When Aida Diouf Mbengue made her debut on TikTok in 2019, it was partly to show solidarity with a Moroccan classmate who was being mocked for her dance clips on the social media app, but also to challenge prejudices.
The 15-second sketch features Mbengue, who was born in Senegal and has lived in Bergamo, northern Italy, since the age of three, wearing her hijab on a street and looking at her phone. Her sister, who filmed the video, asks: “Aida, show me a photo of your ex.” Mbengue, 19, quips: “There’s no need … here’s my ex”, before jauntily turning around and pointing to a huge pile of rubbish. The two girls burst into giggles.
The video went viral, attracting 900,000 views in three days. Mbengue then branched out to YouTube and Instagram, going on to become known as “the first Italian Tiktokker with a veil” as well as the most high-profile member of the team at Afro Influencers, an agency created last year to promote social media influencers of African origin and the wider African community in Italy.
“Being an actress and making videos has always been my dream,” said Mbengue. “But whenever I told people this they would laugh and say: ‘Nobody would be interested in watching a girl with a hijab.’ It was as if a black girl with a hijab could never succeed in doing certain things.”
Afro Influencers was founded last year by Moustapha Thiam, a 22-year-old IT analyst from Bergamo, and has a core team of nine of the most-followed Tiktokkers, Instagrammers and YouTubers in Italy. The agency, the first of its kind in Europe, offers advice and contacts to influencers while giving free courses to newcomers. Another objective is to help influencers achieve their ambitions of working in the entertainment industry.
“I created this to make our voice heard,” said Thiam, also an actor and comedian known as Musty TV. “Italy was a difficult place to grow up, as there was always this ignorant perception. Things have got better, but still today it is difficult to find work, as prejudices still exist. But we don’t want to play the victims of racism – we are self-deprecating, and the idea is to try to bring about change.”
Mbengue has used humour not only to make her voice heard, but to change people’s perception of Muslim women. In another TikTok video, she wears all her colourful hijabs at the same time. She has more than 300,000 followers on the platform, 24,300 subscribers on YouTube and 70,800 followers on Instagram. She said all of her YouTube subscribers were Italian, while she has a big following from Senegal on Instagram.
“My first TikTok video attracted comments like ‘I’ve never seen such a nice girl with a hijab’ or ‘girls with hijabs actually have style’,” she said. “From this, I understood that something had to change. I wanted to show that the hijab is not a symbol of oppression. Just because I’m wearing one it doesn’t mean I’m not free.”
Mbengue is still subjected to insults online but responds with irony. “It’s almost like fun activism,” she said. “The main objective is not to have loads of followers but to send a message to young people, who will one day become parents, that helps to open their minds.”
Afro Influencers held a well-attended launch event at Milan’s Piazza del Duomo last summer, and the agency has received dozens of requests to join from established or budding black influencers across Europe, including the UK, France and Spain. “I would like to create a big Europe-wide group,” Thiam said.
He said the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and the thousands of protests across the world, including in Italy, last summer, in response to the police killing of George Floyd, had shifted companies’ focus towards sponsoring black influencers.
“BLM helped to entice big companies to also invest in the black community,” he said. “The companies understood they needed to change their message and be more inclusive.”
Mbengue found that, as her profile grew, she attracted the attention of several big brands. “I hope this continues,” she said. “BLM has helped, and many things are starting to change.”
Thiam’s next step is to open Afro House, a home in Milan for the Afro Influencers team. Its social media stars include Xanax 404, C.Black, King Nigg, and Topher & Betta.
He said a key to being a successful influencer was to post regularly. “You have to keep it up,” he said. “But the most important thing is to be yourself, never change.”