If you think the Harlem Shake is an annoying viral video trend, and possibly an offensive one, too, you are right. But the Harlem Shake is more than that. It has genuine roots in workplace culture and the teenage subaltern. Everyone from frat boys, to office workers, South African gold miners, and public school teenagers as well as Egyptian and Tunisian pro-democracy advocates see something in the viral trend to appropriate.
Since late January people have been uploading their own flash mob-type dance videos set to the rhythmic sounds of a 30-second electronic/rap mash-up called the Harlem Shake, recorded last year by a young DJ named Baauer. The first video to be uploaded was by a video blogger names Filthy_Frank, and it featured a bunch of dudes in latex costumes and masks dancing with an unfortunate combination of humping, pelvic thrusting, the limbo and the shimmy.
More than 100,000 Harlem Shake videos have joined the throng on YouTube, with combined hits of over 175 million. In the typical submission, one person, usually a man wearing some kind of helmet or headgear, starts dancing somewhere that doesn’t seem like a place for dancing—the bottom of a pool, a school cafeteria, an airplane, a fire truck, a locker room, a prison cell, or an office.
After about fifteen seconds a voice says, “do the Harlem Shake,” and a jump cut shows that the room is now crowded with crazy dancers—people in super hero costumes, green screen jumpsuits, Super Mario costumes, and stuffed animal head masks. They are jumping on chairs, humping the wall, humping each other, humping stuffed animals, and looking like aliens on acid. The videos are funny, containing a slight air of rebelliousness. It always seems as if the lone dancer has magically recruited an entire flash mob of crazy, uninhibited party people. These videos convey a feeling of freedom from—if nothing else—boredom.
Recently, the viral phenomenon has come under fire. Students in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida have all been suspended for filming Harlem Shake videos on school property, and, in one remarkable case, a student in New York City was suspended after merely talking about filming one. Joan Bertin, Executive Director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, has asked schools to stop suspending students for what she sees as a relatively harmless pursuit: dancing.
In one of the most life changing instances of the Harlem Shake, a group of Australian gold miners filmed themselves gyrating, humping, and doing the Caterpillar in the underground mine vault where they worked. They were promptly fired (so we can add dancing to the long list of bizarre things you can get fired for). Greg Harris, a spokesman for the Barminco mine company, explained the company’s reasoning: “An underground mine is no place for cowboys, clowns or fools. It’s an inherently dangerous place to work and workers are entitled to expect those working alongside them to respect the risks and abide by rules and regulations.” These miners weren’t exactly struggling financially before the firings, with their six figure salaries, but the firings show who has power and who doesn’t in the global extraction economy. A facebook page has been set up to call for re-instating the miners.
Meanwhile, a battle over what the Harlem Shake is, and who owns it, has been brewing closer to home. Last week Melissa Harris-Perry, a former Princeton professor and a member the talking eggheads crew at MSNBC, ranted about the viral perversion of what she explained was an authentic Harlem dance tradition.
Indeed, according to many accounts, the original Harlem Shake began in the early 1980s when a popular amateur performer, Albert Boyce (Albee), regularly performed a shoulder popping routine at pickup basketball games in Rucker Park. Though Albee did not live long enough to see his shake go viral (he died at the age of 43 in 2006 from alcoholism), in a 2003 interview he claimed that his dance was inspired, in part, by how he imagined Egyptian mummies might dance. “They was all wrapped up and taped up. So they couldn’t really move, all they could do was shake.”
Albee’s shoulder popping move became known as the Harlem Shake and was popularized on stage at the Apollo, in Harlem rapper G Depp’s 2001 “Special Delivery,” and in Young B’s 2003 “Chicken Noodle Soup.”
In May, 2012, a 23 year old DJ known as Baauer, born Harry Rodrigues, created a 30 second beat he titled “Harlem Shake.” His inspiration for the title had nothing to do with the dance: “‘A friend had shown me that track [from Philadelphia rapper Plastic Little’s ‘Miller Time’] where he says, then do the Harlem shake, and it just got stuck in my head for a while, so I used it.”
The resulting catchy 30-second track was a mash up of different dance hall sounds, as Baauer explains: “I just had the idea of taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track…And then I tried to just make it the most stand-out, flashy track that would get anyone’s attention, so I put as many sounds and weird shit in there as I could. The dude in the beginning I got somewhere off the Internet, I don’t even know where, and the lion roar just makes no sense.”
The “dude in the beginning” is Reggeaton artist Hector Delgado saying “Con los terrorists,” or “With the terrorists,” a sentiment which does not seem to have any political relevance that I can see. Though Baauer didn’t know who he was, Delgado, in the viral media frenzy that has accompanied Harlem Shake, is, at least, getting his fifteen minutes.
The Melissa Harris-Perry critique of the Harlem Shake has its most trenchant counterpart in a short film made of Harlem residents reacting to the Harlem Shake videos. They say things like “What the hell is that?” “What the hell are they doing?” and “That’s not the Harlem Shake.” They are incredulous that anything so corny and poorly danced would bear the Harlem label.
The whole phenomenon raises some familiar, but still vexing questions. Who owns culture? Who owns the right to profit when cultural “borrowing,” “poaching” or “sampling” is involved? Who has the right to dance? And who has the right to make a short video on the job and post it to the Internet?
These questions now have a global context, as Harlem Shakers in Egypt and Tunisia have joined the viral movement. On February 25, a group of students in a wealthy Tunisian suburban school, including the son of a prominent opposition leader, filmed their own version of the Harlem Shake. In response, the Tunisian Ministry of Education suspended the school’s director. The students fought back, hacking the Minister’s website and “putting out a fake call for a mega Harlem Shake in front of the ministry’s offices.”
In Egypt, the Harlem Shake has also become political. A group of Egyptian teenagers started a group called “Satiric Revolutionary Struggle,” and they filmed a Harlem Shake outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo. The group’s founder, 17 year old Mahmoud Tabei, said that he and his friends were “tired of the protests and the blood and the martyrs” and were looking for ways to “raise the hopes and spirits” of the democracy movement.
The Harlem Shake is not a simple, single phenomenon. It does have an interesting work place component, since many of the videos feature workers on the job, but is probably closer to an expression of global youth culture, since the vast majority of the videos feature high school and college students, or the kinds of young workers you might see on an episode of Comedy Central’s Workaholics.
The lesson, I think, is that viral movements are flexible. They can be used by a variety of people, for a variety of purposes. And when a viral movement goes as far and as fast as the Harlem Shake, it makes sense that the movement would begin to reference political and social issues. It also makes sense that tyrants, bureaucrats, and autocrats would want it stopped.
You are free to dislike these viral movements, but don’t dismiss them. Instead of shaking your finger, I invite you to shake your booty instead. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”
Kathy M. Newman