteration of the trend to the Jim Crow era, which began in the years after the Civil War.

“After the end of slavery Black folks began to blacken their faces and perform these shows. Their performances gave white America what they wanted—demeaning images of Black people to justify violent racism—but also enabled a small space for Black artists to make a living doing art,” Hughes said.

“Much of the success of Black minstrels was that they were imitating whites in blackface who were purporting to imitate Black people. And Black actors took over the field within a few years. These were incredibly talented artists.”

Hughes concluded that the forces of colonialism, racism, and capitalism created significant hurdles for marginalized people to find good jobs. As a result, some chose to take work that catered to white supremacy, such as performing in a minstrel show, while being well aware that such perpetuated racism.

Hughes also said that it can be empowering, rather than demeaning, to exploit stereotypes of one’s own race. This is a common argument among those who see nothing wrong with the African greeting videos. They view them in the same vein as women embracing feminine stereotypes or marginalized groups reappropriating slurs, both of which are considered forms of protest and self-empowerment.

According to Ali Hlongwane, professor of history at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, some of the performers might not even belong to the cultures they’re portraying.

“I watched a few. Firstly, there is nothing (including their accent) that confirms they are Zulu-speaking,” Hlongwane said. “But nonetheless, marginalized people tend to essentialize themselves and perpetuate racist stereotypes. You can see what matters about these guys are their muscles and not their brains.”

A Reddit thread posted last year about the African greetings generated heated debate. One redditor opined, “These videos are clearly racist because they stereotype and objectify people from Africa as commodities and are a form of class tourism.” Another defended the videos, writing, “These guys love doing this. They have found a way to generate income in a country where poverty is a very real thing. Not racist or demeaning in any way. My friend knows a group of them operating out of Livingstone and it’s 100% Zambian-owned.”

Others argued that criticizing the videos amounts to cancel culture.

“Please stop being offended by using ‘stereotypes,’” one complained. “People of the actual culture like to see interpretations of it. I’m Mexican and for people with the incentive to ban ‘cultural appropriation’ they canceled Speedy Gonzales. A clear example of a Mexican stereotype character. The funny thing is that every Mexican loves Speedy Gonzalez, I can assure you that no Mexican is offended by it. So please stop wasting energy canceling stereotypes and interpretations.”

“Saying this I really hope they [are] not being exploited,” they added.

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*First Published: Feb 17, 2024, 5:00 am CST