The Problematics Of The Fake Harlem Shake

[Editor’s note: We know…we know…enough with the Harlem Shake! This dissection by Sezin Koehler was just too good not to share. Consider this a coda to our discussion of the controversy.]

by Guest Contributor Sezin Koehler; originally published at Sociological Images

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 The Harlem Shake is a syncopated dance form that first appeared on the New York hip-hop scene in the early 1980s.  Here is what it looks like:

In 2012 music producer Baueer created an electronic dance tune, unfortunately calling it The Harlem Shake. Baueer’s song inspired an Internet meme in which people rhythmlessly shake their upper bodies and grind their hips in a tasteless perversion of the original dance.  For example:

This fake Harlem Shake meme has become so ubiquitous that it has been “performed” by the English National Ballet and gone further globally with a video from the Norwegian army, and in Tunisia and Egypt, where the song and imitation dance has become a protest anthem.

The irony of an African-American cultural relic being whitewashed to the point where other people of color perform its bastardized version is not lost, and this takes on a whole new level as teams with majority African-American members such as the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets add to the fake Shake canon. Personally, I’ve been “video-bombing” anyone I see incorrectly referring to the new version as the Harlem Shake with this:

A major problematic of this meme is that it takes an already marginalized group in America–one whose history and culture has often been appropriated and co-opted in fetishistic ways by the white majority–and makes a mockery of not just them, but an entire dance tradition.  This is not lost on residents of Harlem, many of whom recognize cultural appropriation and malrepresentation when they see it:

In spite of a number of calls online from African-American writers, artists, scholars, and supporters like myself to bring attention to the real Harlem Shake, every day there is instead a new group adding to the misappropriated dance. When you Google “The Harlem Shake” you must scroll through pages before you reach any posts about the actual hip-hop tradition.

This literal erasure of black culture and its replacement with an absurdist movement and meme needs to be considered in light of African-American oppression and institutionalized racism in the United States. Supplanting the sinuous artistry of the Harlem Shake with frenetic styleless arm-flailing and hip-thrusting is yet another brick in a grand wall of symbolic and structural violence that further relegates an entire culture to the margins, both on and offline.

As the Harlem residents said in response to the meme: “Stop that shit.”

P.S. Here’s how to actually do the Harlem Shake. 

Sezin Koehler is a half-American half-Sri Lankan informal ethnographer and novelist living in Lighthouse Point, FL.

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  • Loren

    This was something that bothered me so much when it first came out. I was actually on a trip with my team and one of them said, have you seen the new Harlem Shake video and I was slightly excited to see, being that it has been a while since anyone had performed that dance move. When I saw the video I literally thought “What the H*** was that?” Im not even from Harlem, but I was angry. I to felt that it was giving a bad name to a dance that has significant meaning to a large population of people of color. But this is not surprising. Even when my entire team wanted to make one of those videos I REFUSED! I would not be caught in a video that made a mockery of something that had meaning to people I associate with. One of the guys from the video says that this is just another thing that a white person is going to take and run with and make a lot of money. I agree with this. This has happened so many times in the past. The blatant disrespect of customs that hold meaning to people of color has been apparent for decades. They have bashed, scrutinized, and criticized our culture in many ways. This is simply another way to try and make fun and distort the image of another African American tradition. I think that these uneducated people who struggle with the true meaning of what this dance is, should take the time to read up on the topic and gain a proper understanding and stop trying to view us in a crooked room. Honestly, I’m surprised that the whole “Fake Harlem Shake” videos even caught on. I think they are very meaningless.

  • ihana1

    So excited to see this awesome piece by the awesome Sezin who I went to school with on one of my favorite websites! Hi Sezin (I was Rowena’s bud in middle school, and am your facebook friend as a hint). Wonderful article.