What You’re Really Doing when you do “The Harlem Shake”

harlemHarlem New York is a real place, full of real people. I know, this is not groundbreaking news at all (or at least, I hope it’s not.) But it seems as though the millions of people who have now watched approximately 2782 YEARS worth of Harlem Shake videos might have forgotten this. [1]

Lets begin at the beginning  What is the Harlem Shake? The Harlem Shake originally was a dance, based out of Harlem, NY. The dance was introduced to the world in 1981 by artist and Harlem resident AI B. For this reason, the Harlem Shake was originally called “The Albee.” ABC news tells us that the dance is based on the East African dance called the “Eskista,” though, as with many pieces of folk culture, the actual roots of the Harlem Shake are difficult to decipher. [2] The Harlem Shake dance remained an important part of the Northeast Hip Hop scene, but relatively unknown in mass popular culture until approximately 2001. At this time, rapper G. Dep featured the dance move in his music video, “Let’s Get It.” But even with this level of attention, the Harlem Shake remained relatively unknown, until January 2013, when it went viral.

So what made the Harlem Shake America’s #1 meme? In 2012, musician and producer Bauuer recorded a song he titled “Harlem Shake.” It was called this because he sampled a vocal track featuring a phrase exclaiming “Do the Harlem Shake,” from Plastic Little’s 2001 song “Miller Time.” In February 2013, a group of students spoofed Bauuer’s video, doing their own verison of the dance associated with it, which was never meant to be the actual Harlem Shake.

What happened after that is remarkable and frankly, a little terrifying. By February 10th, approximately 4,000 Harlem Shake videos were being uploaded a day [3]. The videos went viral, corporations, student groups, and unfortunately, museums began creating their own Harlem Shake videos [4]. “But what’s the problem?” you might be wondering. The problem lies at the heart of an important phrase: cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation, simply put, is when the culture in power appropriates (or borrows) aspects of the minority culture, without properly understanding the cultural, religious  or social context of these items [5].  For example, popular white hipster chain store Urban Outfitters released a series of “Navajo” (their term) items in 2011. This term is problematic for many reasons, mostly because none of these items were produced or created by Navajo people, and the patterns used were not actually Navajo designs. But, even worse was that one of the items was a flask[6]. When one considers the problems in American Indian culture with alcoholism, the idea of producing a “Navajo” flask for consumption by white Americans is not only offensive, but is a perfect example of cultural appropriation.

But back to the Harlem Shake. The Harlem Shake is a meme being consumed by millions of people, only a very small number of which are in any way seeking to understand the cultural significance this term may have to the people of Harlem. And the shake does belong to the people of Harlem; they created the dance, the song, and the original term (though not the meme itself, which let me say again, is not the original Harlem Shake). The Harlem Shake has a long and important history. It matters deeply to the people who created it and still dance to it today. And now, because the dominant white culture has decided to use it for a meme, the people of Harlem have lost an important aspect of their culture. From now one, the term “Harlem Shake” will be associated with ridiculous videos of people flailing, instead of an groundbreaking dance in hip hop culture. I could go on, but I feel it’s more appropriate for the people of Harlem to speak for themselves. [7]

[1] Infographic Explaining Harlem Shake, “The Harlem Shake: Postmortem of a Video Craze”. youtubedownload.altervista.org. March 4, 2013.

[2] Alex Alvarez, “What is This Harlem Shake Thing Anyway?” ABC News, February 13th, 2013. <http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/Entertainment/harlem-shake-thing/story?id=18488615&gt;

[3] Kevin Alloca, “The Harlem Shake has Exploded”Youtube via Blogspot, February 12th, 2013.

[4] Jamie Glavic, “Museums Do the Harlem Shake,” Museum Minute Blog, February 20th, 2013. <http://museumminute.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/museums-do-the-harlemshake/&gt;

[5] Tami, “Cultural Appropriation: Homage or Insult?” Racialicious blog, September 18th, 2008. <http://www.racialicious.com/2008/09/18/cultural-appropriation-homage-or-insult/&gt;

[6] Jenna Sauers, “Urban Outfitters “Navajo” Probelm Becomes a Legal Issue,” Jezebel blog, October 11th, 2011http://jezebel.com/5848715/urban-outfitters-navajo-problem-becomes-a-legal-issue

[7] SchleppFilms, “Harlem Residents React to the Harlem Shake,” February 18th, 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IGH2HEgWppc&gt;

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