The gray mansion with white trim stands out amid the brick homes in this affluent, quiet suburb of Atlanta. A Tesla and a Mercedes sit in the driveway. Towering pines wave gently in the backyard. Bare windows offer glimpses of a spiral staircase and marble floors inside.
But beyond the welcome mat that reads, “Black Excellence Lives Here,” is a beehive of activity.
Laughter and music echo through the 8,500-square-foot house. A young man makes goofy faces before a phone propped on a ring light. In another corner, two girls sway to a loud beat. Redtro, a glossy brown Doberman and the house mascot, runs around playfully headbutting guests.
Welcome to the Collab Crib, one of the nation’s only content houses for all-Black influencers. Here, 10 young creators work daily under the care of a manager. Most of them live in the house as well. The youngest is 8 years old and the oldest is 30.
The popularity of social apps such as TikTok has given rise to a new entertainment industry, one that capitalizes on viral and trendsetting videos. And these young people are cashing in.
The Collab Crib members are Marcus Bolton, 8; Khamyra Sykes, 15; Noah Webster, 19; Theodore Wisseh, 20; Oneil Rowe, 21; Kaychelle Dabney, 23; Kaelyn Castle, 24; Cameron Lee, 26; Tray Bills, 26; and Robert Dean III, 30.
You might not recognize them on the street, but combined they have some 30 million followers across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube. Together they hustle to create videos, expand their fan bases and stand out in the crowded influencer market.
And they’re earning money and building careers, one video at a time.
The Crib’s members hope to leverage their growing fame to break into TV, movies and music. They want to be dancers, pop stars, comedians and rappers. Some have secured brand deals and plan to start their own product lines. Others have invested in voice coaches and acting classes.
“We have a strategy, and that strategy is to work 100 times harder than everyone else,” says Keith Dorsey, the Collab Crib’s manager.
The Crib’s members say they did not grow up around wealth and have had to adjust to living in a mansion. All say they hope to make enough money to attain financial freedom for themselves and their families.
“They eat, sleep, strategize, and come up with new ideas and content. Together, they create magic,” Dorsey says. “Our model is a video a day keeps the bill collectors away.”
Their manager handpicked the Crib’s members
Parts of the Collab Crib house look like a mansion whose residents just moved in. Some of the rooms have no furniture, and the walls are mostly empty.
Other rooms have the youthful feel of a tech startup. In one sits a Pac-Man arcade game and a vending machine for Monster Energy drinks. A green neon sign reading “Collab Crib ATL” hangs on the wall. A couch in the family room has throw pillows emblazoned with Instagram and Meta logos. Nearby is a whiteboard with a message: #letcreativityflow.
In the past few years, similar mansions full of young influencers have sprung up in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and other major cities.
Content houses can be beneficial to creators. Living together allows them to learn from each other, film content together and sometimes grow their followers faster. The most-followed person on TikTok, Charli D’Amelio, was part of the Hype House collective in Los Angeles, the subject of a Netflix series.
Atlanta’s Collab Crib started at the height of the pandemic in December 2020.
Dorsey, the man who brought the group together, describes himself as a business developer, talent manager and serial entrepreneur. Born and raised in Atlanta, the 34-year-old has seen his hometown grow into a major entertainment hub.
He was introduced to the influencer world eight years ago when Dean — his best friend — became popular on Vine, the video-sharing app that was a precursor to TikTok. Dean turned to Dorsey to help manage his blossoming social media career.
When Dorsey decided to start the Collab Crib, Dean was the first person he turned to. Together, they brought in some content creators they’d worked with over the years and knew would get along. They also handpicked a few others based on their social media content, followings and recommendations.
Most of the creators gave up college and 9-to-5 jobs to move into the Collab Crib. For some, it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I was kind of hesitant to leave my job,” says Cameron Lee, who worked as a forklift operator and didn’t have a large social media following when he started. “A job — all you have to do is show up for work and it’s guaranteed money. But I kind of woke up one day and I was like, I am going full throttle with this.”
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 30, 2022 – FAYETTEVILLE, GA – Theo Wisseh and Kaychell Dabney talk through a TikTok idea with Robert Dean (standing). Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for CNN
The two youngest members are home-schooled
In the house the creators play pranks on each other, bicker like siblings and argue over who’s cleaning the dishes.
Six of them live in the house full-time. Two of the women — Castle and Dabney — recently moved out but maintain rooms there. Marcus and Khamyra, the two youngest, live with their parents and are homeschooled, but also have space at the mansion.
Since Marcus and Khamyra are both minors, their mothers run their social media accounts, monitor their direct messages and try to delete negative comments before they see them.
Khamyra’s mom, Myra Andrews, says her daughter’s fame has grown — along with her maturity — since she joined the Collab Crib.
Andrews says she was skeptical at first when Khamyra told her she wanted to be a content creator instead of going to college.
But she’s decided to let Khamyra pursue her passion.
“Being around people with the same interests who are older than her, she’s learned so much,” Andrews says. “She’s learned about different avenues such as skits, music and dancing from the others. Keith and Rob (Dean) have taught them financial literacy and how not to blow all their money.”
As the creators’ manager, Dorsey says he is always looking out for their interests. He’s also their spokesperson, therapist, financial adviser and unofficial house dad.
“When they are going through something and need to talk to someone, they come to me,” he says.
“That’s one thing a lot of African American creators lack. They don’t come from families that know financial strategy. And some of them have made more money than their parents ever made.”
They’ve worked out a system to get along in the house
Living together has taught the Crib’s members more than life skills. It’s also turned them into one big, boisterous family.
Days at the Collab Crib are atypical, but one thing’s certain: They’re always filled with joie de vivre.
It can be calm one minute, then someone suddenly tumbles down the stairs as a prank. Or Webster peeps through a banister and pelts the others with water beads from a toy gun.
Castle, the self-described house mom, floats around calling out orders. An aspiring pop star, she sometimes breaks into song, her voice echoing through the sparsely furnished mansion.
“Who do you think is gonna clean all this?” she calls out in exasperation as blue beads rain down from Webster’s gun.
The others aim their toy guns at her as she squeals with laughter and dashes to find a hiding place. Redtro follows in hot pursuit as the rat-a-tat from the guns gets louder.
“We love having fun together,” Castle says, adding that they keep their pranks indoors to avoid bothering the neighbors.
But sharing one house day after day has its challenges. Like privacy and dating.
“Relationships are definitely not the easiest … the group can be very opinionated when it comes to having a partner around,” Castle says. “Which isn’t a bad thing, because sometimes the people that try to come into our lives are there for the wrong reasons. I do think we all have had to learn to respect each other’s personal lives.”
And each other’s personal space. Each member of the house has their own cabinet in the kitchen and space in the fridge. Wisseh, the self-described house chef, sometimes whips up elaborate jerk chicken meals whose aromas waft through the house.
But with so many people under one roof, keeping the house clean can be a challenge. After months of fighting over dirty dishes, Dorsey came up with a system that works.
“I actually took all the dishes out,” he says. “There’s only one pan and one pot, and a few knives and forks and plates, because if they have unlimited stuff, they have an unlimited number of dirty dishes. But if it’s limited, they wash it.”
The Collab Crib is near famous film locations
Some content houses have gyms, pools, hot tubs and private courtyards. By those standards, the Collab Crib is modest. Its backyard features only a grill and a deck overlooking the woods. But that hasn’t stopped the creators from improvising.
The marble tub in the master bedroom is a popular spot for shooting videos. Bunches of red and black balloons add a festive touch to the curved staircase, and some walls are adorned with colorful backdrops for filming.
Dorsey says their next house will have a swimming pool. “Brands love those pool shots,” he says.
The six-bedroom home sits on a hill, away from prying neighbors, and in a gated community — all the better to prevent fans from popping in unannounced.
Rapper Rick Ross’ palatial home, where “Coming 2 America” was filmed, is nearby. So is Trilith Studios, where many Marvel movies were shot, including the upcoming “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
“We’re in Atlanta. This is where dope Black culture is. This is where these popular dances are coming from. This is who’s creating,” Dorsey says. “And it just sets us aside from any other content houses out there, you know?”
Some Collab Crib members had large followings before they moved into the home, but living there has given them more credibility within the nationwide ecosystem of creators, Dorsey says. They’ve collectively gained millions of followers on social media since moving in together.
Dorsey believes the house gives its members a place to nurture their talents away from Los Angeles, where there’s a lot of competition, especially for African Americans. Instead of jostling for a seat at that table, he created his own table — in Atlanta.
“I decided, let’s not call people and beg them to let them in other content houses. Let’s just do our own thing … our own local twist to this,” he says. “Let’s go where we’re respected, where people want to see us win.”
Influencers with large followings can earn big money
The Collab Crib operates like a digital media company. In addition to their individual accounts, the 10 members create content for the house’s social media accounts. The collective’s TikTok account has 647,000 followers, with an additional 48,000 on Instagram. Collab Crib also launched a Facebook Watch show last year that chronicled its members navigating the influencer world and the challenges that come with it.
Sponsorship deals from the joint social media accounts help pay the $7,000 monthly rent and other house bills. Collab Crib’s biggest brand partners — Meta, Monster Energy and Amazon Prime Video — have signed the group to create advertising content.
Separately, the members also have partnerships with several other companies, including skin care products and shoe brands.
Dorsey gives Crib members creative control of their content, which mostly features comedy skits, dancing and original music. The creators produce their own music videos, recreate short skits on trending news and lifestyle issues such as breakups, and choreograph dance challenges.
“I let them do their own thing,” Dorsey says. “The only thing I do is guide them to make it next level, like the lighting. Also, we don’t do offensive content or derogatory content that will hurt their careers.”
Dorsey, who gets a percentage of the deals, declined to say how much money the Crib’s members make for their content. Earnings can vary widely depending on an influencer’s following, engagement, frequency of posts and how many deals they strike with sponsors.
For example, Deanna Giulietti, a lifestyle influencer with 1.6 million followers on TikTok and another 326,000 on Instagram, told Business Insider she earned more than $500,000 last year from brand partnerships across both platforms.
Several of the Collab Crib’s members have earned enough to buy luxury cars. But without the backing of a major talent agency, they have to constantly hustle to market themselves and to get paid what they are worth.
“We’ve learned not to take the first offer,” Dorsey says. “A lot of other content creators are part of big agencies that have millions of dollars. But we’re young Black creatives, and we do this on our own. We’ve become our own agency.”
Dorsey says Black and brown influencers typically earn less than their White counterparts — a statement supported by a recent study. He also says many Black creators don’t receive credit for their original content.
Crib member Oneil Rowe recorded a song, “Snappin,” that according to TikTok metrics has been used in more than 32,000 videos on the platform. But when other creators and celebrities recreate Rowe’s dances, they rarely give him credit.
The Crib’s members hold weekly meetings to brainstorm content
At the beginning of the week — usually on Sundays — members have a content meeting to discuss the newest pop culture trends and plan out their week. Each member comes up with a concept for videos and shares them with others for feedback.
At a recent meeting, Will Smith’s Oscars slap was a popular topic.
Webster, a lanky creator and the home’s ultimate prankster, recreated the slap on video with Theodore Wisseh, who played Chris Rock. The others watched and called out tips.
“Get to the moment faster,” one yelled. “We can’t see your face,” another one called out. They erupted into cheers when Webster smacked Wisseh. The resulting video, posted on Webster’s TikTok, got 1.3 million views.
“We learn from each other … it’s like living with fam,” Dean says. “I consider everybody here my brothers and sisters. So I’m learning from them. They learn from me. We struggle. We succeed. Of course, there’s always friendly competition, but nothing too serious.”
On Mondays and Wednesdays, the creators shoot content for both their individual accounts and the group accounts. They film each other using their cell phones, or prop their phones on ring lights to ensure consistent, flattering illumination.
To keep up with social trends and work with other creators, they also take part in a weekly “Collab Thursday” event at venues around Atlanta.
Through it all, Dorsey tries to keep them on track by giving them regular feedback on their videos.
“I’ll sit down with each of them and talk about how things are going,” he says. “And I’ll say, ‘based on what I have been seeing you do, this is what I see you should be focusing more on.’ It is very needed, because sometimes they get confused.”
Like his young proteges, Dorsey has big dreams. He plans to move the creators to a fancier mansion with more outdoor backdrops for filming. And when they eventually leave the house, he hopes it’ll be for full-time careers in entertainment.
Once they’re gone, Dorsey plans to invite more promising young creators to move into the Crib. And the cycle will start all over again.
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