5 Ways The ‘Harlem Shake’ Meme Is (Slightly) More Complicated Than It Seems

The inescapable dance craze is drawing criticism from folks who say it's just another example of cultural appropriation. That may be true, but there's more to the story.

By Channing Kennedy Feb 19, 2013

Depending on if you’ve accessed the internet in the past week, you may not have heard of the Harlem Shake viral-video dance meme that’s racked over 170 million views across 40,000 different Youtube uploads from around the world. And if you have heard it, well, you probably hope its 15 minutes are about up. If so, you’ve got good reason. This 2013 version — basically, one person dances, then everyone dances, then the video ends — is drawing side-eyes from folks who remember the ’80s version (or at least the ’00s version) and who don’t especially want to see the hosts of the Today Show or the animals at SeaWorld microaggressing on yet another of their cultural touchstones.

Unlike recent viral hits "Gangnam Style" or "Call Me Maybe," this so-called Harlem Shake borrows its name and vocal sample (and nothing else) from an existing thing, a dance that’s been around since the early ’80s. And plenty of folks are understandably disturbed by the sight of countless mobs of white people making asses of themselves in the name of Harlem: ThinkProgress and the Root have both published excellent rigorous takedown/breakdowns of the meme and its potential erasing impact on Harlem history. Even Vice, an outlet defined by its gross disregard for civility, is done — here’s Drew Millard:

I’m not a nerd whose thirst for authenticity causes me to huff, arms crossed with my hands under my armpits whenever anyone co-opts any little thing ever, and I’m not an Oompa-Loompa representing the Buzzkill Guild. Promise. But 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 Harlem Shake" as a meme ruined "Harlem Shake" as a song and it’s threatening to eradicate the actual Harlem Shake from popular memory, or at least make it hard to find on YouTube.

The idea that a dance craze should be criticized for messing up another dance craze’s Google rankings seems specious, especially given the bump in views and comments that every single old-school Harlem Shake video has gotten. (And if the track had been named after its other vocal sample, a woman saying Con los terroristas!, who knows what we’d be looking at right now.) But the pattern in cultural power dynamics, and the effortlessness with which a piece of history is twisted away from its already-underdocumented context and then bleached, is very real and all-too familiar. The internet definitely complicates things, but this definitely isn’t the first that a dance invented by black people has been ‘borrowed’ by white people (and often it’s the same white people who say that hiphop isn’t ‘real music’ since it uses samples).

So what’s the deal? Here’s a few points to consider — we’ll let you make up your own mind.

1. The original Harlem Shake originated in, that’s right, Harlem. Or Ethiopia. Or Egypt?

Consensus is that the Harlem Shake was invented by Harlem local-celebrity Al B, and was originally called "the Albee," back in the early ’80s. (Al B himself has said that the stiff, pinioned moves are inspired by mummies.) But, as folks have noted, it also looks a heck of a lot like the traditional Ethiopian dance called eskista — observe:

2. This isn’t the first time the Harlem Shake has made a comeback.

Vulture has a roundup of the previous wave of Harlem Shake videos, mostly from ’00s Bad Boy Records signees. G Dep, above, is widely credited with kicking off this batch, though Cam’ron gets points for turning it into a punchline-threat ("Kill you, shoot the funeral up and Harlem Shake at the wake").

You guys… maybe it’s just me, but I can’t be nostalgic for the zeros just yet. The history is there, though.