Is the Harlem Shake Offensive?

The Harlem Shake and the dangers of cultural appropriation.

This clip from Melissa Harris-Perry acknowledges that, although the Harlem Shake videos are fun (we agree), the goofy, rhythm-less dancing is a far cry from the real Harlem Shake, which is actually a culturally influential dance that’s been around since the ’80s. “Harlem has given birth to some of America’s most distinctive and original art, music, and literature,” she says. “And just as surely as Harlem has innovated, it has been invaded by those who come to Harlem with little sense of history and social context and no desire for political or economic solidarity.” She smartly recognizes that culture is a fluid, evolving thing, but isn’t happy that the meme pays no respect to the actual Harlem Shake.

Harris-Perry brings up the Cotton Club, a famous venue that featured the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, among others, which did not allow non-white patrons. At the Cotton Club, jazz, a genre that owed much to Harlem, had been appropriated from its creators. Similarly, the Harlem Shake meme took an actual dance and lifted it into a completely new context that was divorced from its roots.

This parallel is good, but imperfect. Unlike the exclusive Cotton Club, the Harlem Shake meme doesn’t stink of any deliberate racism or prejudice, or really, anything deliberate at all. It’s completely arbitrary that out of all the songs with bass drops that could’ve have turned into this meme , it happened to be titled “Harlem Shake.”

This illustrates how the internet’s penchant for immediacy reinforces the ways in which it is careless . We embrace the speed and strength of internet virality without asking if it is potentially offensive or harmful. And I think it that carelessness is a danger worth recognizing.

Harris-Perry calls on the news media to stop referring to the viral videos as the Harlem Shake. It’s a noble plea, but it’s too late. Even if the news media got together and agreed to start calling the Harlem Shake something else, it wouldn’t make a difference. The internet has decentralized the influence of culture. This is good in many ways, but this extreme decentralization of cultural influence is susceptible to inaccuracy and insensitivity.

Overnight, the Harlem Shake meme overshadowed the Harlem Shake dance. It was replicated and mashed up tens of thousands of times as trite YouTube videos. Soon we may forget altogether that the Harlem Shake — the dance — was once a local phenomenon, with a rich history and cultural significance.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.