Is the “Harlem Shake” Racist? Harlem Reacts to the Internet Dance Craze (Video)

See what Harlem residents have to say about the internet’s latest meme.

(The video contains harsh language.)

It all started with one video … and then the behemoth consciousness of the internet was hooked. The meme started with the song in the video that was written by a DJ-producer named Baauer. A fan-made video using the song was uploaded in early February and became almost an overnight sensation. There have been hundreds of other versions created since then.

Residents of Harlem react by saying things like, “It seems like they are making fun of us,” “That’s not the Harlem Shake! The Harlem Shake has rhythm,” “Living in Harlem’s not like that,” and more.

Darkening the door of this internet fad are questions about cultural appropriation and racism. Why? Because the Harlem Shake that’s been flooding your social media streams has nothing to do with the original hip hop Harlem Shake (also referred to as “albee”) dance that originated in the 1980’s in Harlem.

Jamie Utt of Change From Within says:

Though you wouldn’t know it from the meme, the actual dance known as the Harlem Shake is not where one shakes around as if she or he is having a seizure while humping things and wearing a silly costume.  It is part of the rich tradition of dance and the arts in Harlem.  Dating back to 1981 and drawing upon an Ethiopian dance called the Eskista, the Harlem Shake has long been a staple of hip hop dance in this predominantly African American section of New York.

He goes onto explain that had the videos had been named something different it would be just fine, and why a video like this plays into the much deeper, much more sinister systemic kind of racism:

The reason that White cultural appropriation is so insidious is that it is not an intentionally racist, but it plays into a system of racism where White people believe that everything is ours, everything is in-bounds to us, so we can take whatever we want, and in doing so, divorce it from its history and meaning.

You can read Jamie’s full piece here.

So what do you think? Are the “Harlem Shake” videos racist? Is this latest internet meme bastardizing the name of an important cultural item? Or is it much ado about nothing?

Photo credit: YouTube, “Harlem Reacts to ‘Harlem Shake’ Videos”

About Deanna Ogle

Deanna Ogle hails from the greater Detroit area and her work has appeared in The Good Men Project, The Printed Blog, and Provoketive Magazine. She is studying journalism and religious studies, and writes at her personal blog Soul like a Spider. Loves: carnations, iced espresso, and watching movies with her husband. Find her at Twitter, Google and Facebook.


  1. I find it funny that you state that the DJ who created the song, says “it had nothing to do with the hip hop dance at all.” Why then do you put “Harlem Shake” in the song at all? Why not say “now dance around like a complete idiot shake?” I find the latter a bit more fitting 😉

    I doubt it was ever intended to be racist, I think it was only titled that because of the song itself. Is this a case of seeing racism where it doesn’t exist?

  3. kathryn dehoyos says:

    I was under the impression the name of the SONG was “Harlem Shake” and that’s why the video’s are called that…also in an interview the DJ who created it said that it had nothing to do with the hip hop dance at all…


  1. […] There have been 50,000 Harlem Shake videos made since the meme jumped onto our computer screens just a few months ago, but none of them are as good as this one that has the original Harlem Shake dance it in. (See our post about whether or not the Harlem Shake is racist.) […]

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