A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a message to our Facebook group: “I can’t stop watching these videos, guys.” She included a link to a 30-second YouTube clip, the contents of which are probably familiar to most readers by now: for 15 seconds, a masked person gyrates wildly around a room to an electronic dance song, while friends ignore him or her. Then, when the bass drops, the scene suddenly cuts to show everyone flailing, dancing and generally losing their minds. The video was bizarrely random and quite funny in its unexpected transition from mildly weird to outright insane. There were versions with firefighters, with frat boys and with office workers, all dancing to a song called “Harlem Shake” by a producer named Baauer.
Within a week, the Harlem Shake meme had gone viral, with video contributions by everyone from Grumpy Cat to indie band Matt & Kim. With “Gangnam Style” finally laid to rest, the Harlem Shake was a quick, easy replacement dance craze. However, the meme coincided with a major development in online legitimacy: on Feb. 20, Billboard announced that it had revamped its chart algorithms to include data from YouTube videos, and suddenly “Harlem Shake” was the #1 song in the country. It’s clear that a lot of people have found the meme very funny; the Martlet has even put together its own version of the video. However, there’s at least one segment of the populace that doesn’t find it quite so funny: many of the men and women who know the Harlem Shake in its original form.
While you might not realize it from looking at the viral videos, the Harlem Shake is an actual dance; it started in the eponymous New York City borough in 1981. A Harlem resident named Al B is generally credited as its inventor. The dance style gained mainstream awareness in the early 2000s after it showed up in music videos by G. Dep and Eve. The Harlem Shake is nothing like the costumed, seizure-like movements in the meme videos; drawing from an Ethiopian dance called the Eskista, it looks very similar to popping-and-locking-style hip-hop, which uses a skilled manipulation of the shoulders and chest.
The problem with the Harlem Shake meme is that it appropriates the name of a dance move that comes from hip-hop, an important part of African-American history, and uses it for an unrelated, simplistic joke. If it had been called anything else — the Poor Frame Rate, the Baauer Shake, anything — then the meme would likely not be a problem. But it is a problem: it is the appropriation, by a (largely) white majority, of a piece of culture that stems from a historically oppressed cultural group. While the appropriation might not be intentional, it still poses a problem because it overshadows the original source, devaluing it and silencing the people who expressed themselves with it.
Historically, hip-hop spoke to disenfranchised and oppressed groups and gave them a powerful voice and a creative outlet for expressing their frustrations. Dance and music are positive ways to express emotions and bond a community, and the culture of 1980s Harlem remains an important part of the local history. However, the significance of the Harlem Shake dance is lost in the noise of this new viral sensation. In an interview with AllHipHop.com, rapper G. Dep made it clear that the new meme should be separated from the dance he helped popularize: “We gonna call it the ‘Harlem Shake Part 2.’ We can’t call it the Harlem Shake, we gotta at least call it the Harlem Shake part 2, because from what I understand they aren’t even doing the Harlem Shake.”
I can’t vouch for every Harlem Shake participant, but I’d guess most of them didn’t set out to be racially insensitive. However, North America has a very long history of systematic racism, and part of that system is the assumption that the majority has the right to take the cultural milestones of other cultures and use them without permission or real understanding of context. Cultural appropriation makes the majority feel “safer,” so to speak; it robs the minority of the power inherent in cultural expression.
Truly, a shake by any other name would sound much sweeter, as it would avoid reinforcing the sad fact that North America still struggles with race and culture on a very fundamental level.