Actual Residents Of Harlem Respond To “Harlem Shake” Meme

By Gabe Delahaye / February 20, 2013

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?