I am a writer, science advocate and education researcher, but at my core I am a New York City hip-hop kid. My life has been shaped by many beautiful moments in hip-hop culture and I've been inspired by the complex ways in which hip-hip navigates the world. New York has been a great teacher. It's taught me lessons about love, loss, struggle and resilience. One of its most powerful lessons was how to deal with the bevy of emotions that come from being young, black, and poor, yet talented. New York is a place fraught with economic and racial tension, where the divides between rich and poor become glowingly apparent in a five minute walk.
In Harlem, those divides are even more clearly pronounced as an Ivy League campus in Morningside Heights sits just blocks away from the heart of Harlem. In Morningside Heights, brilliant minds explore new ideas in buildings with classic architecture and modern amenities. In Harlem, youths are cramped in overcrowded classrooms and are reprimanded for asking questions that express their brilliance. The whole scenario is painful for young people who walk around their neighborhood and see how low they sit in the power hierarchy of upper Manhattan.
For urban youth of color in New York, hip-hop gives them the space to express their frustrations. Some choose rap music and poetry, some become dee-jays and graffiti artists, and others choose to dance. In Harlem, dance is the chief form of tension release. In the tradition of black mothers in Harlem churches who "caught the spirit" and danced their pain away after working low paying jobs in lower Manhattan, the youth in Harlem turned to their own dance to escape. They created the real Harlem Shake.
The dance was birthed at the summer basketball tournaments in Harlem where the main draw was high-flying basketball players who soared like they could disappear into the sky. As players took breaks and crowds waited to be entertained once more by the basketball games, legend says there was a man named "Al B" who would shake his body to the music that blasted from outdoor speakers and car stereos to get laughs out of the audience.
Harlem youth saw Al B's dance and converted it into the most meticulous, yet in the moment, dance I have ever witnessed. The dance was poetic. It had a distinct meter and prose. It used the entire body but emphasized on the shoulders. Hands would fly in the air during breaks in rhythms and youth would stand on their toes like ballet dancers while spinning and stopping on a dime as their bodies defied science and created magic.
However, something far from the Harlem Shake which I call the Harlem Fake came out of nowhere, taking YouTube by storm. In just weeks, a crude version of the complex dance swept the globe.
While many do not see the harm in the "new" Harlem Shake internet meme, here are five reasons why Harlem doesn't want you to shake.
1. The appropriation of black art and culture
The Harlem Shake reminds us all of many other forms of art and culture created by the socioeconomically disadvantaged in local communities that have been distorted, manufactured, and then sold back to the neighborhoods where they were created. The Harlem Shake conjures up the sad tales of rock and roll, jazz and even breakdancing that have each become part of Americana at the expense of the people of color who were integral to their creation.
2. Harlem Shake is a misnomer and is misleading
There would be nothing wrong with this new dance if it were called the "wear a mask and act silly" or "the dance for the rhythmless" (which are both more appropriate names than the Harlem Shake). However, the naming of the dance as the "Harlem Shake" when an authentic dance of the same name already exists suggests that this new form is either a deliberate attempt to steal attention from the original or an awful attempt to replicate the original dance. Either way, the naming is problematic and without any ties to Harlem, devalues the brand of the neighborhood.
3. It's a mockery of the people who created it
When one understands the skill required to do the original Harlem Shake, its connections to the historical traditions of black popular dance, and its consequent cultural significance, a version that does not require or consider any of those things is a mockery of the original. Just by engaging in the dance, the performer in the new Harlem Fake is saying that they can do what the Harlem folk do without trying. This drives a pervasive and dangerous "Forrest Gump" narrative that tells the creators of the original dance that those with power can be mediocre and still be greater than those who originated the dance. This mocks localized brilliance and positions it as empty and valueless when compared to inauthentic versions of it
4. The Harlem Shake is a metaphor for real issues in Harlem
In the time it took to write this, one person of color in Harlem is moving out of an apartment of brownstone they can no longer afford while someone else with more money is brokering a mortgage and moving into their home. Streets that formerly housed generations of families look nothing like they did a decade ago as neighborhoods become gentrified and generations loose their root in the neighborhood. In many ways, whether through gentrification or through this dance, Harlem is being shaken out of its traditions.
5. It does nothing positive for Harlem
One of the most powerful observations I have made about the Harlem Fake dance is that it could provide an opportunity for the world to focus on the challenges that exist for the people of that area of New York City. The visibility of the dance and the attention it has gathered could very easily lead to a focus on Harlem's media, arts and culture. The millions of videos on YouTube could be monetized and have a fraction of the money gathered go to schools in the area. The artist behind the song could have made a statement that gives much deserved attention to the originators of the dance. None of this has happened, and because of that, the Harlem Shake should either be renamed more appropriately, or stopped.