If you aren’t familiar with the Harlem Shake craze that is sweeping the internet, you may have been under a rock for the past week or two.
I’ll let Know Your Meme explain it to you:
“Harlem Shake”, not to be confused with the hip hop dance style, is the title of a 2012 heavy bass instrumental track produced by Baauer. In February 2013, the song spawned a series of dance videos that begin with a masked individual dancing alone in a group before suddenly cutting to a wild dance party featuring the entire group.
It all started with this video:
Now there are countless takes on the meme:
The strange thing about this meme is that not a single person in any of the videos seems to actually be doing the Harlem Shake:
And while it all seems like just a bunch of bizarre fun, not everyone feels that way.
The REAL Harlem Shake
Though you wouldn’t know it from the meme, the actual dance known as the Harlem Shake is not where one shakes around as if she or he is having a seizure while humping things and wearing a silly costume. It is part of the rich tradition of dance and the arts in Harlem. Dating back to 1981 and drawing upon an Ethiopian dance called the Eskista, the Harlem Shake has long been a staple of hip hop dance in this predominantly African American section of New York.
And some of the folks in Harlem aren’t too happy about the meme:
White Cultural Appropriation
When I’ve pointed that video out to some (White) people who LOVE the meme, though, their reaction has been one of, “They need to relax! It’s fun! Stop taking yourselves so seriously!”
But if you notice in the videos, the meme is, by in large, a White cultural phenomenon. That is not to say that there are not some people of Color who are participating in the videos, but it is a meme that stems from White communities and is being pushed in largely White social circles.
And if the meme were called something else (The Baauer, for instance), it likely would just be some harmless fun. But this meme does not exist in isolation.
It exists within the context of all of the other, countless forms of White cultural appropriation of . . . well . . . everything that is not inherently ours.
The reason that White cultural appropriation is so insidious is that it is not an intentionally racist, but it plays into a system of racism where White people believe that everything is ours, everything is in-bounds to us, so we can take whatever we want, and in doing so, divorce it from its history and meaning.
Take Rock and Roll as an example. If you were to ask the average person on the street which race they associated with Rock music, they would almost undoubtedly associate it as a White art form. But in its inception, Rock and Roll was a Black art form. White record executives saw the profit potential in putting White musicians in front of White audiences playing this Black art form, and Elvis Presley was born. In time, because Black artists were often denied the opportunity to record and perform their own music at a large scale, people associated the art form almost exclusively with White folks, and the rich African American tradition of the music was lost on the common consumer.
Cultural Appropriation and The Harlem Shake
So what does this have to do with the Harlem Shake meme? Well, if you were to ask the average White high school student what The Harlem Shake is, are they likely to tell you about its inception as a dance in Harlem in the 1980s and its connection to African dance forms? No. They are going to describe YouTube videos where mostly White people are humping the air and flailing around wildly to a Baauer song.
And that’s likely why many of those folks from Harlem aren’t too happy about the meme. It’s not that they want to kill your fun. They just know that when White folks get ahold of their art, it becomes something wholly and completely different, much like we’re seeing with this meme.
So before you go making your own take on the meme, consider for just a minute what the folks from Harlem are telling you in that video.
And “Stop that shit.”
For a few tools to help in resisting cultural appropriation like this, check out “Shaking Off the ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation.”
Also check out this panel discussion on The “Harlem Shake” as Blackface that took place at Hamline University.
Update: A Phenomenal Video Response to the Meme: