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'Harlem Shake' craze needs historical, cultural context

As of last month, the “Harlem Shake” can now refer to two very different things.

As of last month, the “Harlem Shake” can now refer to two very different things. One is the viral video craze that started in February, reproducing the style of a video released by YouTube comedian Filthy Frank. The other is the actual Harlem Shake, which originated in New York City over 30 years ago and is intimately tied with the history and lived experience of the neighborhood.

The Harlem Shake began in the 1980s at Rucker Park in Harlem, where the late Albert Boyce would dance during the halftime of basketball games. Boyce's mother recently described what became known as "The Al. B."by noting simply that "he would dance, and twist his shoulders." Dance crews like Crazy Boyz adopted and evolved the dance, and it became known as the Harlem Shake,  filtering into mainstream hip-hop, most notoriously in the music video for G-Dep’s 2001 track “Let’s Get It” featuring P. Diddy and Black Rob. Today younger crews like the Original Harlem Shakers continue the evolution of the dance that is unique to their neighborhood.

Harlem residents have been quick to point out the new viral videos bear no relation to the actual dance or its origins, and some have voiced that they find the meme’s use of the Harlem Shake name to be disrespectful. Host Melissa Harris-Perry reminded us that that this is no small point in her Sunday "Footnote," which she used to debunk the notion that people violently shaking themselves before a camera bears any relation to the actual dance named the "Harlem Shake." More than the designation of a popular dance, this is a matter of cultural appropriation. “When communities create original art,” she said, “they have a right to some creative control over its definition.”

Filmmaker Chris McGuire of Schlepp Films went to Harlem to document neighborhood residents' reactions to the videos. Residents described them as "an absolute mockery," "making fun" of the real Harlem Shake; "taking our dances and making a joke of it." One man explained, "It’s an art form, an actual art form, that doesn’t have the respect that it deserves." Another resident predicted that the meme would become a “vehicle [for someone] to take off on and make money on.”

That "someone" is Bauuer, the 23-year-old Brooklyn-based trap producer who released the song “Harlem Shake” last June to little fanfare. After the YouTube versions went viral, Bauuer’s track jumped to the top of the Billboard 100 and has claimed the number one spot for the past two weeks. The song amassed 98 million streams just last weekand has been purchased 297,000 times. Billboard reports that while “Harlem Shake” was originally released by Mad Decent, the much larger Warner Bros. label has now teamed up to promote the track to radio.

All of this spells out good things for Bauuer, who is getting royalties off each YouTube play and is now in meetings with Columbia Records. He is also very clear that his song has no ties with the actual Harlem shake, or Harlem at all.Bauuer told The Daily Beast in an interview last month that he named the track after it’s sample, the song "Miller Time" by a Philadelphia-based rapper (you can hear the sample at 3:56). He describes the song itself as a “Dutch house squeaky-high synth… over a hip hop track… [with] as many sounds and weird s*** in there as I could."​Members of the Crazy Boyz hope the real Harlem Shake will get some positive returns from the meme appropriating its name. In an interview last week, Crazy Boyz member Jesse Rutland--a.k.a. Smiley--told the New York Times, "What we would love to see is our style being honored." The Crazy Boyz currently run an after-school dance program for Harlem teenagers.  McGuire of Schlepp films is finishing a short documentary on the program, and hopes that some of the millions of people who have enjoyed participating in or watching the Bauuer track-based videos will contribute to the program led by original Harlem Shake dancers who use the dance in their work.

There is nothing inherently problematic in groups of individuals getting together to perform a flash mob-style dance and participate in a cultural craze, but it becomes so when people attempt to do so under the name of something that already exists--something with its own history, meaning, and style. Doing so both conveys a lack of respect for the original dance, and, as Melissa reminded on Sunday, fits into a long history of voyeurism and appropriation of Harlem’s artistic innovations.

People should feel free to continue making all the videos they want. But unless their dancing looks like this and acknowledges the actual history and trajectory of the Harlem Shake, they should find a new name for what they’re doing.

Sara Kugler is the program coordinator at the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, which is headed by host Melissa Harris-Perry. She resides in New Orleans, LA. Find the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Facebook, and on follow them on Twitter at @AJCProject.