Harlem Shake Craze Reaches UC Riverside

Viral meme goes global, but some question whether it obscures an aspect of Black culture

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu)  — Unless you have been living under a rock the last few weeks, you have likely seen or heard of the Harlem Shake meme. Thousands of the short dance videos have popped up on social media outlets such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter since the first video went viral in early February.

The original video was created by comedian “Filthy Frank,” but the video that set the standard for the meme and spawned thousands of imitators was created by five teenagers from Australia’s Sunshine Coast. In the weeks that followed, the meme has exploded. A Google search for the term “Harlem shake” returns more 260 million hits, while YouTube lists more than 98,000 videos with the term. Among the most popular is a video by a Norwegian army platoon that has been viewed a staggering 26 million times.

UC Riverside has not been immune to the craze, as several videos have been created on campus in the last two weeks. Some have been “official,” such as the massive gathering of more than 300 students at the Bell Tower and a performance by the UCR Track and Field team, while others appear to be a bit more spontaneous, such as a group of students who danced at the Orbach Science Library.

Seldom more than 30 seconds long, the videos begin with a single masked or costumed individual dancing alone to DJ and producer Baauer’s Harlem Shake, while others around the dancer pay no attention. But after about 15 seconds the beat drops and the image changes, showing dozens, and sometimes hundreds of participants, often wearing crazy costumes, dancing wildly for the camera.

But while the meme has become a worldwide phenomenon, some people have been angered by it, claiming that it “obscures black culture”. Baauer’s Harlem Shake song is named after a dance that was created in 1981 by a Harlem resident named “Al B.” and which has some similarities with a traditional Ethiopian dance called the Eskista. But any similarity between the meme and the original dance usually stops at the name, as few dancers do anything that resembles the actual Harlem Shake.

“It is telling that the comic who recorded the dance, and the Australians who then made the first hugely popular recording, appear not to have close links to African-American heritage,” said Toby Miller, professor of media and cultural studies at UCR. “This is the way that Black popular culture is appropriated elsewhere, and sometimes with minimal attribution or reward.”

“On the other hand, it is in the nature of music, like speech, that its point of origin is often quickly obscured or mythologized,” he added. “These ideas and sounds become fads when associated with the body, very much like the Twist in the 1960s. That is both a tribute to their popularity and a source of distress to many critics because of the way their links to time and place are severed.”

Rickerby Hinds, acclaimed hip hop theater artist, playwright, and associate professor of theatre at UCR, said that the videos reminded him of an old television show that featured James Brown singing and dancing, followed by the Rolling Stones performing.

“After watching James Brown’s smooth improvisational moves, Mick Jagger’s movements seemed to be mocking him, when in fact Jagger was ‘moving like Jagger,’ he was doing his best dance moves,” Hinds said.

“Although imitation is the best form of flattery, a bad imitation can come off as mockingly offensive,” Hinds added. “I think that the outrage, by those who are outraged, is due to the recurring history of appropriation and alteration of ‘Black cultural expression’ by artists such as Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Kenny G, Eminem – rock ‘n roll, blues, jazz, rap – making them the ‘greatest’ artists in these forms, while ignoring those on whose shoulders they stand.”

The most popular UCR version of the video was put together by members of Associated Students Program Board and Campus Housing in promotion of UCR’s Homecoming. The groups used social media to get the word out and 443 students accepted the Facebook invitation, with more than 300 actually showing up and performing at the Bell Tower on Feb. 13.

“We thought it would be a fun thing for UCR students to do as a promotion for Homecoming,” said second-year media and cultural studies major Mikenzie Denholtz, director of special events for ASPB.

Denholtz said they recorded two takes, snipping out the best 15 seconds for the video. She said the biggest challenge was recording the opening of the video where mascot Scotty Highlander danced alone as passers-by ignored him.

“That was difficult. We told people not to look at Scotty and not to walk up the ramp,” she said.

A little more than three hours later, the video was posted to Facebook. Since then, it has been viewed nearly 20,000 times. Another, similar video, has been viewed in excess of 30,000 times

But as with many memes, the Harlem Shake is probably reaching the final moments of its 15 minutes of fame and soon will be relegated to the “can you believe that we did that?” section in the dustbin of history.

“I believe it (the meme) will disappear as quickly as it started,” Hinds said. “Only to be replaced with another.”

Some of the Harlem Shake Videos from UCR

Note: These videos contain images of individuals dancing that some people might find offensive.


Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-4756
E-mail: john.warren@ucr.edu

Additional Contacts

Rickerby Hinds, associate professor of playwriting
Tel: (951) 827-3871
E-mail: rickerby.hinds@ucr.edu

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