Joey Cassanova, a retired MMA fighter, posted a video to his TikTok page on April 7th, 2021, with the message, “If you only knew what I’ve been through.” In the video, he pretends to be hit by a hail of bullets while words flash across the screen, alluding to his past trauma: child abuse, foster care, molestation, depression, PTSD, the murder of his ex-wife, the death of his father two months ago, and three heart attacks. “Somehow I’m still here,” says the message at the end of the video, as Cassanova looks defiantly at the viewer.
Cassanova had wanted to make the video for a long time, but family members had discouraged him, telling him that sharing such personal details on social media was inappropriate. He used audio from a popular finger dancer, as well as a slowed-down version of Vicetone and Tony Igy’s “Astronomia” with gunshot noises. “I thought it was perfect because I felt like I’d been shot at my whole life,” he explained.
When he checked TikTok a few hours later, he was astounded to see that it had more than 1.2 million views and that people had begun using the audio to make videos in the same format. He was disappointed, however, to discover that the videos — many of which were from white creators, some of whom were verified — appeared to mock him, with creators sharing their “trauma” such as having small boobs or being allergic to peanuts. Brittany Furlan, a popular Viner-turned-TikToker with 1.5 million followers, used the trend to joke about being Italian-American and visiting the Jersey Shore; podcaster Ethan Klein used it to joke about being 35 and his bathtub jet not working.
There are now over 185,000 videos under the audio, the vast majority of which are completely disconnected from the original context of Cassanova’s video, and only a few of which credit him. And, while it’s unclear how many of the creators who took part were aware of Cassanova’s original video, it’s still painful for him to see the trend.
Cassanova eventually came forward on TikTok to call out those who were using the trend, prompting creators such as Furlan to apologize and delete their own videos; many of his followers have swarmed the comments of other videos using the audio to tag Cassanova and demand they give him credit. However, the story of the trend he inadvertently started has reignited an ongoing debate about virality on TikTok and properly crediting black creators, according to Tia C.M. Tyree, professor and interim associate dean of Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications.
“TikTok is supposed to be a safe space for all creators to be able to share their story and share their voice,” says Cassanova. “I used this platform to share my voice and my story to give other black creators the inspiration to do the same thing. But every time that happens, some white creator will come and steal it and not give the person credit.”
This was the result of Cassanova’s video going viral, even if it wasn’t the intention of many of the creators who jumped on the trend. Seeing people use the trend to recount their own minor annoyances or first-world problems “put me in a mental bind.” “It felt like I was reliving the trauma,” he says. He made the original video to encourage his male followers to “have feelings and speak their minds when they’re going through something,” but the reaction to it made him feel like he would have been better off staying silent.
Finally, he says he doesn’t regret posting the video because he’s received countless DMs from people thanking him for sharing his story. He also has no ill will toward creators who jumped on the trend without knowing about the source material, many of whom, like Furlan, deleted their own version and apologized directly to him. But it hurts him to see a moment of vulnerability on his part go viral for all the wrong reasons, he says. “It’s fine if people use the trend to tell their story,” he says. “Make use of it to tell your story. But I thought it was heartless to make it a trend to be like a comedy.”