The “Harlem Shake” and the Continuous Co-Opting of Black Culture

harlem shake

I am taking a small hiatus on the analyses of the characters from the movie “Django Unchained” for the sake of continuing to discuss some other topics I feel are worthy of me delving into for the sake of discussion.  I will return to finish those analyses because I do think they are helpful for the nature cultural criticism.  Peace and respect, JLL.

This is one of those topics that bothers me to write about namely because it happens frequently enough and it renders redundant to write about continuously.  One thing that I have noticed about maintaining this blog over the last few years whether writing frequently or not, is that there are similar themes that find themselves in my writings.  While yes my philosophies have matured, my writing has notably gotten better even at trying to broaden the cultural critique that I offen and the topics beyond the basics of race, religion and politics, I can’t help but be aware that still the same cultural happenings occur that I feel compelled to write about.

Now I know that many have already discussed this specific topic, but the fact that a few weeks later it’s still surfacing is proving to be a bit bothersome for me: Yes, I’m talking about this “Harlem Shake” foolishness.

I remember getting ready for work and hearing Matt Lauer mention something about the “Harlem Shake” and of course my ears perked up and I didn’t think much of it.  I think by the end of the week when the Today Show was doing their weekly viral round-up segment I actually looked up and saw what dance they were doing, I initially was a bit mortified.  My initial reaction, and one I still rest on is that this is not the Harlem Shake.  I remember repeating it in my mind as though it needed to be said again: this is categorically not the Harlem Shake.  No, it wasn’t that suddenly I had a problem seeing white folk who had no ties to New York, let alone Harlem, doing a dance, but that I saw something inextricably linked to black culture being completely bastardized and co-opted by the dominant American culture.

Understandably this was not just an American phenomenon, and even this recent move starting in February, by all accounts started overseas.  According to reports, the most recent of the evolution of this dance happened in Australia of all places.  While not an American phenomenon originally, it certainly has been one that has been taken over by the dominant culture.  I think what incensed me so much was that Matt Lauer and the hosts of the Today Show spoke about the Harlem Shake as a dance that was started by the dominant white culture, as though it were an ex nihilo concept that just dropped onto them like tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost in the first century.

My memory, which does serve me correctly, firmly places the “Harlem Shake” as a dance that was happening in the hip hop community in the early 2000s as it gained national attention.  And if you talk to anyone from Harlem, it was a dance that was known amongst the native Harlemites dating back to the early years of the hip hop movement in the 1980s.  I don’t see this as an isolated incident, but rather as one of those intrinsic behaviors that is a hallmark of the dominant white culture in Western society.

I did a blog post back in 2008 about the “dominant subdominant culture” noting that black culture in the United States has consistently informed the dominant white culture to the point of whites assuming many parts of black culture into their own and whitewashing (no pun intended) it into the broader spectrum of American culture.   We see this evidenced most easily in music, and specifically in jazz and blues.  These ethnic music forms were birthed directly out of the black experience and in the South, one highlighting the improvisation needed to go through life and the other offering an outlet for the pain of that same life as well.  Those music forms, while yes are American in fact, they become a part of the American story for the sake of telling the story of dominant culture while the reverse is not true.  Bluegrass music is not to be understood as part of the American story that the non-Anglo-Saxons are to identify with, yet jazz and blues are to be understood as part of the American fabric as a whole.

Being black despite all of the Euro-centric racism that has consistently and perpetually associated it with all that is negative, has still existed to be cool.  Even after the modern formation of race as we know it, to be black was to be objectified, but for the sake of my argument, it was to be desired.  The construct of race and sexuality has always placed black men and black women, not just as objects, but the object of desire by their white counterparts: white men wanted black women because of the curves of their hips, the fullness of their breasts and the size of the labia and envied black men because of the size of their penis.  White women desired black men for the sake of larger penises and the sexual fulfillment that they couldn’t get from white men.  However, the racial rub came when dominant culture painted black men as wild sexual bucks who wanted to overpower white women and black women as exotic seductresses who almost possessed some supernatural power over white men.

Even in typical everyday culture, black music was always more cool than the “square” white music.  The hairstyles that blacks could have from conks, to beehives, to pompadours was all just more cool.  The cars we drove, the way we walked, the way we talked it was always cool!  Frankly, from the top of my head, about the only space in which blacks have not entered and been cool has been with regards to those that identify themselves within the same-gender loving community.  Even in that regards, I think the argument could be made that that space is being reified with every passing day.

It’s one thing to want to be like blacks, but it’s another thing to try and be black.

Naturally, those eternal and ontological questions of what does it mean to be black enter this conversation, and undoubtedly we have to face the question how post-black or post-racial are we really?  Would being post-black or post-racial essentially render this whole blog piece moot?  Does my argument only hold water in a world where we are racialized with every single moment of our waking lives?  I believe dominant culture would have you believe that being post-racial means to ignore racism, but isn’t that a false dichotomy in an of itself that produces a cyclical argument: to be post-racial means that racism doesn’t exist, so really what you’re experiencing isn’t racism, it’s just your failure to be post-racial.  It’s this “reverse racism” argument assumed by whites who have gotten tired of the faux-white guilt apparently placed on them by the progressive and liberals that allows this to happen to them.  Do not be fooled, the white man’s burden is no longer the caring for the imbecilic black race, but  the carrying of the guilt of being white every time one person dares mention race in their presence.  It was this neo-white guilt that prompted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to say that the Voting Rights Act was “a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Do I feel racially entitled to the Harlem Shake?  Yes, and I’m not even from Harlem.  Do I feel racially entitled to jazz or blues? I certainly do!  Now yes, Scalia’s comments were in the context of policy and law, and I’m speaking in terms of culture, but I think there is enough correlation.  Dominant white culture feels entitled to the “Harlem Shake” now without any reservations, and that bothers me.  I think my sentiments are illuminated in these on the street interviews of persons who live in modern day Harlem, c. 2013:

In the co-opting of culture, at the core, we’re talking about the transfer of ownership from one to another.  I think the incredulity of this is wonderfully apparent in the comments that that isn’t Harlem.  Those street viewers don’t want to be associated with that dance; they don’t want their identity and who they be to be remotely linked to that.  This isn’t to say that they themselves couldn’t or even wouldn’t come up with some equally ridiculous dance (lest us forget the the whole Chicken Noodle Soup dance) but it would theirs and theirs alone.  It acts as salt in an open wound that the people generally are mostly white who are now doing the ‘Harlem Shake.’

Historically, this attempts to besmirch what “Harlem” has stood for in both black culture and to the United States as a whole.  Even in black urban enclaves of the 20th century, there was no Watts Renaissance in Los Angeles or South Side Renaissance in Chicago or a Detroit Renaissance, but there was the Harlem Renaissance–and it was real!  Much of 20th century black culture was formed and perpetuated out of the Harlem Renaissance and it has always been associated with blackness.  Even with the re-gentrification of Harlem, it’s still seen as categorically black, while this new “Harlem Shake,” as one of the younger interviewees simply said “that sh*t is corny.”

The dance solidified this in American culture and a lexicon of this weird mixture of nihilism and postmodern identity that generally describes the indescribable of American pop culture when the Miami Heat plus some other NBA stars donned the over-the-top irrational costumes that have come to punctuate these ‘Harlem Shake’ videos.  This craze fits the same stupidity that birthed reality shows from “Jackass” to the “Real Housewives” series; it’s the same culture that birthed musical groups such Odd Future and people like Tyler the Creator; the same culture that elected the first [hal]frican American president while almost collectively telling him his former pastor was too black; the same culture that created “viral videos” and makes sure “there’s an app” for just about everything imaginable; the same culture that meets their soulmate on the internet; the same culture that told black men saggin’ was gay, and then told them wearing skinny jeans was gay as well; even the same culture that saw the Pope of the Roman Catholic church abdicate their papal authority.

I guess on some level, I’m a bit miffed at the likes of Lebron James, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh et. al. participating in this because they actually should know better; we’re the same age and they should know what the real “Harlem Shake” is.  But perhaps in this era of deep rugged individualism refashioned for a new generation, doing something that would endear fans to a consumer driven endeavor, it would make good business sense that they would capitalize on this regardless of the culturally historical problems it poses.  All that matters is the instant gratification of the video getting played on ESPN Sports Center on the evening highlights.

My final thoughts concerning this are relatively succinct and don’t require much indepth analysis.  I echo the words and sentiments of the young brothers’ response on the streets of Harlem when asked what is the message to the makers of these videos: stop that sh*t.

No seriously, stop.  Don’t try and be someone who you’re not.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

6 thoughts on “The “Harlem Shake” and the Continuous Co-Opting of Black Culture

  1. Thanks Uppity for responding to this particular dis(respect) of black culture at this particular time; much appreciation for your reflective consideration on the ‘ersatz’ Harlem Shake.

    This whole ‘Harlem Shake’ popped up (popped out) following the (IMO, parody of ‘urban’ hip hop) by Psy and his ‘gangnam style’ dance that hit the virtual world recently. When I first saw Psy and his Korean go-go-girl dancing, I could have sworn that it was ‘gangman’ style. This ‘gangnam style’ was embraced by corporate MSM including David Gregory on NBC’s morning show.

    Again, IMO, noncolored Americans felt amused and then insulted that Psy, the Korean, ripped off American dance (and ‘rap’) and that rip-off of the rip-off resulted in ‘the Harlem Shake with a Latino beat’ by the rill Umukins who like to dress up in black-face and ‘urban hoodwear’ on Halloween, or on even upscale college campuses to explore their ‘black whiteness or white blackness and ‘otherness’ as authentic Americans.

    The Harlem Shuffle 1962 record by Bob and Earl

    My quest is still in searching for the PBS video of ‘Day of Absence’ with blacks in white face (produced sometime before the Million Man March on Washington October1995) to help put much of your post in perspective. Actually much of Spike Lee’s work including ‘Bamboozled’ and ‘Django’ (another view) culturally speak much about how we arrived here at this time. We have, as a nation, a long way to go and a short time to get there.

    Racism, America’s birth defect (h/t Condoleezza Rice) is what its all about for Americans of of stripes and hues, again, IMHO.

    Keep on keeping it uppity and writing about it.

    1. CORRECTION (editing counts)
      Racism, America’s birth defect (h/t Condoleezza Rice) is what IT’S all about for Americans of ALL POLITICAL stripes and hues, again, IMHO.

  2. I initially shared your disdain until I did some research and learned some facts.

    1. Harlem, NY is named for the Dutch city of Haarlem and was originally populated by Dutch until around the 1960’s when blacks began to migrate there.

    2. The dj who produced the track uses Dutch house synth riffs(a genre of electronic music) throughout the track. So, the song actually pays homage to music that originated in the Netherlands and the dance is not intended to be the real Harlem Shake.

  3. I am sorry to hear about the misnomer that is Harlem Shake. It seems like an honest mistake at the start but in it’s spread, shows the lack of respect for the authentic art, practice and idea. I see a lot of the same appropriation from Indian culture such as yoga being sold as a simple fitness regime without any regard to the provenance, which is vedic society. On the flipside, we find lots of misappropriated ideas from western sources used in India in films, cuisine etc. It bothers me both either way.

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