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Top global TikToks of 2021: Defiant Afghan singer, Kenya comic, walnut-cracking elbow

A Kenyan cracks jokes about her cash outflow. In Canada, an Inuk woman gets traditional face tattoos. A Pakistani martial arts champ cracks walnuts with his elbow.

These videos are just a handful of the international gems on the social media platform TikTok. While much of the content on the app may seem silly or entertaining, many videos — which can last up to 3 minutes -- also carry deeper meaning. For some, the clips are an act of resistance or a way to represent their culture.

And sure it's a cliche, but TikTok proves it's a small world after all. "A lot of the content on it – such as dancing, music and humor – can transcend geographic boundaries and language," says Damian Radcliffe, a University of Oregon professor who researches digital trends. That kind of appeal helped make TikTok the most visited website in 2021, he says — ahead of Google.

Here are some of our favorite global TikTok videos and creators of 2021.

Chip-crunching comic: Elsa Majimbo (Kenya)

Comedian (and 15-time chess champion!) Elsa Majimbo's shtick on TikTok is that she'll say something (mostly in English, sometimes in Swahili) put on sunglasses, laugh maniacally ... then end her seconds-long video by ... crunching a handful of chips. It may sound nonsensical, but viewers love it — the 20-year-old has more than 1 million followers on TikTok as well as 2.4 million on Instagram.

And the videos aren't just gags — a smart current of satire runs through her routines. In one of her most popular videos from 2021, she muses on the haves and have nots as she cackles into the camera: "If I spend money, I'm paying taxes. So I'm building my country. It's called being patriotic."

She also likes joking about actually loving — not hating — the isolation of pandemic life. It was the topic of a New York Times profile in 2020. "Ever since corona started we've all been in isolation and I miss no one," she quipped in a video. "Why am I missing you? There is no reason for me to miss you."

In an interview with NPR, Majimbo says her strategy for social media success is simple: "I always strive to be me. That always seems to work out."

Seemingly cool as a cucumber: Li Ziqi (China)

A screenshot from a video posted on Li Ziqi's account on Douyin, the original Chinese version of TikTok. In this clip, Li picks cucumbers from a serene garden to chop up into a salad.
/ YouTube/Screenshot by NPR
YouTube/Screenshot by NPR
A screenshot from a video posted on Li Ziqi's account on Douyin, the original Chinese version of TikTok. In this clip, Li picks cucumbers from a serene garden to chop up into a salad.

On Douyin, the original Chinese version of TikTok, Li Ziqi romanticizes a traditional way of life in China's lush countryside in her tranquil and comforting videos. Viewers follow Li as she prepares homemade Chinese meals, makes furniture from scratch, presses an elegant gown with an old-fashioned iron and picks cucumbers for a salad. People love Li's videos, according to a Nov. 2021 story from global tech blog Rest of World, because they believe "that she, unlike her viewers, is free from the hyper-productive, capital-fueled, politically fraught world."

But Li's life is not so idyllic. According to VICE Magazine, Li stopped uploading new videos in July 2021, prompting rumors of a legal dispute between the influencer and her management.

Singing with joy despite an 'unknown' future: Sadiqa Madadgar (Afghanistan)

Sadiqa Madadgar, an alum of Afghan Star, a singing competition reality show in Afghanistan, captures her everyday life on TikTok. Although her country was plunged into what some are calling the world's worst humanitarian crisis by the Taliban takeover in 2021, she's still managed to share lighthearted content on her feed. She sings, makes short skits about lip-syncing (like the one above) and, like many young people on social media, posts videos of herself goofing off alone and with friends.

That's not to say the Taliban hasn't affected her. In September, she tweeted: "I cried like this when [ousted Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani fled and left the nation leaderless. When the Taliban arrived. My tomorrow is bleak & future is unknown."

Laughing but sometimes serious, too: Khabane Lame (Senegal, Italy)

Over the past couple of years, Khabane Lame, a 21-year-old from Senegal who lives in Italy, has gained 125 million followers on TikTok by silently reacting to other videos on social media (especially ones that are silly or offer seemingly pointless advice). In one of his top videos last year, he makes fun of another TikToker who wonders if pointing a laser beam at the moon would make it explode. In the next scene, Lame is portrayed as the moon. With a bored look on his face, he reads the paper — and a green laser dot soon shows up on his forehead. Lame looks straight into the camera, unamused — and it's hard not to laugh. No wonder social media users call him "The Gen Z Mr. Bean."

Lame's rise to stardom has also opened up a conversation about Italian citizenship for immigrant children, according to a June 2021 story in The New York Times. Despite having lived in Italy since the age of 1, Lame still holds a Senegalese passport, making it difficult for him to get a visa to travel to the U.S. He told the Times that it's "definitely wrong" — and doesn't need "a piece of paper to define myself as Italian."

Dancing Maasai siblings: Kili and Neema Paul (Tanzania)

Kili and Neema Paul, siblings in their 20s from the rural Pwani region of Tanzania, won over global audiences this year by dancing and lip-syncing to mostly African pop songs while wearing traditional Maasai garb. Their comments are filled with compliments and well wishes from fans all over the world: Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Albania, Massachusetts. (One commenter wrote: "Your smiles are so beautiful, it nearly brought me to tears. Love from Ireland!") In one video from 2021, with over 1.6 million likes, the duo dances to "Isii Nafta (Love You More Than My Life)" by Nimco Happy, a Somali singer who sings in Arabic, English, Kiswahili and Somali — a song whose many languages reflect the diversity of the Paul siblings' audience.

One sweet nutcracker: Muhammad Rashid Naseem (Pakistan)

Muhammad Rashid Naseem is a Pakistani martial arts champion who holds over 60 Guinness World Records – and uses his TikTok page to display his athleticism. Among his many feats, he breaks clay targets with a nunchuk and cracks open drink cans with his elbows — and, in one of his most popular videos from 2021, smashes 315 walnuts in one minute with his elbow.

Slurping noodles to bring on ASMR: Chatree Betta Utt (Thailand)

Chatree Betta Utt from Thailand has gained a following of 1.5 million on TikTok by specializing in "mukbang ASMR" videos. Mukbang, a portmanteau of the Korean words "eating" and "broadcast," is a trend that started in South Korea. It invites viewers to watch others eat vast amounts of crave-worthy food. Many viewers also hope that the sounds from eating – the crunching and chewing – trigger a pleasurable autonomous sensory meridian response. In one of his videos from 2021, Utt introduces his audience to a type of instant ramen from Malaysia that has boba tea toppings. After watching him prepare and cook the ramen, viewers get to hear Utt try the noodles for the very first time – resulting in a very satisfying slurrrrp!

Documenting her Inuit heritage: Shina Novalinga (Canada)

Shina Novalinga, based in Montreal, Canada, uses her social media platform to share, document and preserve her Inuit culture for over 3.9 million followers. She talks about favorite traditional food, models a dress and beaded jewelry made by her mother and sings a traditional throat song. In one of her most viewed videos in 2021, with almost 4.5 million likes, Novalinga gets traditional face tattoos that honor her heritage.

Emma Grazado is the editorial content intern for NPR's Training and a recent graduate of the University of Maryland. She tweets @EmmaGrazado.

Jireh Deng is an intern at NPR's Source of the Week. They tweet @Jireh_Deng.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.
Jireh Deng
Emma Grazado