COMMUNITY VOICES | Popular culture’s appropriation of the Harlem Shake


UPDATED: February of 2013 forever engrained flailing bodies, ridiculous costumes, and a deep, chopped and screwed voice commanding  everyone to “do the Harlem Shake” in the minds of hundreds of millions on the internet.  This new dance, “Harlem Shake”, was wildly popular on the internet last February as an internet meme. At its height four thousand videos were uploaded daily to YouTube with the top ten videos averaging 25 million total views. 

Calling the dance a “meme” is very appropriate way to describe the viral nature of these videos. The word “meme” comes from the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who believes “memes propagate themselves […] leaping from brain to brain via a process within can be called imitation.” These memes, he describes, “should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.” The copycat videos uploaded to YouTube in February featuring Brooklyn-based producer Baauer and his track “Harlem Shake” in fact did possess a living component. Namely, these viral videos forever changed popular culture’s understanding of the “Harlem Shake.”

The fact is, the “Harlem Shake” is a Harlem cultural production that has been replaced by this new “dance”, to use the term loosely. The “Harlem Shake” videos uploaded to YouTube have almost no ties to the original dance other than a name. A simple YouTube, Google, Facebook, or Twitter search requires a lot of digging before anything related to the original “Harlem Shake” pops up. 

The original “Harlem Shake” was invented in Harlem in 1981 by a man named Albert Boyce who featured the dance during breaks of street basketball games at the famous Rucker Park in Harlem. The dance was adopted by local Harlem hip hop dance groups and eventually became referred to as the “Harlem Shake”. The dance is characterized by a wild and spontaneous shimmying of the body in a fluid and rhythmic fashion made even more athletic by sudden freezes and startups. Harlem has a sense of pride over their “Harlem Shake” which they see as an art form unique to their culture The dance first received national attention in mainstream hip-hop when G Dep and P Diddy released the music video for “Let’s Get It” in 2001.

While the new Harlem Shake barely resembles this coveted Harlem cultural artifact, that is not to say that “Harlem Shake” videos of 2013 weren’t without a certain style.

Each of the new videos are about 30 seconds in length. The videos begin with one person dancing on his/her own to the sound of Baauer’s track. This person is surrounded by what appear to be oblivious bystanders. Halfway through the videos the sound of a deep bass voice sampled from Little Plastic’s “Miller Time” says, “now do the Harlem Shake.” After this the beats drops and each video then cuts to the group of previously unaware people all thrusting, humping, and flailing their bodies. Each person in the videos almost always wears an absurd costume and usually this costume results in the identity of the person dancing throughout the video remaining unknown.

My school, Macalester College, was not immune to the internet craze. On February 14th senior Kyle Rosenberg shot and uploaded “Macalester Harlem Shake” to YouTube. The video has been viewed over 17,000 times. It features a person (the person’s identity isn’t even known to the creator or the handful of participants I spoke with) wearing the costume of the school mascot, Mac the Scot, dancing alone in front of the Campus Center. Unaware students pass by glancing at the person as he/she hip thrusts alone. After the voice comes in and the beat drops a mob of students appear going crazy. Almost all are in costumes with the notable ones being SpongeBob and red onesies.

The creator, Rosenberg, like many other college students around the nation, was first introduced to the “Harlem Shake” as a meme. He decided to create the video to fit with the internet craze.  “I thought it would be fun [because] a lot of people at Macalester appreciate the quirkiness of the internet,” recalls Rosenberg.

Senior Macalester Student Alec Shub was featured with what he calls his red “union suit” – a full body red, shiny costume. He was one of these people who came across the meme on the internet and loved an opportunity to be involved in one. “I participated because I love the idea of dancing to crazy music in crazy clothes, surrounded by crazy people doing crazy things,” says Shub. 

Fellow senior Inti Chomsky, on the other hand, was entirely unaware of the “Harlem Shake” in any capacity. He decided to join in with a few friends who were gathered in front of the Campus Center to film the video. “I knew absolutely nothing,” admits Chomsky. “I assume it is a dance created in Harlem, but I actually don’t know anything about the history,”

Just before the video was shot, Chomsky learned the dance. “My friends just said to go crazy so I shook my head and jumped around mosh pit style,” remembers Chomsky.

Interpretations of the “Harlem Shake” such as these by Macalester students are now the norm in this internet age. The result is that a well-respected artistic cultural product of Harlem has nearly all but disappeared from popular culture. The name and dance have instead been changed through appropriation to be in the style of the meme. The original “Harlem Shake” erodes as new versions such as the one at Macalester appropriate and misrepresent it. 

It is not surprising that Harlem sees the “Harlem Shake” of 2013 as problematic to say the least. Just days after the viral phase of the video producing took place, documentary filmmaker Chris McGuire went to the streets of Harlem asking residents what they thought of the video. The Harlemites responded with passionate negative responses such as “it looks like it’s making fun of the Harlem Shake” and “It’s an art form, an actual art form, that doesn’t have the respect that it deserves.” Another resident predicted that the meme would become a “vehicle [for someone] to take off on and make money on.” It was this documentary which inspired various discussions online around the problems of the new meme as an appropriation of the original Harlem Shake.

Cultural Studies and hip-hop scholar Anthony Nocella Ph.D, believes, “appropriation is the stealing of a cultural item from a community for power in the form of cultural capital”.  The Hamline University professor recently held a forum for people to discuss issues of white appropriation of black culture that arose because of the Harlem Shake. “The problem [with appropriation] is promoting a monolithic history that praises white dominate cultures, events, and traditions while willfully ignoring and suppressing people of colors’ cultures, events, and traditions,” informs Nocella.

The issue is taken to a new level when the Harlem Shake becomes commodified. Rosenberg was the first to inform me that the meme was quite commercialized. The way YouTube works is that the original producer of material can either choose to block the videos which borrow Baauer’s copyrighted work or agree to a share of ad revenue. Because Baauer allowed and even encouraged Harlem Shake videos he and his label Mad Decent make money every time a video uses his song. 

The original dance unfortunately has not been granted this same protection. This bastardized version of the dance can borrow any elements it wishes from the original it wishes without any acknowledgement of Harlem’s prided cultural dance. Even the original creators of the meme on YouTube can profit substantially and there is no economic incentive for anyone to give credit to the original dance. People have forgotten the original Harlem dance ever existed despite the fact that its very existence as a black cultural product of Harlem laid the foundation for the dance of 2013. 

For a community such as Harlem this is nothing where there is a rich history of white appropriation of Harlem cultural productions. One such example is Jazz, where all white jazz clubs popularized this long-time Harlem cultural product denying the rights of many blacks to attend performances or represent the culture in the literary canon. It is for reasons such as this that the cultural history of the “Harlem Shake” must be understood in context of a long line of African-American and Harlem cultural artifacts which have been borrowed, represented, and commodified by cultures outside of and ignorant to the culture which created the original.

Hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos of the “Harlem Shake” now constitute nearly the entirety of search results as the original has been borrowed for consumption by audiences mostly unaware of the original Harlem cultural production. The dance is yet another Harlem cultural artifact like Jazz that has been borrowed, repackaged, and sold back to Harlem and the rest of the world by a largely white mass of flailing bodies oblivious to the history of the dance.

Perhaps comments such as the top two on the Macalester YouTube video can provide hope for the cultural integrity of the “Harlem Shake”:

“1. where are the black people or the diversity? Does Macalester still do that kinda thing? .. Black people diversity and stuff?

2.  There’s more diversity in my M&M’s bag than this video clip.”

Perhaps, as the viral nature of these videos dies out the, “Harlem Shake” can be afforded the credit it is due in the small space that remains. At the very least, hopefully we can become more informed citizens in tune to the diverse and complicated histories behind cultural productions.