If you haven’t read it already, there’s a good article in the New York Times this week about Mackelmore (or as my friend Andrew calls him, Wackelmore) and other popular trends in hip hop culture and how those trends fit in with the music’s history and what they suggest about its future. Another trend they dissect in the article is the “Harlem Shake” meme, including this important and under-discussed contextualization:

The Harlem Shake is a real dance, though. The dance in the video, to the extent that it’s a dance at all, isn’t the actual Harlem Shake, which has been an uptown staple for more than a decade. (See most of the videos by the former Bad Boy rapper G. Dep for a tutorial.) The explosion of this song, and its accompanying videos, threatens to all but obliterate the original dance’s claim on the name. (The “Harlem Shake” video done by the staff of the liberal political-comedy show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” winkingly concludes with someone doing the actual Harlem Shake.)

Whoops! Now before you casually dismiss this as a mildly interesting but irrelevant historical aside, don’t do that, because that is, like, the whole problem. Pay attention*! The world is happening all around you! First and foremost, and which this paragraph hints at but does not outrightly say, there is a damningly long history in American culture of white people triumphantly appropriating black culture as their own and monetizing it (to the exclusion of the black creators who made the original source material). You can try and get into some kind of post-racial argument about how things are more complicated now and how most hip hop music is purchased by white suburban teenagers or how Usher helped create Justin Bieber or, like, how Obama has an iPod or whatever, but even if this is not as cut and dry of a case of raw theft as it used to be, it should still make you a little hesitant and possibly a little uncomfortable when it seems to be happening again. (I’m not going to make any gross assumptions about the race of Baauer, the guy who recorded the “Harlem Shake” song that makes the backing music for the meme, but, uh, I’m pretty sure he is white. And Internet memes themselves are one of the whitest things around. Like so so white.)

Someone went around Harlem and asked how the residents of that borough felt about the fun new meme:

Now look, clearly whoever made this video had their own agenda, which was to get a bunch of black people telling the white people to knock it off. (Fair point! Always a fair point!) I’m just pointing out that you do still have to be careful around things that are heavily edited, however correct the message (in this case, like, so correct). Are we really to believe that there was not a single resident of Harlem who just couldn’t care either way? Or that they thought the people in the video looked like they were having fun? (It’s also worth pointing out that Baauer’s record label is Mad Decent, which is spearheaded by Diplo, who is himself a white man, yes, but one with a pretty deep affinity, or at least he has led us to believe, for the wealth and depth of ethnographic musicology. I guess what I am saying is that out of all the record labels in the world that might be trying to rape-rape culture, Mad Decent seems to be one of the lesser offenders.)

But mostly yeah: it might be time to cut it out, boys. Or at the very least, learn how to do the real “Harlem Shake” before you perpetuate this meme that, why are you even perpetuating this meme still? This meme died last week.

In conclusion:

Eracism. These guys know.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, let me please be the first to point out (lest I wait and let one of you point out) that I myself made no mention of the “Harlem Shake”‘s origins in my original post because I did not know them, because I myself am white and therefore, like all white people, get the majority of my news and cultural history from YouTube videos and the insides of Laffy Taffy wrappers. But now I do know, and that has to count for something? Please? Residents of Harlem?
Comments (66)
  1. But how do Alabama residents feel about Alabama Shakes?

  2. It could be worse. Denizens over in the Cha Cha Slide district don’t even have a meme.

  3. My continued stance on this matter:

  4. If only someone would record people in Jamaica’s reaction to that Volkswagen ad, we could solve another racism mystery.

    • As an aside – Mad Decent, And Diplo, are involved with Major Lazer. Major Lazer is a cartoon Jamaican Soldier/war hero in some fictitious war. The live show features bawdy dancing (familiar to carribean denizens) and some appropriation of black/islander ethno cultural rites and activities.

      Diplo and Mad Decent are close enough to the rape of a culture’s arts and identity to be off the list of potential advocates here.

      Or maybe I am reading too much into this.

  5. I don’t know what (who?) Macklemore is and I don’t know what the Harlem Shake is, but in the spray-painted words of the person who broke into my garage once, “Fukk white people!”

  6. This is just a great post. Gabe should pat himself on the back and have a nice fresca in celebration.

    • I totally agree and I’m glad to see that most of the comments have been smart and ‘get it’.
      The only thing I disagree with in Gabe’s post is the part about Diplo not being that bad.
      He is; he’s a creepy Gwen Stefani style culture vulture and he fetishises women of color.

  7. I didn’t make it to the end of the video, but I’m going to assume everyone starts dancing together.

  8. I get where all of this is coming from, but I also feel like the continued separation of races is a big contributor to continued racism. Saying that white people shouldn’t do this is, to me, the equivalent of saying that there are things that black people shouldn’t be doing. We should definitely understand and respect the culture and history of all ethnicities, but establishing a division between races and saying that certain actions or behaviors are the property of a particular race is only going to perpetuate racist behavior. Maybe we should all stop focusing on color and just acknowledge that, black, white, or otherwise, this meme is pretty dumb.

    • I don’t think the point was that white people shouldn’t do the Harlem Shake, but that white people shouldn’t appropriate the Harlem Shake for themselves and completely change it, while not acknowledging its origins.

      • I would say that it’s entirely possible that the people who made the meme did not know that the original dance exists. If that’s the case, then it’s more of using the name of something that already exists, which is a bummer but not intentional.

        Also, according to Al B, the guy who invented the original Harlem Shake, it was originally created by the Ancient Egyptians, which I found fascinating until he went on to explain that it was how mummies moved, because they were all wrapped up and couldn’t do anything else. So now I just don’t know what to think.

      • Doesn’t the word “Harlem” right in the title acknowledge the origins?

    • I agree. Moreover, I think there is a very big difference between saying “X artistic style was developed in the context of a particular cultural or ethnic group, and those roots should be respected” and “No one else can ever relate to it, interpret it differently, or use it to express their own experiences.”
      Early rock grew from the blues tradition; it was certainly cultural appropriation, but just because Eric Clapton or Janis Joplin owe a lot to Muddy Waters doesn’t mean their art isn’t also of value. And it doesn’t mean that people who like Eric Clapton or Janis Joplin can’t “understand” John Lee Hooker.
      Who’s more true to the roots of hip-hop? Macklemore, or Will.I.Am? If Macklemore rapped about dealing drugs in New York instead of watching baseball, would he be more legitimate? How about if Dr Dre took him under his arm?
      Gabe and the sainted Andrew Ti (call me!) wouldn’t ever think of making this argument about Kathleen Battle. While there is a long and shameful history in the West of whitewashing other cultures and ethnicities out of the arts, that isn’t a valid reason for perpetuating this bullshit argument.

      • I suspect you are taking the criticism about appropriation and turning it into a straw man, though. Nobody is saying that people CAN’T successfully do cross-cultural art.

        (And this story isn’t really about that, anyway. This is not white people interpreting the existing tradition.)

  9. I don’t know.

    While it’s always good to be careful and thoughtful in situations like this, it seems like the joke in the Harlem Shake video(s) is the editing, the smashcut between serious and silly. It’s not “let’s make fun of how black people dance.”

    I’m willing to be wrong here, but sometimes I wonder if we don’t use kids gloves with non-white cultures. I mean, with very narrow exceptions, culture shouldn’t be proprietary. It’s okay that meanings change and new iterations don’t fully honor the original sources.

    • I mean, it would be easy to write a similar article about the way in which some popular, contemporary “country” music (say, Taylor Swift or something) bears little resemblance to its roots, which has strong cultural and historical connections with low income white people. And I mean… that seems OK?

      • Country music and poor white people are never, ever, ever, getting back together.

      • Wow seriously diet coke

      • I don’t think the two situations are the same. Gabe makes a really good point that there is a long history of white folk basically stealing things from other cultures, white-washing them and presenting them as their own. I doubt whoever is behind the meme was sitting in a darkened room laughing maniacally saying “Your dance is MINE now!!!” but this kind of thing is definitely a vestige of some racist tendencies that haven’t changed as much as they should have over time.

        • Congratulations, person who downvoted me. Because you didn’t feel the need to elaborate on what exactly was so downvote-worthy, I have to assume that you disagree with my general point that racism exists and it would be better if it didn’t.

        • Not only stealing them and presenting them as their own, but stealing them from cultures that they have and still do treat pretty horribly. The reason dressing up as Sexy Pocahontas for Halloween is wrong isn’t just that it’s taking someone else’s culture and then using it to play dress-up, it’s that it’s taking someone else’s culture after spending hundreds of years systematically stripping their culture from them, denying them rights, and treating them to racism and brutal violence, and then using it to play dress-up. It’s a culture not being okay for the people who are born to it, and thus oppressing and stigmatizing it, but that same culture being fun and awesome for white people to slip into like it’s a funny hat so they can take a picture and then go back to their lives where they suffer none of the actual damage and prejudice that people who can’t take off their culture suffer.

    • Idiotic mass-culture appropriations and misreadings do happen all the time. (For some reason this reminds me of all the bullshit Chinese food we eat which are not real dishes.) And nobody did it on purpose and it’s not like anybody is going to seriously injured by this.

      However, when it’s (mostly) white people bulldozing over black culture, yeah, you should still care. Because this is a particular dynamic that remains problematic in society.

      (For some reason my New York-centric measure of how African-Americans remain marginalized is that there are virtually no black students in Stuyvesant High, the most elite public school in the system. That suggests that shit is still seriously fucked up. There are few (if any) black people in any of these zany office meme videos. But there are certainly more intelligent ways to demonstrate this.)

    • The guy just wins who says, “Nobody in Harlem would do that. People on West 4th Street would do that” (circa 2:40). He has our number, you guys!

      Seriously, what white kids have stolen here is mainly their own dignity in the eyes of people who actually know what the Harlem Shake is. What a bunch of dumb-dumbs who know more about computers than about dancing, and that’s sad. We need to get out there more! YOLO!

      So. One thing I discovered working at an African-American run company for a couple years was that dances, songs, rhymes, all this stuff has a history that goes back generations and people actually know and value the history. I’m not sure there’s a real analogy across “white culture” — are the Beatles and Paul Simon really handed down from generation to generation the way certain gospel traditions and stuff are? Nope. I’m talking in a real broad stroke here about both sides, so please overlook that, but a lot of white people just don’t know they’re yoinking from an actual coherent culture. They think a dance is a dance — simultaneously discrete and loosely defined — and it doesn’t really matter how you do it. Wrong.

      I mean you can yoink it, as a discrete thing, and drop it into your pastiche version of a culture — you probably have every right to do that! — but maybe you’re really not doing yourself any favors?

      Lastly, if someone is getting rich off this I will hang myself.

    • I think non-white cultures are indeed occasionally treated with kid gloves…but what is the ratio of behaviors that demonstrate over-sensitivity to insensitive/racist/total disregard of non-white culture?

      Also, to para-phrase and completely oversimplify a conversation that took place with one of my more fiery (black) friends…”When that day comes that there is real equality for every race/ethnicity out there and we can seriously believe all races have the same access and opportunities, then please go ahead white people and take all the dances you want, drop all the n-bombs your heart desires, rub your hands through my hair as often as you’d like!!” …but yeah, until then, kid gloves is a fair ask.

      That quote from my friend was hilarious when he said it btw, not angry. Promise!

  10. earlier this week in my political science 100 class (which i have to take in order to graduate with a major in political science, they told me this when i was already in my fifth year of this college crap…ugh), there was this young man who suggested that abortion was not in fact an issue of privacy. i asked him whether or not he had a uterus. he replied that he did not. i told him that perhaps he should not discuss then what a woman considers a matter of privacy if he is not a woman.

    i feel the same way about this. white people should not be allowed to determine what poc’s think is racist. that is just not up to white people. if i think something is racist against mexicans and some white person comes along and tells me that it’s not, i do not tend to take their opinion seriously. yep.

    • I mean, sometimes that’s the case, but sometimes you can say something isn’t racist and it actually isn’t racist. I’m thinking of the University of Pennsylvania water buffalo incident from the 90s. Sometimes what you’re saying is correct, but I think it would be dangerous to make it that cut and dry.

      • What would be the “danger though”? In the very rare instance that it is not actually racist (maybe every like 20 years?) what would be the harm in those with the generally unfair power advantage being like, “Yeah fine.” The kid from the water buffalo incident wasn’t being legally charged, he was getting kicked out of school and after a proper hearing with testimony that he wasn’t being racist he got to stay in school. And that’s two whole decades ago.

        I don’t really see how that would be more dangerous than the alternative of weakening the veracity of claims of racism from POC until large percentage of white people acknowledge it.

        • Because it’s telling certain people that they are not able to have valid opinions on a subject. Any time that happens, it limits intelligent discourse, and that is always at least a little bit dangerous.

          • Not all opinions are valid. Your opinion on someone else’s lived experience is not valid. And it never will be. What’s dangerous is perpetuating a system where the privileged parties are allowed to set the terms for discourse or else it doesn’t happen. Sometimes you need to shut up and listen, and that’s not dangerous or wrong or unfair.

          • It’s dangerous to perpetuate a system where ANYBODY is allowed to set the terms for discourse or else it doesn’t happen. That is in no way conducive to an open exchange of ideas. And yes, every opinion is valid. You may not agree with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid.

          • Nope, sorry. The janitor who mops the floor of a hospital doesn’t have a valid opinion on the surgical procedures performed there, Paris Hilton doesn’t have a valid opinion on what it’s like to be poor, a woman doesn’t have a valid opinion on the experience of being kicked in the testicles, and a white person doesn’t have a valid opinion on the personal experience of racism. You cannot have a valid opinion of something you have no valid experience of. Ideas don’t need to be exchanged when it comes to someone’s lived experience of oppression, they need to be received and accepted by the person who does not have that lived experience. This is the shutting up and listening part. (Empirical) You are not an authority on oppressions you don’t experience and by claiming that your opinion of them is valid, you ARE trying to set the terms for discourse by insisting that your concerns and feelings are of equal importance to those of the people who DO experience those oppressions. They’re not. That makes you very lucky and you should appreciate it instead of insisting you get your say.

          • But….the need for white voices to verify claims of racism by people of color ALREADY limits intelligent discourse.

    • Yeah, but there is a huge streak of white people saying things are racist so that they can show how not-racist they are.

  11. This video is pretty heavy handed, but yeah this is basically what I was bitching about last week. Thanks Gabe, pretty rad of you to acknowledge the (substantial) internet grumblings.

  12. I wish white people would go back to Whatever-On-Hudson and take their gifted and talented kid, Denim, with them.

  13. I don’t care. However, the NEW Defeated Sanity album “Passages into Deformity” is fvcking mad HOT!!

  14. About 5 years ago I was at a mostly black party in the south side of Chicago, where I was one of maybe 3 non-black people at the party. I was dancing with a girl and feeling pretty good about myself when the DJ announced the Cupid Shuffle was coming up. Everyone started yelling with joy and getting in a well organized line. Then everyone started dancing in unison as if they’ve practiced this together. This was a room of about 200 + people! Now, at this point I was hanging out in different parts of the city, the west side, the south side, etc. SO it’s not like I was just some out of touch dude but I had never even heard the song , much less learned all the steps. I felt like everyone was looking at me, which is ridiculous because everyone was dancing. I just kind of waddled in rhythm, slowly reaching for the wall of the room then went to the bathroom while the song ended.
    I’m not sure what the point of my story was but remember, dancing is hard.

  15. The first thing I thought when I heard about the video and then was shown the video was “Ok, so the SONG’S called ‘The Harlem Shake,’ but clearly everyone in these videos are just ‘dancing’ to the song and not necessarily doing what the Harlem Shake actually is as an established dance move. Some might be doing the Harlem Shake in the huge crowds of people getting smash-cut to at the :15 mark of the song, but it’s impossible to tell, because I myself have not sen the actual Harlem Shake dance move.”

    But clearly in the context of the meme, the Harlem Shake is moreso using the song itself and the smash cut as its identifiers, and not anyone doing any actual, choreographed, impressive dance moves.

    • Huh. Interesting point. Now that you mention it, I never thought this was a video about an actual dance move. It seemed to be a video about a smash cut to silliness. I didn’t recognize that was my reaction till you said it.

      (Also, I just watched a compilation, and usually these are rooms of guys only, all but one of them looking bored/tired, until that one’s dancing becomes contagious. I think that’s what the video is about, too? Rooms full of bored guys, not the actual Harlem Shake? Which btw is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqjNSONd1vk And which looks hard to do right.)

    • Yeah, I feel like if they had used a different sample that was “…and do the (anything besides Harlem Shake here)” and changed the title, the meme would have still been exactly the same and the whole situation would have been a lot less questionably racist.

  16. I have brought this up a few times and I always get the argument that white people just don’t know what the real Harlem Shake is, and that is total bullshit. There are thousands of these and most of the most popular ones are from nerdy .com offices populated by people from roughly my demographic and I remember us all learning how to do the Harlem Shake on MTV during the Puff Daddy era. I’m not that coordinated but I can do the Harlem Shake, and yet not a single one of those schlubby programmer guys even bothered trying to throw a shoulder shimmy in there. Everyone is doing everything else to bring back the 90s despite how much it sucks how do none of you remember the dance craze of 1999?

  17. This is an intelligent response, and I think it is annoying that most of the people participating in this meme are unaware of the Harlem Shake’s origins. That said, it is a meme based on a dance to a preexisting song, which is problematic in its appropriation of black culture, but no more problematic than, oh, LOTS OF SONGS.

    I can talk for a while about why cultural appropriation is problematic, and why we should listen to the voices of the residents of Harlem and prioritize their reactions over our own. I believe this 100%, and I think we should be aware of this justified reaction when assessing the Harlem Shake (I mean how much time are we spending on assessing the Harlem Shake? This is all the time I’m spending on this – the time it’s taking me to write this comment).

    But I just can’t get too worked up about this meme, and I am almost always on the side that’s getting worked up. It’s annoying, and symptomatic of the kind of cultural appropriation that happens all the time, but it’s much less pernicious than the Asian-themed frat parties and faux Native American headdresses that seem to spring up every damn day. I mean I’m much more worked about the Kristen Stewart thing.

    • Unfortunately, most Americans have not studied post-colonial theories, so cultural appropriation is not within their vocabularies. Also, re: Asian-themed frat parties and Native-American headdresses – whenever I see a white dude dressed as a desert Arab for Halloween, I just wanna suicide bomb his racist/ignorant white-privileged ass. I remember a professor in grad school used to point out regarding U.S. foreign policy: “The Romans never asked, ‘Why do they hate us?’”

  18. This is a meme. In three months no one will remember what the Harlem Shake meme is. Those people who already knew the Harlem Shake dance move will go on knowing the Harlem Shake dance move. This is not a big deal. The worst thing happening is that a wiki search for Harlem Shake now brings up a disambiguation page.

  19. I’m pretty sure the point of the “Harlem Shake” videos are to make fun of how white those kids in the videos are.

  20. I have nothing more to add other than whenever I see the word “eracism” all I can imagine is electronic racism.

  21. I always thought it was called the “Harlem Shakedown,” but then again I am white

  22. Am I alone in not assigning any weight whatsoever to “cultural re-appropriation” outrage, when the re-appropriated item is something with absolutely ZERO gravitas.

    White people wearing native american headdresses? Absolutely that’s messed up.

    But a dance that a guy invented for a Puff Daddy music video, with vague similarities to an ethiopian dance, but that is mostly basing it on what drunk people kind of look like? Let’s maybe relax.

  23. I am not comfortable with ‘cultural appropriation’ becoming a buzz word for white people being racist.

    Cultural appropriation is not a bad thing intrinsically. I love that kids of any ethnicity or obsessed with manga and that it speaks to them. Or people of any background putting out a rap album because that’s the kind of music that speaks to them. Or people of any color studying and then producing their own art, inspired by the art of others from all walks of life and cultural identities. Japan would not have been able to reinvent itself twice in the span of 150 years (Meiji Restoration & post-WW2) and be ranked in the top 3 world economies were it not for instances of cultural appropriation. So it’s not all BAD.

    But of course, ‘white people’ in and of itself is a buzz word for ‘the man,’ and anything ‘the man’ does to keep people down is bad news, and of course people, whether they realize it or not, who benefit from ‘the man’s systemic oppression, need to realize what’s happening and take steps to put an end to said systemic oppression, etc etc.

    But shit. It’s people dancing as a meme. If I do a robot dance to a charleston song, and people glom onto it and popularize it, I’m not doing it to spit on the memory of the people of South Carolina who invented the Charleston— Charlestonians specifically— nor would I think the people who wanted to do it too were doing it as a fuck you to Charleston, SC. I would imagine my robot-charleston became popular because it looked SUPER-easy and a way to kill an hour of my life that seems to be going on forever.

    Speaking of which, guys, I have a really sweet robot dance set to old-timey music I want to popularize. I also love american indian headdresses, sake, and the art of Hergé. SUE ME.

  24. Everyone knows what the fucking harlem shake is, people are being willfully ignorant so that they can be outraged about “white people” P.Diddy and Lil Bow Wow did the harlem shake well through the early 2000s and they were hardly underground hip hop artists, everyone has seen their videos. of the generation of folks making the harlem shake videos, black or white, most heard of it through pop stars. this meme has nothing to with paying homage to the harlem shake. GOD PEOPLE ARE SO ANNOYING. I hate when people don’t understand the internet, I also hate when “filmmakers” do completely unethical, antagonizing, sensationalist viral-video trash pieces. Like you’re doing way more damage than good.
    Also I suppose it’s possibly of relevance that I am black.

  25. I don’t comment much, I love the site, and I know this article’s probably more or less moved on from, but this one bugs me. It just seems like it would take a lot of effort to consider this a bad thing. Or something that should be stopped. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the Harlem Shake that exists in Harlem is a deep part of Harlem’s cultural heritage, and making a fun and stupid meme video that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the dance but use it’s name, is a deep and brutal offense, but I don’t see it, meme’s aren’t just a “white” thing, they’re a thing white people do more maybe (needs citation) but they’re not just for white people, there’s no hose and attack dog waiting for a non-white person who wants to make a video on the internet. It just seems like some people are making a lot of effort to shit on a thing that people are doing for fun.
    I don’t think anyone actually thinks meme as “Oh yeah! That dance! That was invented in Harlem! That doesn’t REALLY have any one specific identifier except except for 1 person dancing and then a jump cut.” I don’t know. The guys in the video who are mad about this, seem like the bad guys to me. Go find something weightier to get mad about. Anonymous people in a video.

  26. People need to lighten up. Who cares? If I ever got offended over some dumb internet meme then just shoot me in the face.

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