MEMES, Part 7: Dead giveaway

Download Audio
(Rory Panagatopolis for WBUR)
(Rory Panagatopolis for WBUR)

In 2013, four white musicians turned a local-television news clip featuring a Black man named Charles Ramsey into a song and uploaded it to YouTube. The auto-tuned meme, titled "Dead Giveaway," erupted, gaining tens of millions of views and finding its way into popular culture virtually overnight.

The musicians, known as The Gregory Brothers, had not asked for Ramsey's permission. And days later when he discovered the song, he didn't know what to make of it. Was it flattery or mockery? Was it bigotry?

The Gregory Brothers have made a career out of YouTube comedy music. A small handful of their hundreds of songs feature found footage of Black people in strange or traumatic circumstances remixed — memed — into pop songs. The band says these "unintentional singers" are intentionally positioned as heroes, and, in many circumstances, they share in the profits.

But the practice of making memes from images and videos of people of color is hardly confined to The Gregory Brothers, prompting a debate over one of the central tenets of memes: To become a meme, a piece of media must be remade as it passes from one person to the next. One result can be a loss of agency for the person at the center of the meme — exploitation and appropriation further complicated by race.

Show notes:

Songs featured:

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Ben: Hey folks, heads up: this episode briefly mentions sexual assault. Take care when listening. Here’s the show.

Amory: Can you take me back to six months before this happened. Who are you? What are you doing in life? Set the circumstances.

Charles: Set the tone. I got you, baby. This is what I am, six months before I became that dude.

Amory: That dude is Charles.

Charles: I worked for Hodge's Restaurant in downtown Cleveland. I was a dishwasher.

Amory: A few months ago, I met Charles in Cleveland. I wanted to know how he went from dishwasher to “that dude.”

Charles: And this is what happened. A friend of mine from across the street, his nephew was in the army in Afghanistan. He came back with a spent 60-round bullet shell. Gave it to me. 

Ben: Charles put the shell in his pocket and forgot about it until a few hours later when he was at work, getting changed.

Charles: And I'm taking off my shirt. And you hear this [SHELL DROPS] hit the floor. He says, “Well, look at that, it looks like somebody's going to have a meeting with me in about five minutes in my office, Charles.”

Amory: He got suspended. At this point in his life, suspension wasn't really a big deal. Charles says he was a life-long troublemaker.

Ben: As he puts it, he wasn’t decent.

Amory: Why do you think you aren't decent? 

Charles: Because I used to sell crack cocaine, break into people's houses, beat up people that were the opposite color of me.

Amory: But he became “that dude” — a decent dude — on May 6, 2013.

Ben: If he hadn’t been suspended, he would’ve been on his way to work. Instead, he woke up late, he didn’t bother to fix his hair or put on a clean t-shirt and went to McDonald’s for a late breakfast. Then he went home.

Charles: And I'm sitting in my living room, and I just bought a package, and the package is still hard. What I mean by that is, I sell rocks. What I bought was a huge piece of cocaine. So what I have to do is make that into small pieces of cocaine. Now, while I was doing that, right, here comes the boom, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Now keep in mind I got drugs, and I'm living on the street that is not considered Beverly Hills, which means you know damn well it ain't Ed McMahon bringing you no big check because you won one from Reader's Digest. It's the police, that’s what I was thinking. So I run upstairs, put away the cocaine, run back downstairs, peek out the window. And I'm looking at two people.

Ben: Two neighbors from down the street. They were standing outside the house next to Charles’s house. It was a two-story with dingy siding.

Amory: Behind the front door was a third person: a woman in a white tank top. She looked young, twenties maybe, her face, panic-stricken, and she started banging the door again.

Charles: The bang, bang, bang was pissing me off. So I go over. I’m like, what the f*** is wrong with you? Get me out of here. How’d you get in there? 

Charles: Ariel put me in here.

[9-1-1 Operator: Cleveland 9-1-1. Police, ambulance or fire?] 

[Charles to 9-1-1 Operator: Yeah, hey bro. I’m at 2207 Seymour West 25th. Hey, check this out. I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eating my little food, right? This broad is trying to break out the f****** house next door to me.]

Amory: When Charles and his neighbor broke down the door, a woman came out with a six-year-old girl.

[Amanda Berry: Help me, I’m Amanda Berry.] 

[Operator: Do you need police, fire or ambulance?] 

[Amanda: I need police.] 

Ben: Amanda Berry had been missing for 10 years.

[Charles: She’s like, this mother-f***** done kidnapped me and my daughter and we been in this b****.]

Amory: Amanda was abducted when she was 16 by Charles’s next-door neighbor.

[Operator: Who’s the guy who went out?]

[Amanda: Um, his name is Ariel Castro.]

Ben: That next-door neighbor, Ariel Castro, had also taken two other women, whom he kept in chains and physically and sexually abused for years.

[9-1-1 Operator: Can you ask her if she needs an ambulance?] 

[Charles: You need an ambulance or what?] 

Ben: … until the day Amanda met Charles.

[Charles: She need everything. She’s in a panic, bro. She’s been kidnapped. So, you know, put yourself in her shoes.]

Amory: Charles says that moment — breaking down the door — was when an indecent man became a national hero.

Charles: A real event catapulted my Black ass into orbit.

Ben: But that wasn’t the moment that permanently altered Charles’s life.

[News 5 Cleveland: Hey Charles, let me talk to you. I’m talking with Charles Ramsey, he's a neighbor.]

Ben: That…would come next.

[News 5 Cleveland: What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine. To see the sunlight… ]

[Charles: Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a Black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway.]

Ben: This interview with ABC affiliate News 5 Cleveland, uploaded to YouTube, instantly went viral. Something about Charles was captivating. Real. A little funny, maybe.

Amory: And Charles soaked up his 15 minutes of fame. He talked to Anderson Cooper and Snoop Dogg and the White House.

Ben: Not Obama...

Charles: Damn.

Amory: And that’s where this story could have ended. But a few days after the event, Charles clicked on a video that was different.

Charles: I would hear my voice behind some music and I would say, "What the hell is that?"

Ben: It was a song, molded from his words, auto-tuned, and this one video had already gained millions of views, more than any other clip of Charles.

[“Dead Giveaway” plays] 

Ben: Dead giveaway became his catchphrase — one he’d frequently use in the spotlight. But at times the spotlight was hard to handle.

Amory: Charles would later say, attention rained down on him “like a shower of anvils.” He felt a total loss of control.

Ben: That feeling was the result of not just the rescue, not just the viral news clips, but of the explosive auto-tuned anthem that was watched …

Amory: … streamed …

Ben: … downloaded …

Amory: … sung …

Ben: … tens of millions of times.

Amory: Charles the hero. Charles the pop star.

Ben: Charles the unintentional celebrity.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: Coming to you from WBUR. Boston’s NPR Station.

Ben: “Dead Giveaway” was one of hundreds of auto-tuned music videos to come out in the 2010s. It was a full-fledged phenomenon becoming a TV trope…

[Troy: The auto-tune remix is way better. Go to related videos.]

Ben: and, in one case, the theme song for the hit Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

[Theme song: Unbreakable. They're alive, dammit. It’s a miracle.]

Amory: Today, this fad has kind of faded. But these videos left behind more than a legacy of laughs or groans, and that has something to do with why memes become memes in the first place, and why they end up going mainstream. Most of the time, the source - in this case, Charles Ramsey - loses control of the meme.

Ben: I mean, yeah, they're videos and images of him, but he has no power over how they were created or who changes them. That loss of power can lead to very tricky ethical territory. Members of our meme chorus, the experts we asked about memes more generally, they talked about this.

Kenyatta Cheese: These are systems that like don't necessarily value the people who started this thing in the first place.

Sarah Laiola: The meme has to be changed to become a meme. 

Amanda Brennan: ...that addition of just your own personal sparkle… 

Don Caldwell: ...and then you just use it over and over in different contexts. 

Joan Donovan: They might not actually even understand the subtext of what's going on. 

Ben: To understand the outcome of this shift in context, and to fully understand Charles’s story and where it goes, we have to rewind not to just the time before Charles became that dude…

Amory: But all the way back to the birth of the band that is most associated with these memes, the group that set Dead Giveaway to music, the grandmasters of YouTube auto-tune.

Evan Gregory: Hi, I'm Evan Gregory, one of The Gregory Brothers. 

Andrew Gregory: Hi, this is Andrew Gregory. 

Michael Gregory: Hey, this is Michael Gregory from YouTube-dot-com-slash-Schmoyoho, accent on the yo. And sorry that we all sound similar because we're brothers. Hopefully, you know who is who.

Ben: That URL Michael gave is The Gregory Brothers' epically popular YouTube channel: Schmoyoho.

Amory: Today, the channel has nearly three-and-a-half million subscribers and more than a billion views. Considering the average video lasts about three minutes, that adds up to 52 million hours of watching.

Ben: It’s not surprising that The Gregory Brothers are considered meme-making masters. But it is a title that Evan disputes.

Evan: I don't think we ever set out to say, "We are making memes." But what we do with creating songs out of things is a participation in meme culture. It's like we love something so much that we want to touch it and make something new out of it.

Amory: The brothers grew up in Radford, Virginia, in the foothills of Appalachia. Loved comedy. Loved music. Didn’t really put them together until after college, when...

Michael: This all started, believe it or not, with Joe Biden in a way. Because the first time that we had like a prototype for Autotune the News was the vice presidential debate of 2008...

[2008 Vice Presidential Debate (PBS)]

Michael: ...Palin versus Biden. I made this video like this just joke musical from the debate. I thought it'd be funny if the debate was a musical, but it was just like me singing. It was kind of corny.

[“VP Debate in Song and Dance”]

Michael: And then the next week, because that video like got, you know, 20,000 views or something insane for my small channel, I was like, I should do a follow-up. But it will be boring if every week I just come back and I'm like, (sings) “Hello, I'm debating” or something like that. And so I was like, I got to make them sing. And I had been in the studio so much autotuning people because this was 2008 and it was ubiquitous. 

Ben: Prime auto-tune years. 

Michael: Yes, yeah. Yeah, both if you turn it up to like a Glee level and if you turn it up to a T-Pain level.

[T-Pain, "Can't Believe It" (Feat. Lil Wayne)]

Michael: So I realize that the technology is just so powerful that if I was doing this in the studio, I could do it to somebody speaking. And I ended up really lucking out because Joe Biden ended up being and still is, I'd say the Beyonce of accidental singing.

Ben: They called their vocalists “unintentional singers.” And at the beginning, these unintentional singers were people known to the public: media figures, politicians.

Amory: As their success evolved from one hit to many, they quit their day jobs and started looking for other source material mining, where else?

Andrew: There was a page on YouTube called the charts. It doesn't exist anymore. Now there's trending. So I woke up one morning and I type in like YouTube dotcom slash charts and the entire page of the YouTube charts, 50 top videos was the Antoine Dodson interview.

[Antoine Dodson interview: “Well, obviously we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows, he’s snatching your people up trying to rape them so you all need to hide you kids, hide your wife and hide your husband because they raping everybody out here.”]

Ben: You may remember the name Antoine Dodson. Or maybe you know him as the 'hide your kids, hide your wife' guy... because in 2010, this interview was practically inescapable.

Amory: The story goes like this: Antoine Dodson was living with his sister in the Lincoln Park housing projects of Huntsville, Alabama. One night, a man allegedly came into his sister Kelly’s room, tried to rape her and then was scared off by Antoine.

Ben: According to Antoine, when they reported the attack, the police were ambivalent. So Antoine, who had done some community organizing before, reached out to local news station WAFF. In the interview, Antoine is wearing a dark tank-top and a red kerchief. He speaks directly into the camera. So much of the incident and interview would later be echoed by Charles Ramsey’s experience, including …

Amory: What did you hear in that Antoine Dodson video that made you think we got to do something with this? 

Michael: Uh, yeah, when that video came out, I mean, like everybody was sending it to us, I, I, I watched it and it was just this captivating moment where, you know, something awful happened. But he and Kelly kind of reclaim this power. They went on TV. They had this mix of, like, righteous anger, like, calling for justice and also just like just roasting the hell out of this guy in this kind of hilarious, but not inappropriately hilarious, sort of way. I don't know. I've never seen something like it. And his, Antoine's voice, was, you know, I could hear the melody the way it went like five, four, three, if you're a music theory nerd. 

Amory: Mm-hmm.

Michael: And yeah, I just like pretty much overnight, just put it over a beat.

[“Bed Intruder Song”] 

Amory: “Bed Intruder Song,” as it was called, was posted to YouTube three days after the interview with a caption that referred to Antoine as a “young hero.”

Ben: If the interview was spreading like wildfire, this song was nuclear. In two weeks, it had been watched nearly 9 million times. By two months, almost 30 million times. Adjust that for inflation from over ten years ago, I think the number is bonkerzillion for today. And, I should say, at least a few of those views were mine because this song was a total earworm.

Amory: “Bed Intruder” would even go on to be YouTube’s most-watched video of 2010. The song hit Billboard’s Hot 100 list. Antoine and The Gregory Brothers performed it at the BET Awards.

[“Bed Intruder Song”] 

Evan: Yeah our career and life changed even outside of, like financially what benefit that particular video would have, it just expanded our following so much that the next year as we're releasing more videos, those would all get watched a lot.

Ben: Over the next several years the Gregorys put out dozens of songs like this. Dead Giveaway and many...

[“Leprechaun Song - I Want The Gold”]


[“Oh My Dayum!”]




[“Trump Goes Hard”]

Amory: The Gregory Brothers told us that many of these videos featured unintentional singers intentionally positioned as heroes — people like Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey.

Ben: But not everyone sees it that way. Not by a longshot.

Amory: More on that … in a minute.


Ben: In the early days, The Gregory Brothers videos exclusively featured politicians and celebrities. And if you stripped away the auto-tune bells and whistles, they were doing something as old as human civilization: lampooning the powerful, who are generally understood as fair game in the US.

Amory: But Antoine and Charles were in a different category. They may have chosen to do the interviews, but they did not choose to be in music videos. Understandable that they were confused when they first saw them.

Antoine: I seen that somebody had put a song to it. And I was like what is this? Why are they trying to play my family? Like, I hated that s*** because I thought somebody was making fun of my family. 

Amory: This is Antoine on BET in 2018 explaining that he didn’t come around to the song until the Gregory Brothers got in touch.

Antoine: They came to me and said hey, what do you think if we make a whole song and sell it on iTunes? I was like, hmm, let me think about it. Selling equals coins. Yeah, we going to sell this because we’re trying to get out the hood, you know what I’m saying?

Amory: Antoine didn’t want to be interviewed for our story. After weeks of DMs, emails, phone calls and hand-written letters, he told us he’s only interested in paid interviews.

Ben: Which, we totally understand. But, for us, as journalists and in public radio, that's a no-go.

Amory: What we can say is that this reaction Antoine described about the “Bed Intruder Song” — Charles Ramsey had a similar one to “Dead Giveaway.” Because, as with Antoine, Charles didn't find out about the song until days after it had been posted when the Gregory Brothers first attempted to contact him.

Amory: the first time you heard the song, what did you think? Did you like the song?

Charles: I didn't know it was going to be a song. Keep in mind, he had explained to me what you were going to do.  

Amory: Yeah, but they they didn't reach out to you until after they had already made the song . 

Charles: Precisely, my love. So what's to think about other than you b******* are up to something conniving? 

Amory: Well, did it make you, did it make you mad? 

Charles: No, no, no, no. Because if there was an opportunity for someone to capitalize off whatever I don't have any problem with it. They found some way to capitalize off me, and I was wasn't smart enough to do it myself.

Amory: But some people would say that that is exploitative, that they're taking advantage of you, and this is why I wanted to talk. 

Charles: That's the American way, darling. That's how we survive on this planet. You're not taking his identity, right? You're not saying he's not a hero. What we are doing is: this is one hell of an event, so if there's any avenue that we can monetize in some kind of way, then we're going to do it. And that is any and everybody on this planet, babe.

Amory: The Gregory Brothers struck the same financial deal with Charles, and other unintentional singers, that they had with Antoine. They split profits 50-50 on iTunes and, later, Spotify.

Ben: Experts told us that this profit model, devised by the Gregory Brothers, was precedent-setting for the Wild West internet of the 2010s. WIRED magazine called it a “noble practice.”

Amory: But there was one exception: YouTube.

Ben: For nearly all of their videos, YouTube ad revenue goes to the Gregory Brothers alone.

Amory: The Gregory Brothers wouldn’t share figures with us but said that the money they earn from YouTube on these songs is not really that much compared to other platforms. Again, Charles Ramsey:

Amory: Yeah, have you kept track of how much money this is brought in?

Charles: No. No.

Amory: Do you have a guess? 

Charles: Eight grand.

Amory: Huh.

Charles: We're damn near 40 million views, where's the f****** money? I mean, how many goddamn views do you need to get rich?

Amory: The Gregory Brothers said Charles has made a little more than eight grand from the song. They also pointed out that unlike with “Bed Intruder” and other songs, they don’t run ads on the video for “Dead Giveaway,” meaning that even if Charles got a share of the YouTube ad revenue, the views wouldn’t matter.


Ben: When Antoine first saw Bed Intruder he thought he’d been made into a joke. He wasn’t the only one to see it that way.

Amory: Did you have a gut reaction when you first heard the song?

Kenyatta: It was a wow this is fucking catchy. And it was wow. This is also problematic.

Ben: This is Kenyatta Cheese.

Kenyatta: I'm, um, what the heck do I do? 

Ben: He co-founded Know Your Meme. He’s also a member of our meme chorus.

Kenyatta: The thing that was problematic wasn't necessarily the song itself. It was the response that it was generating in the rest of us. Like all everybody's gut reactions where they were all of a sudden discounting, the fact, that this is a person talking about like rape and assault. Right? In a frickin news piece. Turning it into and treating it as if it's entertainment.

Amory: That was problem number one. And it applied to a handful of the videos the Gregory Brothers auto-tuned.

Ben: The song “Not Today,” for instance, featured Michelle Dobyne, whose apartment complex caught fire.

Amory: Another songified Caleb McGillvary, who smashed a hatchet into the head of an alleged attacker.

Kenyatta: I don't necessarily fault the Gregory brothers, like, it's a systemic issue, it's not necessarily just a personal choice issue. But…  

Amory: Problem two.

Kenyatta: But there's something there that where all of a sudden, it feels kind of minstrel show.

Ben: Kenyatta remembers being told by his parents, as a kid who is African- and Chinese-American, he should avoid talking to the white-dominated TV news because of the way it exploited people of color and their trauma for greater viewership.

Kenyatta: You saw the same cultural issues around the Black American experience, around Black language, around issues around race and class, manifest themselves in this video.

Amory: The Gregory Brothers are white. Antoine and Charles are Black. So are a small handful of other people in strange or dire circumstances who later found out they’d become unintentional performers.

Kenyatta: There is a historical piece of, connecting back to using Black American experience, especially unfiltered Black American experience, where, like when we don't code switch, where we're not thinking about beyond the audience that we think we're speaking to and how somebody else might take that thing we're doing and recontextualize it.

Ben: Some argue that these videos take advantage of that dualism, twisting a Black person’s lived experience into white media with a different meaning. Another expert we spoke with used a specific phrase:

Alexandrina Agloro: Blackness gone wrong through the white gaze.

Amory: Alexandrina Agloro is a scholar of media and race at Arizona State University.

Alexandrina: For example, the Bed Intruder song, it's following a common formula of how race is portrayed on the internet. You have Antoine Dodson with a kerchief on his head, a tank top standing outside what looks like a project, again feeding into the white imagination of what poor Black life is like. 

Amory: This critique, Alex says, is not of Antoine.

Ben: It’s of the people making the video, and of how others consume it. For example, the Gregorys are in the Bed Intruder video, posing as newscasters.

Alexandrina: So you know it's coming from their lens. They're clapping, they're wearing their suits, and their white bodies are put in there in juxtaposition of Antoine's Black body in the tank top. So that that's one way where the Gregory Brothers are involved in this. Whether or not that was intentional on their behalf, that's the way that it's read, and that's the way to read to a white audience.

Ben: Amory and I …we are a white audience.

Amory: Which is part of the reason why we were interested in doing this episode.

Ben: Were we laughing at it, with it, or some combination? And what does that mean for our own impact on this stuff?

Amory: It’s worth asking, it’s worth trying to understand, and it’s worth owning up to.

Ben: Here’s Evan Gregory…

Evan: Ben, a minute ago you asked, how do we think about people laughing at that video? And I think you're right to bring it up, because when you look at the original interview, why are people sharing it? And you could see what the discussion was in the comments. People are laughing at it. So when we, you know, went to touch it, a big part of what the song is doing is a little transformation into an anthem, an outcome of which was, everyone wants to sing along with the song and like be on Antoine's side, enjoying it, enjoying the energy and laughing along with him and as opposed to laughing at him for some unknown, visceral reason.

Ben: What's your reaction to people who feel like that's exploitative?

Michael: Right, yeah, no, I think it's just important to sit down and listen because I think the danger is that somebody just kind of floats in and watches it and giggles, like for the wrong reason, and floats away. And it's important for us again to allow those things to serve as billboards for them rather than something that is just offering some sort of, like, weird tourism or something like that.

Ben: We spoke with the Gregory Brothers for hours. They answered all of our questions. They were calm and cordial. And they pointed out that we were asking them about a small handful of more than 500 songs they’ve uploaded. Most of their songs feature politicians or white people on the news or are collaborations with other YouTubers.

Amory: And after the interview, they sent us this written statement.

[“We regret not challenging the premise of one of the central ideas of your interview: ‘people laughing at Antoine.’ The overwhelming reaction to Antoine, the original interview, and our video was that of respect and admiration; he was/is a hero. … We do not believe most people were laughing at Antoine or the situation he was in. We certainly were not.”]

Amory: Do you think that people were laughing at Antoine, were laughing at Charles Ramsey and were laughing maybe even more at them because of these songs?

Kenyatta: Absolutely. 

Ben: Know Your Meme co-founder Kenyatta Cheese says he believes that the Gregory Brothers were not mocking Antoine and Charles, and he believes that many of the people watching the videos were not either.

Kenyatta: And then you had other corners of the internet where this was used to reinforce existing stereotypes around the Black experience.

[NPR interview: Antoine: I mean, I know that people probably for the wrong reason are trying to make fun of it, but it’s sad that people have so much negative to say about the situation because this is a serious matter. But people are going to talk, we can’t stop them from talking. 

Allison Keyes: So as far as you’re concerned, race is not an issue in what's going on here? 

Antoine: Not at all, not to me and my family.] 

Ben: This is Antoine speaking with NPR in 2010. And even though Kenyatta and Alex do see race as an issue, they acknowledge that it's nuanced.

Amory: Because while the Gregorys didn’t reach out before they uploaded the song and they didn’t ask Antoine if he was okay with the song before they posted it, they did eventually ask his permission to leave the song up on YouTube, and to make it available on iTunes. And Antoine said yes.

Ben: Again, Alex Agloro:

Alexandrina: He chose to be portrayed in this way, which is a sacrifice of his own identity. But at the same time, there was a recognition about the event to be had. There was money to be made. And I think that he made enough money from the “Bed Intruder” song to actually move his family out of the place where they were living, where the attempted rape happened.

Amory: Antoine did interviews, sold t-shirts, set up a helpline for survivors of sexual assault. And while we don’t know exactly how much money Antoine made, he did — as Alex said — make enough to leave the Lincoln Park projects for good.

Ben: Credit, compensation. Maybe at a cost. Depends on how you see it.

Amory: Even though Antoine Dodson didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, he did send us a follow-up email. It contained one sentence.

[“The Gregory Bros and I are friends, 11 years later and still kool.”]

Ben: Throughout this series, we’ve talked to some who’ve made millions and embraced fame, and others who’ve gone into hiding.

Amory: Charles is somewhere in the middle. In the months after he found Amanda Berry, he pulled in money from media appearances and wrote a book, titled, what else? Dead Giveaway. People even sent him money.

Charles: Every letter I opened up in my day, came to the house, had money in it.

Amory: Just from people, from organizations? Who is sending you money?

Charles: No. Anybody that had a pulse.

Ben: It was enough money to quit his job at the time, but that only lasted a few months.

Charles: It was only 30 grand. BMW was eight grand. I had to pay fucking rent. No more money.

Amory: Within months, Charles was broke and living in his car. Until he reconnected with an old coworker and moved in with him. He got another job and stopped selling drugs.

Ben: Then, two years ago, he reunited with Amanda Berry, the woman he had found banging on the door in 2013. And, perhaps not surprisingly …

[FOX 8 News Cleveland: Amanda: Dead Giveaway.

Charles: Have you heard that?

Amanda: I have.]

Amory: Dead Giveaway.

[FOX 8 News Cleveland: Amanda: I have.

Charles: What do you think about that? Let me tell you about that.

Amanda: Listen, that video got, I think got, what was it, like 32 million views?]

Charles: The people who know me already know this message. The people that don't know this is the message: No matter what you go on and happened with you in life. Remain humble.

Amory: And this experience made you humble?

Charles: Very much so, because when you become famous and it won't stop coming to you, you do some soul searching with yourself and you ask yourself, OK, well, you got that shot you're looking for. Is this really what you want? And you say, well, no. So once you put those in perspective, you say, well, what do we got here? You got life. And you were fortunate to be part of that situation. Keep in mind since you're not dead yet, you may be part of another situation. So stay humble. That’s it. Remain humble. And that's my story.

Amory: This idea, that one person’s thing is taken and changed into another person’s thing. This is the basic definition of “meme.” A piece of culture evolving as it’s passed from one hand to the next.

Ben: For better, or for worse.

Ben: Do you think memes are potentially problematic in part because they fundamentally detach from their creators?

Kenyatta: Oh, yes. Memes are sort of the ultimate form, it is a final form of, like, exploitation and appropriation. It is a place where you can take somebody as somebody who lived experience, you can take a quote from somebody and recontextualize it in ways that no longer serve and possibly hurt the original creator but, of course, serve your audience. And here's the thing that's always going to happen. It's kind of like, yeah, this is the problem with all ideas that spread, is that the context does collapse over time.

Ben: As a meme moves through the internet, it finds new, broader audiences. But it may lose its original context. It’s original meaning.

Amory: That can be a problem, especially when the person at the center of a meme never agreed to being the person at the center of a meme. To having the context of their life and identity stripped away and remade.

Ben: The Gregory Brothers say that today, they would do things differently.

Evan: We had this mindset like many other people on YouTube that everything is media to be consumed, regardless of the source, and so that's what changed over the years is realizing, "OK, we're no longer just going to be out there touching anything that draws our attention. We're going to reach out first and try to get that right."

Ben: Even though issues around appropriation, agency, systemic racism, trauma and power — even though those issues have always been there — the broader conversations about them have shifted since the Gregory Brothers started more than a decade ago.

Something that was, to me, funny in 2010…

Amory: Or, to me, funny in 2013 …

Ben: Those things are a lot less funny now.

Kenyatta: I'm going to guess that if the Gregory Brothers have probably seen a ton of press over the years and a ton of think pieces about about their role in the work that they've created that they were going to approach this as mindfully as possible. And hopefully, whether it's like the interview they did with you, all or anything else, like they're going to try to expand their ideas of what might be possible. For the folks like that, like that is their part. But these are, we are all folks that sit within systems. If there was a critical meme theory that would, you know, wouldn't say that like y'all are the problem, it would be y'all benefit from this thing, that's a problem, and it's up to all of us to fix that thing.


Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.

Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content, pictures of Amory’s oatmeal or my breakfast sandwich? Join our email list! You’ll find it at

Amory: Also, we want to know what you think is the most underrated meme. Call us. Yes, pick up the phone. 857-244-0338. Or better yet, record a voice memo and email it to We just might feature your voice memo and your suggestion on the show.

Ben: For example...

Banjo Boy: Hey there, this is the Banjo Boy. I don't know if it's an underrated meme but it's just perfection and could be ripe for debate as to the social and political implications of this meme, but I'm here to nominate Uncle Denzel. It was the hardest I've laughed in a long, long, long time, and I'm not even a meme expert by any means but, boy, oh boy, people got creative with that one.

Ben: Big thanks to our meme chorus:

Sarah Laiola teaches about digital culture and design at Coastal Carolina University.

Joan Donovan is Research Director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.

Gianluca Stringhini studies online security disinformation and hate speech at Boston University.

Amanda Brennan has the extremely cool title of Internet Librarian.

Kenyatta Cheese co-founded the site Know Your Meme, where Don Caldwell is Editor in Chief.

Please go find their work and benefit from their meme genius.

Amory: This episode was produced by Dean Russell. Our series and our show is made by producers Nora Saks, Dean Russell and Quincy Walters. We are co-hosted by us… Amory Sivertson

Ben: And Ben Brock Johnson. This episode was edited by Maureen McMurray.

Amory: Mix and Sound Design by Matt Reed. Original music in this episode also by Matt Reed.

Ben: Special thanks to, and additional production work from, Josh Crane, Frank Hernandez, Kristin Torres, Sofie Kodner and Rachel Carlson.

Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and a zoom room you can smell. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.

Ben: Stay cool forever!

Headshot of Dean Russell

Dean Russell Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Dean Russell is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.



More from Endless Thread

Listen Live