In 2013, four friends uploaded a video of themselves to YouTube entitled “Do The Harlem Shake.” They were dressed in unitards, doing a dance involving hip thrusting and waving their arms and shoulders around to the song – you guessed it – “Harlem Shake” by Baauer. The video went viral and even started a trend, with hundreds of people uploading their versions of the Harlem Shake, including workers in various offices, soldiers in an army and a swimming team.
The problem is, there is an actual dance style called The Harlem Shake, and as the name suggests, it is traditionally practiced by the residents of Harlem. The dance that the four friends do as the beat drops in the song closely resembles the original Harlem Shake, but not quite the same with the costumes and the dance itself performed in a more “ridiculous” way.
This, of course, upset a lot of people that belong to the Harlem community, as it was perceived to be a mockery of their culture and heritage. Harlem has generally been an African-American residential since the early 20th century and it has an infamous history of crime, poverty and struggles. However, the neighborhood has come a long way with social and economic improvements, and a rich culture with various types of art that has been preserved by the community. Therefore, the locals perceive their freedom of expression as more than a dance, but rather an escape from the oppression and poverty that they were faced with. So the Harlem Shake being done by basically anyone who is not closely related to Harlem becomes an issue with the questions of who gets to represent a community and profit from their traditions. (Both YouTube and content uploaders profit from the amount of view a video gets.)
With all of these added up, the “Harlem Shake” trend is a perfect example of cultural appropriation. The new trend was more widespread than the original Harlem Shake ever was and most people who uploaded a Harlem Shake video did not even know the existence of the dance style. Whether the appropriation was intentional or not, it was still disrespectful to the real owners of the culture and was perceived as demeaning, which is not okay under any circumstances.