The Harlem Shake and the Globalization of Powerlessness

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By Marissa Jackson, Esq.
Visiting Scholar, West African Research Center (CROA)

I hate the Harlem Shake. The meme is amusing, and the execution thereof occasionally hilarious or adorable. The song is, in my opinion, of negligible cultural or artistic value, but where the YouTube videos are concerned it gets the job done. In fact, if I were not so offended by the Harlem Shake, I would probably take a couple hours of out my day to make a Harlem Shake video here in Dakar, Senegal, where I recently moved (from a certain New York neighborhood). Just because.

Several children in my host family's compound have seen the videos, love them, and are just waiting to make a Senegalese rendition. While I personally vowed to never, ever allow any of my portable devices to be used in complicity with the vile meme, it seems the children will get their chance: In celebration of Senegal’s 53rd year of independence from French colonial rule, the Dakar’s ultra-modern Sea Plaza shopping mall will host what is being advertised as a “Mega Harlem Shake.”


I hate the Harlem Shake because it is a display of arrogance and disrespect for an existing art form beloved by the people who created it - a people who are marginalized and underprivileged, and too often pushed around by outsiders. The real Harlem shake was actually created - and is still rooted - in Harlem, a neighborhood where poor, working and middle class people are being divided by zoning initiatives, expelled by gentrification and replaced by people who too often display the same sense of entitlement as the folks who actually had the nerve to attempt to replace the real Harlem shake as if it had never, ever existed. This new dance (and I used the term dance "broadly") is microcosm for the injustices, big and small, that Harlemites struggle to overcome every day.

The faux Harlem Shake is a brazen display of power over people with little social and economic capital. It is cultural colonialism: Harlem has a resource (even one as intangible as a dance) and we want it - so we take it, the end. But the real Harlem Shake is not just a dance. At the risk of misappropriating legal jargon, it has crystallized into customary community intellectual property. It has appeared in actual music videos, and is closely associated with certain hip-hop celebrities. It has been recorded. It exists. It is real.

Moreover, it is now part of Harlem's history and cultural traditions. The Harlem Shake is an urban, street art form that likely came into being by accident or with some evolution, as is true of most organic, community-based artistic movements. Cultural historians have attributed its creation to the late Harlemite Albert Boyce, who claimed to have created the dance in 1981. Mr. Boyce is known to have performed the dance, originally known as the “Al B” as a sort of halftime show for basketball games at Harlem’s Rucker Park.

The dance, which continued to evolve into the high-energy, highly rhythmic shaking of one’s upper body widely recognized in urban America today would later became known as the Harlem Shake. Hip-hop megastar P. Diddy is widely considered to have made the Harlem Shake a veritable hip-hop phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, having performed the dance in the music video for G-Dep’s 2001 song “Let’s Get It.”

The Harlem Shake is an expression of Harlem pride, resilience and swagger well understood by genuine participants in in hip-hop culture and day-to-day uptown New York City life. The Harlem Shake is resistance to exactly the type of attitude that allows someone else to just decide that they will replace a community's art form with a substitute. To successfully perform the real Harlem shake, one must a transcendence - shake off, if you will - mainstream expectations and impositions, oppressions and manipulations. I know you tried to play me, says the Shaker, but I'm not bothered. I'm not even paying attention to you...I'm on another level. However, performance is just that...performance.

Beyond the veil, having something valuable stolen, and in such a blatant manner, is hurtful. This is why so many people, from the host of Harlem residents interviewed in a now-viral YouTube video to Melissa Harris-Perry, are annoyed, insulted and even enraged by this new Harlem-less shaking.

That the knock-off became popular during Black History Month seems coincidental and only added ancillary insult to injury; the outrage has little, if anything, to do with race. Anyone can enjoy the real Harlem shake, and anyone can participate in Harlem's community life. The problem with the meme is fundamentally about ignorance and disrespect of people who disproportionately live more closely to the margins than all of the surburbanites and other outsiders adding YouTube videos of themselves gyrating for precisely 31 seconds. It's about stealing someone's sole sheep when you already have ninety-nine in your possession. It's about the fact that this new "dance" could have been named absolutely anything else, and so the appropriation of the original cannot truly be anything but intentional, especially because the new "dance" originated neither in Harlem, New York nor Haarlem, Amsterdam.

When the real Harlem Shake came into existence, most "respectable" people wanted nothing to do with Harlem. It was the kind of neighborhood you only lived in if you couldn't afford to live elsewhere. As recently as 2007, when I moved to Harlem from Columbia University housing, my relatives in Brooklyn and Queens - even those who also lived in neighborhoods often deemed unsavory - urged me to consider another neighborhood. You know, for my safety's sake. My Wall Street co-workers gave me sideways looks when I told them where I lived and how much I loved it.

Here is where the story becomes truly interesting: The people who were willing to move to Harlem every everyone else decidedly wasn’t were Francophone West African immigrants, many of them from Guinea, Mali, Gambia and Senegal. They hustled, as they still do, with difficult or undesirable jobs and dank, cramped apartments, trying to protect themselves from the crime and blight that surrounded them, but they stayed. They stayed. They stayed and they stayed and they stayed. They built businesses from the ground up, some legally, and others in the shadows of Immigration--chop bars, ateliers, barber shops, and what seems like millions of hair braiding salons. And they formed communities, while keeping Harlem itself on life support during its darkest, saddest days.

On April 4th, many of the children who will gleefully toss and turn their young bodies--Harlem shaking--for 31 seconds, will only be able to afford cab fare to Sea Plaza’s posh oceanside local because of the money sent home to their yayes and babas every month...from a Western Union on 116th or 125th street during someone’s lunch break. All these children will understand is that Tonton So-and-So lives in America. Many of them will have heard of New York, and just maybe some of them have heard of Harlem, but likely nothing of the real Harlem shake. Only the faux, thanks to YouTube, which they can enjoy because of the money Tata So-and-so sent home a couple years back for a computer and a internet subscription.

Harlem has certainly changed a lot since the first Senegalese immigrants found themselves on 116th Street in a place where no one had even heard of Wolof, much less spoke it. However, even now, when gentrifiers move to the neighborhood, too many of them glory in the newfound edginess and street credibility they imagine they've attained. After all, their doormen and luxury draft beers and nannies notwithstanding, Harlem is scary and raw! Rising rent prices? Not our fault; it's the markets and the low vacancy rate. Displacement of current residents? Sad, but...maybe it's a good thing because they don't take care of their property, their music is loud and they make us feel unsafe. Inability of old residents to find spots in new housing? Again, not our fault that our credit scores are higher than theirs. To the Bronx they go - until our rent cracks the $3,500 mark and we're ready to enjoy cheaper rent in the boogie-down Bronx.

The original Harlem Shake represents the strength and creativity found in a community that continues to endure more than its share of economic injustices, social coup d'etats and cultural shakedowns. This is true of Harlem’s famed African-American community, but also of the small West Indian, Latino, and the West African sub-communities hustling and bustling above 110th Street. While someone rakes in millions of dollars for stealing Harlem’s communal artistic property, a number of Harlem’s Senegalese residents will wonder how to save their businesses, their apartments and their houses of worship when their landlords are raising the rates astronomically in the hopes of replacing them with nice white couples who can pay more.

Some of them, like relatives of my host family, will move to the Bronx so that they can save a little and preserve their ability to send money to Senegal, month after month. Harlem is no longer theirs, though they built it, kept it going back in the day when no one else could be bothered. They never knew much about the real Harlem Shake, but maybe saw people performing it on Harlem’s gritty streets as they worked their taxi shifts. Perhaps the dance moves fit in a bit with the mbalax music they play softly in their cars (so as not to disturb their clients)--a testament to Africana’s durability--and perhaps the children they’d been able to send for now performed the dance at home with their American friends.

The dance was just as much theirs as anyone’s, but no more. This latest affair--this fraud in which their children and grandchildren will jubilantly and innocently engage is just one more reminder that the name "Harlem" is worth millions in dollars, cultural significance and even stigma, to which none of Harlem's own actually own the rights.


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