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The Obscuring of Black Culture, Or Why I Hate The Fake ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme

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"The Obscuring of Black Culture, Or Why I Hate The Fake ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme"

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The pretender in action

I was confused, and somewhat excited, earlier this week when I first saw a link to a video that purported that the Norwegian Army was captured on video doing the Harlem Shake. Memories flooded back to my time in high school in Flint, MI, and watching my classmates pull off the moves associated with the dance in the darkness of the gym. I clicked, curious to see how a dance associated with Harlem had made its way to Norway after all these years.

That hint of excitement soon gave way to disappointment. Expecting the smooth choreography that I had known, what I was greeted with was a mass of flailing to an electonica song I’d never heard before. The song wasn’t the issue, called “Harlem Shake” and released by Harry Rodrigues, also known as the producer Baauer, last year. No, my problem was with the dancing itself. No unity, no precision, no sense that anything was going on other than pure chaos hiding under the label of a dance that’s existed for years.

That disappointment in turn gave way to dismay when I realized that the Norwegian video was by no means a fluke, but instead just one entry in what has become a meme of global proportions. That meme reached what I can only hope is its breaking point as the anti-debt group “The Can Kicks Back” posted their own version of the video, showing former Former Comptroller General David Walker and former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin taking part:

If that truly is the death knell of this meme, I certainly will not miss it once it’s gone.

At first, I was willing to keep my complaints to myself, thinking I was being a buzzkill to the people in the videos who are clearly having a good time filming them for whatever audience they hope to achieve. It soon became clear to me that I wasn’t alone in my annoyance. The Root took a look at the history of the original Harlem Shake in a piece documenting the rise of the meme to the detriment of the classic dance:

Al B, a man who used to dance during breaks at the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem beginning in 1981, has gotten much of the Internet credit for inventing the original Harlem Shake, a dance characterized by wild jerking of the arms and upper body. At one point, it was referred to as the “Albee.”

In a barely comprehensible 2003 interview with basketball website InsideHoops.com, Al B says the dance originated with mummies in Egypt, who shook because they didn’t have freedom to use their limbs. “It was a drunken dance, you know, from the mummies, in the tombs,” he asserted. “That’s what the mummies used to do. They was all wrapped up and taped up. So they couldn’t really move, all they could do was shake.”

VICE also published a piece yesterday by Drew Millard taking the Internet to task for spreading the new meme without recognizing the original Harlem Shake’s cultural significance:

Whenever I look at an Internet full of (mostly) white people doing a bastardized version of a dance that has the same name as another dance (and lest we forget, is named after fucking Harlem), and they’re doing that dance to Trap, a style of EDM that took the name (and some sonic signifiers) of an already-existent style of hip-hop that had a very specific set of sociopolitical implications, and people aren’t finding it at least a little problematic, it makes me feels like I’m taking crazy pills.

The Root article went on to point out that “though the co-opting happened quite by accident, the damage may already be irreversible, as it has been all but stripped of its cultural context and meaning.” Both Millar and The Root are right to be looking at this trend through the lens of race. The Harlem Shake is just the latest data point when it comes to the appropriation of black culture — especially music — and the white-washing that takes place once its conquered.

In the 1950s, rock and roll songs like “Tutti Fruitti” were made acceptable to the mainstream through artists like Pat Boone, depriving their originators of both credit and compensation. While the Harlem Shake entering the consciousness of the mainstream doesn’t have that same stigma of deliberate obscuring of black performers, it definitely helps bury the memory of just where the name came from and what it means to a certain segment of population.

Case in point: when searching on Google for “Harlem Shake” today, only one link is to a page not talking solely about the meme, a Vulture collection of music videos from the early to mid-2000s featuring the dance, hoping to preserve its memory. At a time in the world when the primary way of learning about new information comes via a quick Google, this is paramount to a destruction of history.

There are certainly times when the leaking of black culture into the mainstream produces a synergy that in some ways exceeds the previous product. The introduction of jazz, rock and roll, and rap into the mainstream by white artists eventually helped promote black artists and propel them into the public consciousness in a way that may not have been possible otherwise, resulting in a better product that was able to reach more people.

That clearly is not what’s happening here, though. Jadakiss and Eve weren’t exactly flying below the public’s radar in 2001 when they helped popularize the dance. Instead, the dilution promoted by this meme does nothing to advance the music, the dance, or the culture of the original. I’m highly doubtful that there’s anyone out there who would be willing to look me in the eye and tell me that this is a better piece of performance than this.

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