Claiming the Shake | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Claiming the Shake

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Brad "Kamikaze" Franklin

Initially I didn't think it that big of a deal. I mean, the YouTube Harlem Shake videos were just that, right? I saw nothing apocalyptic about them--no "massive conspiracy," although lots of folks were peeved. I charged it off as yet another silly dance video that went viral. You know: like Gangnam (gang-dumb) Style. I was of the "don't like it; don't watch it" contingent.

Upon further review, and after a day of watching old hip-hop videos from a few years back, I have to ask: Are folks justified to be annoyed? Is this yet another instance of hip-hop culture, of black culture, being co-opted?

Research shows that the actual Harlem Shake was first seen 20 years ago--long before this latest craze. It appeared prominently in hundreds of videos, TV shows and concerts. As a matter of fact, when I started seeing this new crop of videos pop up, I frankly thought the dance had made a comeback.

So perhaps it's understandable that some folks feel as if the Harlem Shake didn't become a "craze" until white folks claimed it--claimed it, re-invented it and tagged it as a "new" creation. No one saw Harlem Shake parties or parodies before. It kind of reminds me of how Elvis took what Jackie Wilson did and made it popular. Or how the blues became a big deal once Eric Clapton found them. Or even how hip-hop didn't explode until the Beastie Boys dropped 
"Licensed to Ill."

What's worse is the insensitive responses from white folk who say black folk are "crying wolf, again" or the ridiculous comments from a person who said the original Harlem Shake wasn't the "real" one but just a "regular hip-hop dance."

Folks, this isn't about race or about a "dance" as it is about cultural appropriation: the right of all originators of an art form to have a say about how that art will be interpreted. It's about the duty of those borrowing that art form to respect its origins and boundaries.

The Harlem Shake is not something new--neither the dance nor the song. What you see in all the videos is not the correct Harlem Shake. No one is saying that you don't have the right to make a silly video with a silly dance and have it go viral. What you don't have the right to do is call it something already coined without proper disclaimers.

When actual residents of Harlem say that it isn't the real Harlem Shake, then you know you've messed up. And that's the truth ... sho-nuff.

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