Summary: In early 2013, YouTube videos of people dancing to a track called the “Harlem Shake” went viral (see an example here). At the height of this meme’s popularity, thousands of videos from users across the globe were being uploaded every day. In this clip, Melissa Harris-Perry responds to the viral video phenomenon, arguing that labeling the videos as the “Harlem Shake” constitutes cultural appropriation. She provides a quick overview of the history of the Harlem Shake, which emerged in urban New York in the 1980s, arguing, “when communities create original art, they have a right to some creative control over its interpretation.” This clip also includes responses from Harlem residents who are surprised and in some cases offended by the viral videos. Harlem residents also offer their reactions to the videos in this longer clip. Harris-Perry concludes the segment with a performance by a Harlem dance troupe demonstrating the complex dance moves that make up the original Harlem Shake. The viral “Harlem Shake” videos can be used as an example of how effortlessly, and unintentionally, cultural appropriation can occur in popular and internet culture. Although the appropriation here may seem innocuous at first glance, Harris-Perry’s segment and the responses from Harlem residents suggest that cultural appropriation, even if casual and misinformed, has consequences. Instructors can have students consider: What are other examples of cultural appropriation in mainstream/popular culture? Why is cultural appropriation so prevalent? What are the consequences of cultural appropriation? How can we identify and/or respond to cultural appropriation?
Submitted By: Anya M. Galli