Memetic Minstrelsy:

What Viral Amateur Dance Reveals About Twenty-First Century Racism

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Dan Cullen

“Con los terroristas!” --The opening lyrics to Brooklyn-based DJ Baauer’s 2012 song "Harlem Shake"

 “Harlem Shake” serve as a pickup to eight measures of exposition. The musical exposition serves as the underscore to a visual exposition: in a workplace or dorm room, it is business as usual. The people who inhabit the setting go about their everyday existence: looking at their cellphones, catching up on emails, playing video games, reading books. Seemingly unbeknownst to them, a masked figure stands in the middle of the room. Typically, the mask is a motorcycle helmet with the visor down, evoking the masked personalities of the electronic dance music duo, Daft Punk. The figure may be in some sort of costume; superheroes are popular. As the regular people go about their business, this masked figure bounces in time to the music hinting at the chaos simmering just beneath the surface of the otherwise dreary scene. Five bars in, the frequency of accented beats doubles from only beat one to beats one and three. In the seventh measure, the pulse quickens, accenting every beat. Halfway through the eighth bar, a masculine voice brings the exposition to a climax: “Do the Harlem Shake.” The beat drops, and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly everyone in the room is engaged in a frenetic dance party. Perhaps the number of people in the room has doubled. Some people are wearing masks or costumes. Others are somehow stripped down to just underwear. Those with long hair whip it around their heads, obscuring their faces. The dance is sexual. It often emanates from a thrusting pelvis with legs spread wide and hands waving in the air. Strangely, though, nobody is dancing with each other. They all gyrate in general proximity to one another, but they do not interact. They do not travel. They do not alter their moves. Eight measures of this, and the high-pitched male voice with the Castilian accent repeats, “Con los terroristas,” a fearsome animal growls, and it is over. This is the 2013 viral amateur video dance craze known as the “Harlem Shake.”

What is this? Where did it come from? Why did thousands of people make these videos, and why do some of them have hundreds of millions of views? All of these would be fair questions for the casual web surfer upon seeing a YouTube search for “Harlem Shake” return a seemingly endless supply of videos that follow the pattern described above. Now, years after the viral phenomenon has run its course, the top results are compilations claiming to have collected “the best” of the genre for convenient binge viewing. Also near the top are reaction videos, in which someone watches a Harlem Shake meme video and gives their unfiltered opinions, as well as rebuttal videos in which people criticize the viral sensation as a mockery of the “real” Harlem Shake. What follows is an investigation into the popularity of amateur internet dance video memes, who makes them, who watches them, and who stands to profit from them. I will place the Harlem Shake (both the meme and the song that inspired it) in its historical context in comparison with the source materials from which it is derived. Along the way, I will be careful to differentiate the Harlem Shake meme/dance video from Electronic Dance Music DJ Baauer’s 2012 recording “Harlem Shake” and the Real Harlem Shake, which is how I will refer to the dance form that originated in 1980s Harlem. My analysis will demonstrate that the 2013 trend of amateur Harlem Shake videos illustrates the presence of what I will call “mimetic minstrelsy” and the willingness of white culture in the twenty-first century to accept and rationalize it for profit.

Understanding the Phenomenon

Social media platforms offer users two different levels for expression. Each is exhibitionistic in its own way. The first level offers the opportunity for notoriety. In this category are placed the people who post photos and videos of themselves in hopes of constructing an identity around their social media presence (Fisher, Boland, and Lyytinen 2016). This calls to mind the everyday ways in which people use social networks to keep distant acquaintances aware of where they are, whom they are with, and what they are eating. Also working on this plane are a set of videos in which participants record themselves sharing talents or giving advice. The creators of these recordings often hope to parlay any following they may generate for their ability to sing, dance, cook, apply makeup, etc., into a career as a performer, writer, or tastemaker. Perhaps the most recent development from this category is the social media “influencer” who  aspires to earn a living by endorsing products to those who follow their accounts. These first two purposes have merged on the social media platform TikTok, where “dance challenges,” in which users choose a popular song, choreograph a dance to it, and ask other users to post videos of themselves trying to replicate the choreography, have become a popular meme. Finally, on this level are posters who seek to gain a following by exposing others. Though the ethics of making such videos are complicated, it can be useful in giving voices to those whose mistreatment is ignored by traditional media. Amateur video of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York City police officers in 2014 comes to mind among seemingly countless examples. All of these examples are predicated on individuals seeking recognition either for themselves or their subjects, and a great deal of scholarly work has been done on how social media’s lack of formal gatekeeping allows minoritized populations to make themselves heard in ways that traditional media have typically prohibited.[1]

 

The second level for participation on social media platforms that I wish to consider seeks to erase, occlude, or conceal identity. Individual social media platforms are designed with varying degrees of ability for users to conceal or reveal their true identities. While Facebook encourages users to use the site under their legal name with a photograph to identify them, other sites allow users to post without any identifiable username at all, as indicated in Abigail Curlew’s 2019 study of the now-defunct Yik-Yak app. Even the platforms that require users to be identified by a name or pseudonym are easily manipulated so that users can disguise themselves and pretend to be somebody else. This vulnerability is illuminated by Lisa Nakamura’s essay “Syrian Lesbian Bloggers, Fake Geishas, and the Attractions of Identity Tourism” (2011),  which unpacks the reasons for and problems with straight white men posing as Asian lesbians in pursuit of both erotic and political satisfaction. Perhaps a more common example of the exploitation of the online potential for anonymity lurks in the comments sections of the posts that served as examples in the previous paragraph – the troll. This is a person who posts offensive, inflammatory, or threatening comments or memes to bully or intimidate other users. Curlew explains the troll’s desire for anonymity on social media thusly: “Anonymity is undisciplined: the inability to link a performative digital act to an identifiable person allows for such acts to become dissociated from a user’s overall identity and untethers that user from [being] held accountable for the content they post” (2019, 5). In other words, the troll can be as terrible as they wish with minimal risk of consequences. In a social media landscape where many perceive the possibility for one to be “cancelled” or made a pariah, the ability to separate one’s identity from controversial content is invaluable to the would-be provocateur.

The Harlem Shake dance meme operates, somewhat paradoxically, on both of these valances at once. On the one hand, the exhibitionist can be satisfied with the meme’s ability to allow them to be seen. Beyond the given visual nature of dance, the proscenium-like gaze of the camera aids the maker in placing the audience at whatever vantage point provides the optimal view for what they wish to show. In addition, the Harlem Shake’s pseudo-nudist conventions allow for exhibitionists to show off as much of their bodies as they choose within the limitations of YouTube’s content restrictions. What is more, the YouTube algorithm makes suggestions for what to watch next based on what the viewer just watched; the next related video may even play automatically at the conclusion of the first. This means that a viewer who watches one Harlem Shake video is likely to continue watching them; thus, posting a video of a popular type has an increased opportunity for more views. This is especially true of something temporally short, such as the Harlem Shake, which can easily be pooled into compilations of ten or more without fatiguing the audience.

On the other hand, the user seeking anonymity can make use of the camera’s gaze in such a way that obscures the participants yet still fulfills the criteria for the meme. Just as the Harlem Shake’s conventional nudity advantaged the exhibitionist, its masking and costuming conventions also permit the timid performer to participate (and get audience feedback on their performance) without the risk of being identified. The brevity of the form, which encourages the viewer to consume many versions in a short time span, offers equal benefits to performers who wish to hide and those who wish to show. It becomes easy for one performance to blend into the crowd, especially with so many bodies in each rendition. The elements that constitute the Harlem Shake meme are ideally suited to production by social media users of all stripes, and the inherent social aspect of making this type of film only adds to its appeal.

The second half of the equation for understanding the popular explosion of Harlem Shake meme videos is what drives an audience to watch them and to watch multiple renditions. Of course, some of the elements that contributed to creating the initial appeal, such as the form’s brevity and YouTube’s algorithmic autopilot, will apply here as well, but there must be more to it than that. In an article published in New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, Abigail Keating offers some possible explanations. To begin with, Keating cites the “rules” of the form. The two-shot composition of the videos provides a replicable narrative structure with a great deal of latitude for the creators to alter and improvise within, which is comforting to the viewer. I would add that it is also exciting. The meme is comforting because there is no interpretive work to do; there are established expectations. It is exciting because there is no reason to expect that all of the rules will be followed in each successive version of the narrative; expectations may be subverted. Keating (2013) also notes that the form’s narrative structure places a rebellious individual in conflict with a repressive society. In her view, this conflict mirrors “the tensions present when the western capitalist world is unsettled where the [individual] is considered to be authentic (and prior) while the [society] is considered to be artifice (and imposed)” (2013, 106 emphasis in original). From this perspective, although it seems that, in the first shot, the lone, masked dancer is invisible or ignored, they ultimately succeed in disrupting the banality of the world that surrounds them. Their energy liberates the other participants from their stifling routines and creates the sexually charged chaos of the second shot.

The masked rebel offering an escape from the soul-crushing grind of everyday life provides viewers with a glimpse of the pleasures of surveillance, exhibition, and evasion so vital to the allure of the Harlem Shake meme. Michel Foucault observed similar glimpses in Victorian discourse on “unproductive” sexualities: “they function as mechanisms with a double impetus: pleasure and power. The pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light; and on the other hand, the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it, or travesty it” (1978, 45). These videos offer the same opportunities for pleasure and power – the power to observe undetected and the pleasure of exhibition without the risk of being identified. From both the performer and viewer positions, there is the sense that one is getting away with something naughty. It is no wonder that the meme has reproduced itself and permeated the culture in a way that truly deserves to be described as “viral.” Yet the meme has deeper significance than a celebratory performance of social media’s capacity to let users see and be seen.

Digital Blackface and Memetic Minstrelsy

Before the Harlem Shake meme went viral, DJ Baauer was virtually unknown. Like most artists in the genre of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), Baauer uses machine-generated beats with samples of other artists’ vocal or instrumental tracks interspersed throughout. Hip hop DJs have been employing similar techniques for decades, and it is not coincidental that EDM makes frequent use of hip hop tracks in its sampling. Music theorist Christine Boone (2013) theorizes this mode of composition as the musical equivalent of a collage. Here the artistry reveals itself through the DJ’s cleverness in choosing the tracks to sample, the ways in which to alter their sonority – pitching them up or down, changing the tempo, etc. – and the placement of the various samples. It is a quirky, postmodern spin on the modernist concept of taking something familiar and making it strange (Boone 2013, 6). As I will show, it is no coincidence that even the most cursory google image search for “EDM DJ” suggests that the profession is overwhelmingly dominated by white men like Baauer.

It was Baauer’s relative obscurity that made the meme possible. First, as an unknown artist with minimal resources, he lacked the economic capital to sample big name artists. Sampling someone whose music is well-known like Kanye West or Nikki Minaj would involve negotiating licensing fees or royalties with their representatives. These artists are backed by large corporations with the resources to seek out any unlicensed use of their material and put a stop to it. Even artists with a much more moderate following are protected by groups like ASCAP or BMI that make the risk of sampling without permission outweigh the benefit. However, Philadelphia rap group Plastic Little and their song “Miller Time” were far enough below the radar that Baauer could take their recording of the vocal line “Do the Harlem Shake,” alter the pitch to distort the voice, and have a reasonable expectation of getting away with the unlicensed, uncredited use of another artist’s intellectual property. Even after “Harlem Shake” became a hit, Baauer claimed not to know where “Con los terroristas!” was sampled from, though Reddit users quickly traced it back to a Puerto Rican rapper known as Hector el Father’s 2006 song “Malades” (Soha and McDowell 2016). “Harlem Shake,” the EDM track, would not have been possible had any of these artists been better known prior to the song’s creation. Baauer’s appropriation of Black cultural signifiers like the Harlem Shake (which I will discuss in further detail in a later section) is an explicit expression of the implicit disregard white social media movements frequently show artists of color through the unattributed exploitation of their intellectual property.  

In an essay on YouTube’s circulation of “Hood Dance” beyond their neighborhoods of origin, Naomi Bragin (2016) outlines the ways in which the Harlem Shake meme – as well as other internet appropriations of locally-specific African American dances – reads as antiblack. She notes that the absence of Black bodies in the vast majority of Harlem Shake meme videos, combined with Baauer’s initial failure to credit the Black artists from whom he took material, contributes to the erasure of African American labor from their own cultural products. She sees the meme as an instance of whiteness “playing black” as “a way to perform social inclusion across a global network” that perpetuates the myth of a post-racial present (Braggin 2016, 547). Connecting these observations about the Harlem Shake meme with Joshua Green’s (2006) concept of “digital blackface,” I view the Harlem Shake meme as an updated form of the nineteenth-century minstrel show. Green coins the term “digital blackface” to describe the popular video game franchise Grand Theft Auto’s deployment of a Black central character as reinforcing stereotypes of Black masculinity as violent, criminal, and hypersexual, arguing that these stereotypes are updated versions of the tropes of blackface minstrelsy and that the game designers capitalize on these stereotypes in the same way that producers of minstrel shows of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did (Green 2006, 21). When considered this way, the troublesome representational practices of digital blackface, which in Green’s conception may be limited to a private, in-home experience, surreptitiously become part of an embodied, public-facing performance practice, which I will identify as memetic minstrelsy.

Commonly, digital blackface is an expression of what Carmen van Kerckhove (2007) calls “hipster racism,” where racist stereotypes are invoked in the name of irony. Cheris Brewer Current and Emily Tillotson offer a thoughtful analysis of the effects of hipster racism’s use of these stereotypes to reflect “notions of a post-racial, post-feminist world that is rife with ironic signifiers . . . [Practitioners] see their expression of racist or sexist practices as quaint or ironic, and signs that they have enough cultural capital to reference historical events or practices that predated their own births” (2016, 470). Hipster racist memes often reinforce the stereotype of Blackness as associated with sassiness, and they serve to allow white people to give themselves permission to say things outside the purview of whiteness through the adoption of a Black persona. They place the meme’s white creators in a position to employ racialized stereotypes while simultaneously denying the racism inherent in doing so.  

Although the original makers of the Harlem Shake dance meme videos were likely unaware of the Real Harlem Shake and its cultural significance, the meme is an act of hipster racism. Grant Kein’s essay “Media Memes and Prosumerist Ethics: Notes Toward a Theoretical Examination of Memetic Audience Behavior” (2013) recalls Jean Baudrillard’s argument that a signifier which becomes detached from the thing that it originally signified becomes a simulation of the original. Kein argues that internet memes are remarkably efficient at creating these simulacra (2013, 556). Meme culture’s affinity for ironic readings and lack of ability to convey tone or nuance allow for extreme flexibility in re/misinterpretation. In this case, the Harlem Shake meme has taken the signifier “Harlem Shake” and has, for the unwitting consumers of the meme, supplanted the “hood dance” that the term originally signified, replacing it with its memetic form. In other words, in the hegemonic cultural consciousness, the Harlem Shake meme is the Harlem Shake, despite its origination in a video in which the dancers did not believe themselves to be attempting to, as the song commands, “Do the Harlem Shake.” As such, subsequent participants in Harlem Shake meme videos did believe they were doing a dance that originated in Harlem with the people of color who live there, but more accurately, the participants were parodying such a dance.

The large body of extant work on performances in blackface minstrel shows suggests that they also create racial simulacra. Antebellum audiences for these performances were primarily white men in the urban North (Jones 2011, 28). These audiences were unlikely to have interacted with nonwhite people in any significant way, so when they saw white men performing buffoonish sketches in blackface, the audience ascribed the tropes of minstrelsy as signified to the sign of “black.” The classic example is the legendary origin of “Jim Crow” performances as created by Thomas “Daddy” Rice. Nathan Hurwitz explains: “Supposedly one day Rice spied a crippled black man singing and dancing in an awkward manner and realized that this could be incorporated into his act – at that point…‘Jumping Jim Crow’ took off” (2014, 22). Those who only saw Rice’s song and dance act parodying the original crippled performer might have had a completely different reaction to the original, but in their minds, Rice’s performance became a genuine representation of Black dance. The perceived authenticity of blackface minstrelsy became even more deeply entrenched with the advent of minstrel shows performed by all-black troupes, and the same can be said about Harlem Shake meme videos created by groups with significant African American membership, notably pro sports teams.

At first glance, the key component of minstrelsy missing from the Harlem Shake meme, of course, is blackface, either literal or digital. In Green’s conception of digital blackface, the Grand Theft Auto player enacts stereotypical Black masculinity through an African American avatar. The expanded use of the term substitutes old-fashioned black greasepaint for the images and/or voices of Black people – a captioned photo of James Harden or a man-on-the-street-style television interview taken from a news program and filtered through an autotune machine. Most white people in 2013 were unlikely to be so brazenly racist as to post videos of themselves in blackface, but the memes conventions do call for obscuring the face with a mask. As discussed earlier, the Harlem Shake meme’s masking convention conceals the identity of the performers to maintain pleasurable anonymity for white performers. Beyond that, Bragin suggests that the mask, especially on the solo dancer in the first shot of a Harlem Shake meme, aids the performer in, as Bragin says, “feigning blackness.” It disguises the identity of the performer and links them to the “articulated point of reference – Harlem,” implying that the performer and their movements, rooted in basic instinct rather than volition or artistic creativity, are entitled to association with the neighborhood (2016, 548-9). This embodied internet performance by white bodies parodying Blackness can thus be theorized as “memetic minstrelsy,” a term I use to allude to the mimetic quality of these performances, but also to the way in which a meme can saturate internet culture with a false understanding of what they are and where they originate.

The false understanding upon which these memes are predicated is more than an unfortunate misunderstanding. It is the reason these memes are able to spread as widely as they do. If it were easy to see the Harlem Shake meme as the blatant theft of intellectual property and the gross misrepresentation of a specific cultural product, its appeal would be greatly diminished, and it would lose its potential for true virality. A virus, after all, transcends the culture wars. In the next section, I explore the capital interests involved in obscuring the roots of the Harlem Shake meme and the structures those interests have erected to that end.

Shake Your Moneymaker: Cashing in on the Dance Craze

Baauer’s status as an unknown artist on a struggling label was also responsible for the song’s availability for inclusion in the amateur dance videos. When “Harlem Shake” was released in 2012, Baauer’s record label, Mad Decent, allowed it to be downloaded for free on iTunes (Dugan 2013). Baauer and Mad Decent were not donating the song to the culture as an altruistic gesture. This was a strategic move to get people to take a chance downloading a song by an unfamiliar artist, build a following, and sell subsequent products: according to Mad Decent manager Jasper Goggins, “We wanted the music to live on its own for a [while and] to build a groundswell around the track so that when we took away the free download of the track, people were fine to just go buy the track” (Hampp 2013, 24). The gambit paid off. A group of college students led by YouTube poster Filthy Frank downloaded the song and recorded a video of themselves wearing costumes and dancing to “Harlem Shake” in their dorm room, and suddenly a meme was born. Mere days later, a group of Australian teens known as TheSunnyCoastSkate made a copycat video wherein the “rules” of the meme – namely the motorcycle helmet on the lone dancer and the two-shot format – emerged (Soha and McDowell, 2016).

All of this illustrates the diverse types and sources of labor that go into the generation of a viral internet dance craze like the Harlem Shake meme; yet, the revenue stream is remarkably narrow. Michael Soha and Zachary McDowell (2016) claim that at the apex of its popularity, over 4,000 Harlem Shake dance videos were being posted daily. In just over one month, these videos amassed over a billion views. For hosting the content and selling ads, YouTube forms an agreement with content providers that the brand, which is owned by Google, retains 45% of the ad revenue, which Billboard Magazine’s Andrew Hammp (2013) conservatively estimates to be about $2 US per 1,000 views. Soha and McDowell estimate YouTube’s take to be about $1.2 million from the 250 most frequently viewed renditions of the meme as of 2016, the time of their writing. They imply that YouTube’s ContentID software, which allows copyright holders to track usage of their intellectual property and either block it or monetize it, pays the remaining 55% of the ad revenue to Mad Decent and Baauer. Hammp asserts that the makers of the individual videos are entitled to 10% of the revenue, but Soha and McDowell observe even that would simply be paid to the owner of the account that posted the video with no guarantee that the performers are being compensated. Additionally, when many of the top-viewed videos are compilations in which one person has collected several videos created by others and simply placed them into one file, the poster likely has no relationship to the creator. It is doubtful that there is any mechanism in place to ensure the appropriate allocation of those funds, even if they are being offered. YouTube makes money for hosting the content. Baauer and his record label make money for owning the intellectual property in these videos. Beyond that, performers and creators are left to scramble for crumbs.

In response to the popularity of the meme, iTunes downloads of “Harlem Shake” skyrocketed creating another financial windfall for Baauer and Mad Decent. Not only that, but in the months before the meme took off, Billboard began to take YouTube views into account when tabulating its “Hot 100” charts. On the strength of its YouTube popularity, the song sat atop the Hot 100 for 5 weeks in 2013 (Soha and McDowell, 2016). Perhaps in an effort to pay homage to Harlem, Baauer made plans to share the wealth by collaborating with Harlem-born rapper Azealia Banks on a remix of the song, but those plans fell through when Banks posted a video of their work online prematurely. Suddenly Banks’s version became known as a “bootlegged ‘Harlem Shake’ cover” that was nothing more than a reiteration of the meme for Baauer to capitalize on. Hammp recounts one of Baauer’s representatives taking “particular delight in claiming uploads” of Banks’s video saying, “Wow, they made an official video for this . . . Thanks for making my job a lot easier (2013, n.p.). Naomi Bragin (2016) notes that cutting Banks out of the artistic and financial collaboration in this way represents the willful erasure of Harlem and Black culture writ large from compensation from the meme. Baauer’s omission of credit to the song’s source material reveals that this type of appropriation is not about dialogical cultural exchange, but artistic imperialism, as does a quote from Azealia Banks about the dissolution of their collaboration: “I feel like the Harlem Shake was a ho . . . and everyone was allowed to fuck but me” (Bragin 2016, 549). Banks, Plastic Little, and Hector El Father were not the only ones prevented from receiving due credit and compensation for the Harlem Shake. In the next section, I will discuss the development of what Bragin and others rightly call the “real” Harlem Shake, which is occluded by Baauer’s appropriation of the name and the viral spread of the meme (Bragin 2016, 550).

Reconnecting Harlem to the Shake

The music video for Wes Crave’s “The Real Harlem Shake,” posted on YouTube in March of 2013, offers a glimpse of the dance that Plastic Little references in “Miller Time” (2001). What stands out the most in this video is that, unlike most Harlem Shake meme videos, it is populated exclusively by Black bodies. This is an important choice by the creators of the video who provide a caption that explains that this dance “was started many years ago in the streets of Harlem. It was a cultural dance well before Baauer.” This caption and the video itself attempt to reclaim the name Harlem Shake for Harlem, which is meant to be read as synonymous with African American culture.

The videos also align the Real Harlem Shake with a political outlook that is distinct from the one depicted in the meme. Both center the spectator’s attention on solo dancers, but as noted earlier, the videos set to Baauer’s song rely on a soloist being ignored by everyone else on screen. Even when everyone is dancing together, each performer is generally uninterested in the moves on display around them. The performance is purely for the camera. Wes Crave’s video, however, places soloists in the middle of a supportive dance circle. Not only are individuals offered the chance to showcase their moves, but it is clear that the residents of Harlem are interested in listening to the soloist’s statement, maybe trying to steal a move or two, and being prepared to build on it when their turn in the center comes. The video is set to Juan Ye and Kid Da Wiz’s song, “The Real Harlem Shake,” whose lyrics even express an interest in cooperative dancemaking running alongside pride in individual ability. The song’s musical transitions are frequently punctuated by the lyric, “I’ll show ya’ how to do this, son.” There are duets and moments where large groups dance together, and they are synchronized while still allowing the performers to showcase individual moves; the dancers convey the sense that they are dancing together. Thus, while Harlem Shake memers are interested in making a statement, Real Harlem Shakers are interested in a conversation.

The original Harlem Shake is vastly different from the haphazard gyrations that are typical of the meme. Filthy Frank or the Australian teens from TheSunnyCoastSkate would not likely have any knowledge of the Harlem Shake before Baauer. Their chaotic, sexualized gyrations are in stark contrast to the highly technical isolation of limbs demonstrated by the dancers in Crave’s video, credited as Go Crazy Boyz (Harlem Shakers). Much of the Go Crazy Boyz’ movement originates in the shoulders, while the torso remains oriented squarely toward the camera and the head swivels side to side taking feedback from the people in the circle. Limbs alternately pronate and supinate in jerky spasms that stop and start on a dime. Although the form is predicated on improvisation, technique and practice are evident in the performance. As Naomi Bragin observes, “Hood dance resists the terms of choreocentricity,” which elevates the choreographer to genius status, establishes a false dichotomy between choreography and improvisation that enables “stereotypes of ‘instinctive black performativity,’” and aims to “bring black forms into a frame of whiteness to police their global production . . . effectively cleansing them of their anti-institutional tendencies (2016, 539). The meme’s two-shot structure, pliable as it may be, imposes a sense of choreocentricity and further removes the meme from Bragin’s conception of hood dance. It is no wonder that those familiar with the Real Harlem Shake have strong negative reactions when they see the meme.

Filmmaker Chris McGuire took his camera to the streets of Harlem to capture reactions of its residents to seeing Harlem Shake meme videos for the first time. Most of McGuire’s subjects reacted first with confusion: “What are they doing?” They each proceeded to declare some variation of “That’s not the Harlem Shake.” One observer diagnosed the issue astutely by saying, “They don’t live in Harlem. They don’t come from Harlem,” recognizing that the meme makers are ignorant of the Harlem Shake’s true nature. Others pitied the performers in the meme, calling them “a bunch of idiots” “making fools of themselves,” especially with regard to the sexual or homoerotic nature of the meme. Ultimately, several people in McGuire’s video expressed dismay or offense: “I feel like they’re trying to disrespect us”; “It’s an absolute mockery.”[2]

The dance that I am referring to as the Real Harlem Shake has existed since the early 1980s. All available accounts credit Harlem resident Albert Leopold Boyce, also known as Al B., with creating the dance in performances at the Rucker Park Entertainers Basketball Classic, a well-known streetball tournament that draws players, spectators, and scouts from around the country. Accounts differ as to the degree of official sanction Boyce’s performances were given, but the dance was originally known as “The Al B.” Some characterize it as part of a halftime show; others suggest that he drunkenly made his way onto the court and started dancing. Boyce himself described the inspiration for his dance as “an alcoholic shake . . . Pharaohs invented this thing, with spears, and hats, and gowns” (Bragin 2016, 550). He goes on to say, “that’s what the mummies used to do. They was all wrapped up and taped up, so they couldn’t really move” (Bragin 2016, 550). He asserts that the dance was in his blood: “It spread to the parks, and all the picnics…biologically” (Bragin 216, 550). This origin story is not without its problems, namely Al B.’s questionable suggestion of a direct phylogenic relationship between the ancient Egyptians and contemporary African Americans (let alone the idea that a mummified corpse could dance).

Anna Everett offers the more likely explanation that the connection Al B. described exists, not through biology, but through diasporic social formations:

The ethnically and nationally diverse Africans in the New World developed self-sustaining virtual communities through paralinguistic and transnational communicative systems and networks of song, dance, talking drums, and other musical instrumentations that enabled this heterogenous mass of people somehow to overcome their profound dislocation,
fragmentation, alienation, relocation, and ultimate commodification in the Western slavocracies of the modern world.
(2009, 3)

This illustrates a kinship, at least in spirit, between the Original Harlem Shake and Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s (1996) idea of the “Africanist aesthetic,” which distinguishes itself from European aesthetics – ballet being her prime example – through an embrace of contrariety and struggle as opposed to a search for the graceful resolution of tension. Dixon-Gottschild describes this aesthetic as exemplified by Harlem Renaissance dancer Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker’s cool detachment from the movement of his body in order to engage with the audience. This “aesthetic of the cool” and the polycentrism and intense sharpness (ephebism) Dixon-Gottschild points out in Tucker’s performances are all echoed in the spasmodic motions of the Real Harlem Shake in a way that situates it firmly in African American culture.

Throughout the 1990s, Harlem dance crews that had seen Boyce dance in Rucker Park incorporated his moves into their repertoires, calling it the Harlem Shake in a nod to their shared cultural heritage. The dance was brought to the attention of mainstream culture when Sean “P. Diddy” Combs performed it in the 2001 music video for G-Depp’s “Let’s Get It.” This may explain Plastic Little’s reference to the dance in their song from the same year. Many of the crews responsible for the development of the form, like the Go Crazy Boyz, are still dancing today. The curiosity surrounding the meme led the Go Crazy Boyz to be interviewed for a New York Times article where they credit the meme for renewed interest in their authentic version of the Harlem Shake, but it never achieved the status of global phenomenon that the imitation did. Moreover, the phenomenon of the Harlem Shake meme reveals harmful racial undertones that accompany hegemonic recapitulation of localized cultural products.

Conclusion: TikTok and Memetic Minstrelsy Remixed

Since the apex of the Harlem Shake meme’s popularity in the spring of 2013, the social media landscape has shifted a great deal. YouTube has been supplanted as the leading platform for amateur dance videos, and the virality of these videos has grown more complicated and stratified. The 2020 arrival of TikTok in the US has brought questions about the ownership of internet dance content, the ability to capitalize on that ownership, and memetic minstrelsy back to the surface.

The clearest example of the prevalence of amateur dance memes on TikTok are dance challenges, which I referred to early on in this essay. In these memes, creators choreograph, perform, and post brief dance videos. These creators then invite other users to attempt to recreate them in their own posts. TikTok’s structural constraints are configured to be friendly to the creation of memes that manipulate viewer attention in ways that call back to the Harlem Shake. The platform limits videos to fifteen seconds and allows posters to group up to four videos into a single sixty-second post; its “like” function allows it to learn a viewer’s preferences, and its interface allows the viewer to scroll to the next, similar video without having to conduct a search; and its hashtag function allows a viewer to discover clusters of meme videos by using a single key word or phrase. Yet the app’s algorithms place content into users’ queues and sort search results by the number of “likes” a video has without regard for chronology, so it becomes almost impossible for viewers to identify the creator of any given challenge. If a relatively unknown poster issues a challenge that is then taken up by a “TikTok celebrity” with tens of thousands of followers, the original post will quickly be lost by the mechanics of the platform.

A notorious example is the case of Jalaiah Harmon, a Black teenager from Atlanta who, in 2019, created a popular challenge meme known as “The Renegade.” Harmon’s challenge generated incalculable numbers of responses, becoming one of the most popular challenge memes on the platform, but the credit was mostly being given to users with larger numbers of followers like Charli D’Amelio. D’Amelio’s version of the challenge had the chance to be viewed by nearly 26 million accounts that follow her, which caused her to be dubbed the “C.E.O” of the Renegade (Lorenz 2020). Ultimately, Harmon’s persistence in posting comments on more famous users’ iterations of the dance garnered a profile in The New York Times and an invitation from D’Amelio to perform together. Still, a search for the hashtag “renegade” does not yield Harmon’s version of the dance among the first results. Missing out on credit, the way Harmon initially did, means missing the opportunity to increase one’s following, become an influencer in one’s own right, and capitalize on that following through endorsements and appearances. In the case of the Renegade, copies of the dance by more famous (white) performers not only overshadowed the origin of the dance, but of “Lottery,” the song to which the dance is set. Atlanta-based rapper K-Camp posted this video in November of 2020 captioned: “I’m trying to figure out how I made the biggest song on tiktok (sic) and only have 68k Followers?! How do influencers who only danced to my song have more followers than the creator?!” A significant number of users have posted videos highlighting how Black creators like Harmon and K-Camp are frequently responsible for content that goes viral but do not receive proportional recognition.

 I would also like to consider some memes whose performers likely do not think of what they do as dance per se. I am viewing them as such in the vein of postmodern dance innovators like Pina Bausch and Deborah Hay who explored the expressive possibilities of quotidian movements, but their classification as dance is less important for my purposes than the ways in which they deploy memetic minstrelsy. The two memes I will briefly describe demonstrate how the embodiment of a Black digital persona by white performers, central to the Harlem Shake meme, continues to be a memetic trope in more current social media.

The first of these two memes, known by the hashtag #hotgirlshit, is complex because it has morphed in several directions over the course of 2020. They all begin the same way: a solo performer lip syncing the words, “I can’t talk right now. I’m doin’ hot girl shit.” The video then cuts to the performer doing their version of the aforementioned “hot girl shit” with Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Girls in the Hood” playing over the video. In some cases, posters show themselves ironically doing something that the viewer is unlikely to consider “hot.” Frequently these posters choose hygienic or grooming procedures, the grotesque consumption of food, or forms of pleasure that appear unflattering or uncool. These users posit that there is some essential form of “hot girl-ness” that they refuse to conform to. In many ways, it is an empowering statement of (usually feminist or queer) nonconformity.

In other incarnations of the #hotgirlshit meme, posters attempt to convince the viewer that they do fit into whatever their essentialist vision of hot girl-ness might be. These versions of the meme depict performers attempting to show themselves as desirable sexual objects, often, as with the example linked here, altering their skin tone to appear darker. One such video even showed the performer applying bronzer as the example of the “hot girl shit” that they do. Both forms of the meme, the ironic and the sincere, code sexuality as a signifier for Blackness, and through the use of Megan Thee Stallion’s voice, adopt a Black persona that either appropriates or parodies that sexuality. Both forms deploy the tropes of memetic minstrelsy by asserting the existence of an essential embodiment of Blackness which is overtly sexual and implicitly fetishized.

Finally, I want to look at a more general mode of performance that is common on TikTok: lip syncing. Users of this platform post videos of themselves lip syncing to all sorts of material – scenes from movies and television shows, political speeches, popular songs, etc. These performances, even when they are cross-racial, may not always be examples of memetic minstrelsy. The key component is, once again, the reliance on and embodiment of racially essentialist stereotypes. When they meet this requirement, these may be the clearest examples of memetic minstrelsy I have found. Take, for example, clips linked here and here which engage in the practice by playing with stereotyped speech patterns, hair and makeup designs, and hypersexualization.

If Joshua Green’s notion of digital blackface shows that the tropes of minstrelsy are still part of the collective consciousness in the twenty-first century and that white structures of power still, however subtly, take advantage of the simulation of Blackness in imagery, memetic minstrelsy shows that these simulations are still a part of embodied cultural performance nearly a century after the supposed extinction of the overt minstrel show. In fact, these digital reincarnations of minstrel performance may have the potential to cause more harm by virtue of their more insidious tactics. The substitution of masks, bronzer, and costumes for greasepaint can dupe the unwitting performer or viewer into participating in these updated forms of minstrelsy and reinforce the same tropes that previous, more overt versions did. Moreover, the social media structures offer economic incentives for white folks who engage in these practices while simultaneously depriving creators of color from receiving recognition and remuneration for their intellectual and cultural property.

Notes

[1] See Florini, Sarah. Beyond Hashtags: Racial Politics and Black Digital Networks. New York: New York University Press, 2019. For its consideration of “Black Twitter” for example.

[2]  All quotes in this paragraph come from “Harlem Reacts to the Harlem Shake | Do the Harlem Shake | Harlem Shake Dance Original (v1).” YouTube, February 8, 2013: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGH2HEgWppc.

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