(just finished my Indy article, y’all!)
The speed and ferocity with which the Internet can ruin things will never cease to amaze me.
When I first saw Facebook posts about people doing the Harlem Shake, I was excited. Images of crowded middle school dances flooded my head, and I could almost smell the confusion of hormones and the collective AXE bath half of the 7th grade boys had taken earlier that day. I wondered why everybody was so late to the party, but didn’t think anything more of it.
It wasn’t until I’d already gotten home and turned on “Chicken Noodle Soup” again that I really took a minute to look at who was posting these statuses.
White people who I knew for a fact had never heard of DJ Webstar, G. Dep, Eve or Jadakiss; white people who I knew for a fact only knew hip-hop by way of Macklemore, Asher Roth and Mac Miller; white people who I knew for a fact were from Lake Zurich. No offense intended if you are one of these white people – I just had no idea how or why you of all people would suddenly be interested in a 30-year-old hip-hop dance move that’s been dead for about 10 years as it is.
That’s when I found out: because it isn’t the Harlem Shake. At all.
The Harlem Shake as I know it is a pretty easy-to-do shimmy that’s been around since the 1980s and popped back up around 2001 when choreographer Moetion taught it to the dancers in the videos for Jadakiss’ “Put Your Hands Up,” Eve’s “Who’s That Girl,” and G Dep’s “Let’s Get It.”
The Harlem Shake as the Internet viral circuit knows it started with 23-year-old Henry Rodrigues, who produced the 2012 single “Harlem Shake” under the name Baauer.
The name of the track comes from a sample from hip-hop group Plastic Little’s 2001 song “Miller Time” that says “then do the Harlem Shake.” Plastic Little is essentially a late-80s/early-90s hip-hop revival group, so I have no doubt that when they say Harlem Shake, they mean Harlem Shake.
Unfortunately, most people bumping Baauer’s track in the background of their “Harlem Shake: College Campus or Corporate Office Edition” videos don’t mean Harlem Shake.
What they do mean is a formulaic, simple-to-repeat video meme that starts with one person humping the air or doing some sad version of the Bernie (another long-since-over dance craze) in a room full of people which then cuts to the entire room freaking out and flailing wildly, as large groups of white people are prone to do.
(Seriously, I’m pretty sure there’s math to back this up. As the number of white people you have in a room increases, the probability of developing a line dance, some sort of synchronized flailing, or a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody exponentially approaches 1.)
The videos themselves are pretty amusing, but the use of the name “Harlem Shake” is problematic. VICE writer Drew Millard summed it up better than anybody else I’ve seen in an article titled “Stop Doing the Fucking Harlem Shake.”
“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,” Millard starts.
“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.”
Trap music, for the record, originated in early-2000s southern (particularly Atlanta) hip-hop and crunk music that dealt with the “trap” – the place where drugs are sold, where money is exchanged, and where daily life happens for many people – including the hit song “Rubber Band Man” from rapper T.I.’s 2003 album “Trap Muzik.”
“But why the rubber band?/It representing the struggle man/My folk gonna trap/until they come up with another plan/Stack and crumble bread/To get theyself off they mama land/Gangsters who been serving/Since you was doing the Running Man,” T.I. raps in one of the verses.
As Rebecca Haithcoat wrote for the Dallas Observer, “[t]rap music in this connotation was characterized by soulful synths, 808s, the pan flute, sharp snares and long, syrup-slurred vowels.”
Electronic artists have been drawing from these influences to create what many people now refer to as “trap music” without any understanding of its origins or its significance.
That’s the problem I have with the new “Harlem Shake” video craze. It looks like a lot of fun, but the meme status of these videos has eclipsed, hopefully only for the time being, the real Harlem Shake and its cultural history.
The fact that the Internet plays such a crucial role in the preservation and dissemination of information, especially information about the cultural contributions of minority groups, makes this rebranding especially disheartening. It’s by absolutely no stretch of the imagination the first time something from Black communities has gained mainstream appeal after being co-opted, sanitized, and re-packaged – I also don’t have time to publish my dissertation in the Indy.
To anybody who reads this and thinks “man, I wanted to make a Harlem Shake video, but I also don’t want to feel like a dick afterwards,” it’s okay. The videos will still be problematic long, long after they stop being relevant.
To anybody who reads this and thinks I’m just a life-ruining fun-sucker: fine. Just know that there are only two kinds of Harlem Shakers – you’re either with me, or you’re con los terroristas.