Sunday, February 17, 2013

Harlem Shake: The Bastardization of a Culture Already Lost

            YouTube has done it again. It seems that every month there is some new mindless trend that takes over everyone’s computers. Even if you don’t want to or don’t care to see this new craze, it comes on the news and other shows that could be platforms for much better things than YouTube sensations. We currently live in an age where anyone with a YouTube channel is an expert, from beauticians to fitness experts. There are good things about this site. They do have strong copyright laws and will rip down your video in a minute if you don’t own the rights to it. Unfortunately, that same luxury is not afforded when it comes to those mindless trends. That is how we have come upon the latest, most offensive craze to date: “The Harlem Shake.”
            A little over a decade ago, there was a dance called the Harlem Shake that had people going crazy on the dance floors at clubs everywhere. It wasn’t a secret handshake or some clandestine act that was only done behind closed doors. It was in music videos, and in fact there were YouTube instructional videos on how to do it. Recently there has been a rash of videos with this same name. This is not the Harlem Shake. It actually looks like a mass anxiety attack or a group seizure. Some blow this off and say it’s a trend. You know what else is a trend? Having things stolen from us and called by the same name. It’s been happening to times going back even farther than slavery, starting with Jesus Christ. In the Bible he is described as having skin of bronze and hair of lamb’s wool. In paintings he looks like Ashton Kutcher on the latest season of Two and a Half Men. For some reason we continue to encourage the ripping of our babies from our arms and glorify the new idiotic form they take once the mainstream gets its hands on it. We don’t even reclaim our baby or demand that it be renamed as an act of courtesy toward those from whom it was stolen.
            Some call my distaste for this “reaching,” but I ask that those people take a look at history. Some of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits were Ain’t Nothing But a Houndog and My Babe, two songs written and performed by African-American artists who were already on the R&B charts. These artists were not credited by Elvis, nor were they compensated by his covers of their songs. Elvis has the Graceland memorial in his name. The artists whose songs he and his record label stole, however, don’t even have accurate Wikipedia pages. The same happened with Chuck Berry and his song Surfing USA, which went on to be a smash hit for The Beach Boys. Most people did not find out about this until watching the movie Cadillac Records some decades later. Many African-American artists died before being recognized for greatness that Caucasian performers were allowed to become rich and famous for.  
            I cringe every time I see this rebirth of the Harlem Shake being laughed at and glorified, especially when an African-American does it and shrugs it off as a trend. How a person can take something that already had a name, do something completely different with it, and then rebrand it is totally beyond me. I actually see it as a mockery toward the original dance. Since it is a YouTube sensation, the sheep will follow and laugh at it. The question why they couldn’t give this a different name is posed. It is simply because calling it the Harlem Shake will get people to watch the infinite number of videos that have stemmed from this “trend.” In the end the origin is erased, and now it is replaced with foolishness. The original artist[s] who created the dance will not be remembered, just as Little Walter’s voice was erased from My Babe. As an artist myself, I truly feel disgusted by this. People are posting these videos and can’t even point out Harlem on a map.
            Going even deeper, I find it interesting that it is the Harlem Shake that they chose to do this to; Harlem, home of the Harlem Renaissance, a pivotal movement in the history of Black art and culture. It is a time and a place that isn’t mentioned in many of today’s textbooks. The time period when Black intellectuals rose and created a name for themselves outside of the sharecropping stereotypes of the south and the cleaning the homes of rich white families of the north coincides with The World Wars and The Great Depression. In modern times Harlem, a borough of a city most closely identified by drug wars, police shoot-outs, and robbery, is still very rich in dance culture and other forms of artistry. Now that gentrification is slowly making its way through the city, their art is being stolen and dying. It is heartbreaking to say the least. It is my wish that the African-American community not contribute to and encourage the stealing of our culture any longer. 

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