Meet some of the top social media influencers at HBCUs
Students are taking advantage of their chance to effect change, make a dollar or inspire through their social feeds
The methods used to become a successful influencer in today’s world have changed significantly, especially for college students. Through social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube, the social media landscape has allowed college influencers to reach a more targeted group, particularly their peers. This niche market continues to grow because 92% of Gen Zers, born between 1997 and 2012, and millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, often trust influencers more than they trust celebrities.
There are various levels of influencers, based on their number of followers:
- Nano-influencers: 1,000-10,000 followers
- Micro-influencers: 10,000-50,000 followers
- Mid-tier influencers: 50,000-500,000 followers
- Macro-influencers: 500,000-1 million followers
- Mega-influencers: 1 million-plus followers
More followers mean more money. According to a 2021 report from CNBC, influencers with an average following (between 50,000 to 100,000 followers) can make between $30,000 and $100,000 a year, depending on the platform and whether their posts are sponsored. If they gain a large following, as in more than a million people, they can even make up to $350,000 a year.
With their heavy social media engagement, it should come as no surprise that college students are also capitalizing on the opportunity to become influencers and create their own brands, including students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Black social media influencers affect the brands people trust, the products they try, the trends they follow, the music they listen to and the causes they support.
One of the most successful HBCU influencers to date is 23-year-old Kyle Exum, who graduated from the honors program at the Howard University School of Business in May 2020 with a degree in marketing. Exum began his career as an influencer while at Howard, using the now-defunct video hosting service Vine, posting comedy skits, rap videos and more. Now Exum is known as a mega-influencer, with more than a million followers on various platforms. He currently has 7.3 million followers on TikTok and his YouTube page has 5.2 million subscribers. So far, Exum’s most-viewed video is his 2018 comedy skit Dad’s Plan, which has more than 27 million views. It has been reported that Exum is earning close to $1.5 million a year as an influencer.
So, who are the next generation of HBCU influencers? How are they influencing? Do they have earning potential, and if so, how are they using their platforms to build their brands? Here are a few current influencers on HBCU campuses who are making waves.
Lauren B. Brown
On Feb. 4, 2020, Lauren Brown, known on her social media platforms as @raggedyroyal, tweeted a series of photos in which she was wearing colorful false lashes that matched the color of lipstick she was wearing: a rich purple, sunny orange and a vibrant royal blue. In the fourth photo, instead of matching her lashes to the toasty brown lip shade she was wearing, her eyes are surrounded by a full rainbow of colors. “Never going back to black lashes!” she wrote.
The tweet caught Twitter’s collective eye, receiving more than 114,000 likes and receiving 14,000 retweets in less than 36 hours. “The rainbow lashes knocked me out of my chair,” one person commented. “Might’ve just changed the game,” another said.
Brown, a Washington native, started her social media platform to inspire people, particularly Black women, to experiment with more vibrant makeup colors and textures. She began by doing makeup tutorials on Snapchat when she was in high school. However, because Snapchat stories are only viewable for 24 hours, she decided to move her work to Instagram. Soon her popularity began to take off on her TikTok and Twitter sites as well, where she received notice from companies such as Kohl’s, Sephora and Benefit Cosmetics, all of whom she has collaborated with. “I feel like the greatest thing is the impact [that I’ve made],” Brown said. “People will send me pictures of their makeup styles and paragraphs of their stories from all around the world. That never gets old.”
Followers: Instagram, 24,700
In 2016, then 16-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native Nupol Kiazolu created an Instagram account to showcase her dancing skills. However, she wouldn’t be dancing for long. Already known locally for speaking out against the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, Kiazolu has changed the focus of her Instagram to Black Lives Matter and speaking out against social injustice. Now, with more than 24,000 followers, she posts content daily documenting her journey as an activist and organizer. She has also been featured on CNN, CBS and ABC for her activism. From being a part of a counterprotest at the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to organizing a demonstration in Minnesota in 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police to getting arrested in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2021 while protesting the shooting death of Breonna Taylor to sharing her personal story about past thoughts of suicide, Kiazolu is using her platform as an influencer not to make money, but to call for justice and mental health awareness.
“Over 20k people showed out to the Black Lives Matter demonstration,” said Kiazolu, who is currently taking the semester off but will be returning to Hampton’s campus in the fall and is scheduled to graduate in December. “After that, it changed my life forever. Everyone around the world and huge media outlets wanted to know who is this 19-year-old girl that brought all these people out, and that was me and it started here [on social media].”
Florida A&M University
Known for his “a day in campus life” videos on TikTok, 19-year-old YuKwon Toney is recognized around Florida A&M’s campus in Tallahassee as the life of the party. From dance challenges to comedy routines as his alter ego, Kwanique, to campus tours, Toney has something for just about everyone on his social media platforms. He first began creating social media content as a freshman at Lennard High School in Ruskin, Florida, and soon attracted a following because of his infectious smile and charm. From there, he focused his videos on college life, even putting his entire campaign for FAMU’s homecoming royal court on TikTok and Instagram, for which he was crowned “King of the Orange and Green” last spring.
Toney has used his success as an influencer to gain work as a content creator for companies such as Express and Banned Goods NYC. “I will say that I am enjoying the business side of things,” Toney said. “However, [social media content creation] is not peaches [and] cream. There is no set price for how much you make, so sometimes [payments] can be good, and sometimes not so good.”
@honestari and @im.arial
North Carolina A&T State University
Arial Robinson, aka Robin Vanguard, knows firsthand about the ways in which being an influencer can do wonders for marketing oneself. On Jan. 15, the author-turned-musical artist amassed more than 1,500 retweets and 9,000 likes on Twitter for posting about her cover letter for her internship application to Spotify. But it wasn’t an everyday cover letter. Rather, it was a 100-song playlist titled 100 Reasons Why Arial Should Intern at Spotify this Summer.
The responses resulted in lots of praise, including a few job offers. “Hi Arial! This is dope. I own a creative agency and if Spotify doesn’t work out you should email me 👀 Potentially looking for a paid intern this Spring,” wrote one follower from the virtual marketing company TeamMates. (So far, Robinson has made it through the first round of interviews at Spotify.)
Robinson received her first wave of success and exposure as the author of two books, The Modern Day Black Alphabet in 2020 and Black Hair Care in Color in 2021. Besides using social media to promote her books, she used her platform to showcase her photography, which included a mock 10-part Nike campaign that later led to her working with Nike on its HBCU Yardrunners 2.0 campaign. Through her creativity and artistic vision as a content creator, she has worked with companies such as Beats by Dre, Warner Music and Converse. In December, she was honored at the HBCU Met Gala as the HBCU Creative of the Year. “I realized that you can tell a lot of stories from Instagram and social media and make it a career,” Robinson said. “You have the power to reach a massive audience with your content. I want people to really reflect on their experiences and just be more imaginative.”
Deja Dodson, 20, loves to shop. Not only does she love to shop for herself, the Hampton University psychology major loves to give fashion tips and shop for her friends, her classmates, her family and for each of her 24,500 followers on TikTok, where she posts, on average, four to five videos a day. And while 2020 presented major challenges for many fashion influencers because of the coronavirus pandemic, causing some fashionistas to reduce their fancy gear to loungewear and jogger sets, Dodson came back with a vengeance in the style department in 2021 with her TikToks, YouTube videos, Instagram stories and vlogs. Dodson, known as Deja D, uses her platforms to showcase the latest fashion, hair and makeup trends for women, especially curvy women. “I created [the blog] ‘Deja’s Daily Dose’ and my alter ego ‘Deja D’ as a way to promote self-love, motivation, confidence and a healthy lifestyle.”
On her various social media platforms, Dodson models everything from luxury designer evening wear to swimwear to discount loungewear to accessories. Her most popular TikTok video (which is also on YouTube) has more than 93,000 views and 24,000 likes. It showcases her Amazon store, Deja D’s Finds, where she receives a percentage from Amazon for each item purchased.
Dodson, who is from Capitol Heights, Maryland, first began creating online content when she was in middle school, filming YouTube videos for her friends on a Galaxy tablet given to her by her family. However, the hobby became serious when she got to Hampton in the fall of 2019, where she started making vlogs of her college experiences and everyday campus life. From there, her popularity grew as her followers began to seek fashion advice on how to dress for their size and still look good. “My goal is to highlight style, beauty and confidence beyond society’s perceived limitations of one’s body type or size,” Dodson said. “Through motivational quotes, talks, videos and my podcast, Let Me Tell You Something, I promote how beauty is not only on the outside but inside as well.”