Three Years After the Meme, Most People Still Don't Know What the Hell the Harlem Shake Is

Our society is in a crisis of cultural appropriation. JK Rowling’s History of Magic in North America injected still-very-active Navajo traditions into her fictional world of wizardry as carelessly as The Life of Brian rewrote the Bible. Katy Perry's inane and convenient adoption of Native American, Egyptian, and Japanese culture makes her a prime example of how pop stars capitalize off the marginalized. Perry's comments to criticism – “I guess I’ll just stick to baseball and hot dogs…” – show Trump-like insensitivity and misunderstanding. Even Coldplay and Beyoncé failed to see the difference between celebrating and exploiting another culture when they made themselves the centerpiece of India’s Holi festival in their “Hymn for the Weekend” music video.

But before Beyoncé danced the Sattriya and prior to Perry's geisha get-up at the AMAs, that viral hit song “Harlem Shake” had us all appropriating – and ultimately corrupting – a dance that has legitimate roots in the Manhattan borough. (To be fair to Baauer, the track's producer, we’ll distinguish his song “Harlem Shake” from the meme it created: a room full of people acting utterly moronic, usually in an intentional failure to dance or do comedy.)

The Harlem Shake (the meme) is not the Harlem shake (the dance), but the meme’s infectious strength was so intense that it consumed a tradition that preceded it by more than 30 years. The original dance was created in the early '80s and met pop culture in the 2000s when P. Diddy, Lil' Bow Wow, and Missy Elliott used it in their music videos. Sharp shoulder thrusts, meandering hands, and wobbly legs became hip-hop music-video staples.

Ask most people today to do the Harlem Shake and they’ll drop their head back, jump around, and flail their arms wildly. They may let out a lion’s roar or shout that Dutch house synth riff that graces “Harlem Shake’s” chorus. They might even move like Bernie or teach you how to Dougie. Whatever they do, it’s probably not the real Harlem Shake.

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So was this viral sensation an egregious case of cultural appropriation? It might've been. But so might've been the original.

A fellow by the name of Al B, the Harlem Shake’s self-proclaimed creator, has said his dance originated with entombed Egyptians, invented by mummified Pharaohs whose garb restricted them from any movement excluding a basic shake.

But then ABC News chimed in and said something like, "Hey, the Harlem Shake is basically just a bastardization of an Ethiopian dance called Eskista, with its head bobs, abrupt shoulder thrusts, and springy knees." The similarity isn’t uncanny but intriguing.

Yet big questions remain: How did Al B learn to move in an Eskistan style? Why would he credit Egyptians for the dance? Does he understand the process of embalming?

There’s no question, though, that the lyrical sample Baauer used was a direct reference to the original Harlem shake, an identifier with distinct cultural and geographic roots. The “Harlem Shake” meme seemed to innocently enough take on a life of its own and, in the process, appropriated the tradition for fake internet points.

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