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Is the Harlem Shake Meme Cultural Appropriation?

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Shuffling, Jump-style and Gangnam Style -- all of the former are recognizable 15-minute-lasting Internet trends created on YouTube with thousands of online participants, coming to exist as highly popularized Internet phenomenon's that eventually come to replace one another with newer, emerging trends. The most recent online sensation created by dimwits with access to cameras is the Harlem Shake meme:

As many may have picked up already, the Harlem Shake meme is not what one might identify as the popular dance seen in numerous Hip Hop videos in the early 2000s, that rose to popularity after G-Dep's video: "Let Get It," or, more notably done by artists such as Lil' Bow Wow, P. Diddy and Cam'ron. The new shake in question is a 30-second dance to a 2012 track by trap producer, Baauer, entitled "The Harlem Shake," which involves a group of individuals sitting still as one masked member dances alone (in what looks like air-humping), and with the change in beat, the rest of the group collectively joins in on the air-humping. It's farcical and extremely awkward, but the Internet seems to currently be in love with it.

Admittedly, I laughed earlier in the month of February when I discovered the original Harlem Shake meme created by video-blogger Filthy Frank, who coined the new dance and shared it on YouTube, eventually leading to the dance's viral and overnight success. The meme itself is currently sitting at ~22 million views on YouTube, almost double the amount of views of Baauer's track.

This new and odd sensation became so widespread online during the month of February that an estimated 4,000 Harlem Shake meme videos were made and posted onto YouTube daily. Some notable participants of the latest fad of group-air-humping include Jimmy Fallon, the Dallas Mavericks, College Humor, Vimeo, Pepsi, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, Buzzfeed, and colleges all over the United States and Canada, making it safe to say that "Gangnam style" is no longer a thing. (Bye, Psy!)

The creator behind the track that everyone is doing the Harlem Shake meme to is Baauer: a trap-producer signed to Diplo's label, Mad Decent, who released "Harlem Shake" last year. In his track, he samples a line ("now do the harlem shake"), which is credited to a 2001 track entitled "Miller Time" by Plastic Little, and is potentially the reasoning for the name of the song. A member of the group, Jayson Musson, publicly confirmed this by sharing a print screen of an email exchange between Baauer and himself, confirming that his track was sampled in Baauer's work. Although the song was released approximately a year ago, Filthy Frank's irritating dance to the song helped the Harlem Shake (song) rise to its current level of fame, becoming one of Mad Decent's most commercially successful productions.

However, the name of the meme has recently become a topic of discussion and controversy for some, particularly after a group of Harlemites responded to the new Harlem Shake meme in a video released last week by Schlepp Films that includes pedestrians in Harlem puzzled by the lack of connection between the new dance and the original, some commentators stating: "It looks like it's making fun of [the Harlem Shake]"; "That's not the Shake, b!", and "It's a mockery to what it was!" This led to various discussions online about how this new version of the dance is a bit problematic -- and, in my sincerest opinion, although it is a bit of an absurd and half-witted discussion, I completely agree.

The problem at hand with the Harlem shake meme, that is associated with an electronic development of trap music, is the mere fact that it is a co-opted version of a dance and sound original to, and considered a cultural artifact, of hip-hop (and specifically Harlem). In fact, the Harlem Shake meme displays nothing similar to the original dance conceived in the late 1980s by Al B even though it uses the same name, all to an electronically developed 'trap' sound, which is arguably a co-opted production style of a genre of hip hop and crunk itself, which is also entitled 'Trap', originating in the South of the U.S. in the early 2000s. It's a bit of a double steal.

Arguably, the Harlem Shake meme is a form of cultural appropriation in that it is the popular use (and misuse) of a cultural artifact to black culture by a predominantly white crowd. Most importantly, this new Harlem Shake has already began to eradicate the original Harlem Shake from popular culture online, already making it increasingly difficult for one to find the existence of the original dance anywhere on YouTube. (Go ahead -- I tried.) Although it can be claimed that the titling of this new dance is simply attributable to its association with the title of a song (that is technically referencing the "real" Harlem Shake itself), the repercussions is erasing the ability to reference the original dance, making it a bit more annoying than it already is.

One can go as far ahead to stretch this discussion about the face behind Baauer's label, Mad Decent, (although he is technically not linked to the issue of the Harlem Shake meme whatsoever) which is that of Diplo, who has been scrutinized publicly by names like Venus X for cultural appropriation within his work: stealing the artistry of underground or unknown artists of colour, incorporating it with EDM and releasing it as his own original craft without any credit to the actual artists of colour for their unique sounds. Unfortunately, sometimes sampling earns the sampler the credit of being a musical mastermind opposed to the composer itself. It's a bit ironic (and potentially a bit of a stretch to state) that the Harlem Shake meme done to a song by an artist under Diplo's label has indirectly displayed a form of cultural appropriation with a cultural artifact of black culture, all to a co-opted style of "trap."

Perhaps this entire, slightly dramatic, discussion could all come to an end and allow this new vacuous Internet trend to exist in peace amongst current and future air-humpers with a mere adjustment in the title of this meme; one that is a bit more fitting, such as: the air-hump; white people on E; the wacky tacky, or better yet, not-the-real-fucking-Harlem-Shake.

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