Anyone with Internet access these past couple of weeks knows about the “Harlem Shake” meme. Spawned by a song by Baaeur, the 30-second clips have helped propel the song to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 songs in the country. And everyone has done it, from the cast of “Happy Endings” to passengers on an airplane (prompting one FAA investigation) to YouTube itself, the Harlem Shake has been everywhere.
As soon as I saw my first Harlem Shake video, I quickly noticed that the dance in the song was not the actual Harlem Shake dance. I was hardly the first person to know about the dance; though it became popular (for my generation) a decade ago, the dance is older than I am. After my observation, it was only a matter of time before I noticed that other people realized it too. Finally, last week, the New York Times published a piece profiling the history of the Harlem Shake.
Many people would argue that it doesn’t matter that the “Harlem Shake” has nothing to do with the actual Harlem Shake. After all, it’s just a bunch of people having fun, right? But, as people point out in the YouTube video “Harlem Reacts to ‘Harlem Shake’ Videos”, for many people, the actual Harlem Shake isn’t a joke. Many people profiled in the video say that they feel disrespected by the meme; others say that the dance makes a mockery of the real thing.
The “Harlem Shake” meme is really just a latest example of the cultural appropriation that we so often ignore nowadays. Like that print you saw in Navajo country? Slap it on a pair of panties and label them “Navajo Hipster”. (That didn’t work out so well for Urban Outfitters though.) Taking group’s cultures and removing all of the context is rather par for the course these days.
Almost as bad as the cultural appropriation is the commercialization of the non-Harlem Shake. As clip after clip appears on YouTube, the composer of the track rides the usage all the way to the bank. It’s already being seized upon by advertisers and brands. Meanwhile, while the creators of the dance say that they appreciate the renewed mainstream relevance that the meme has brought them, they surely aren’t going to be rich from it. One person highlighted in the “Harlem Reacts” video sums it up perfectly: “This will be just another vehicle for America to take off on and make money on, and I’m sure there’ll be some corporate person somewhere…that’s going to capitalize on this.”