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Friday, March 1, 2013

From Harlem Shake to Harlem Sheikh, cultural folly is the new black

PARTY OR PROTEST? The Harlem Shake gets remixed in front of the Muslim Brotherhoods headquarters in Egypt
  • YouTube screenshot
  • PARTY OR PROTEST? The Harlem Shake gets remixed in front of the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Egypt
It's been a weird, wild week on America's racial front. From the campus of Emory University to the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, it seems the whole country's boiling over with racial politics. When Justice Antonin Scalia slammed the continued legitimacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis expressed his righteous indignation about it on "The Rachel Maddow Show." During the one-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin's polarizing murder by neighborhood vigilante and hoodie-hater George Zimmerman, Chuck D linked the devaluation of black lives to the lasting legacy of drugs and guns overtaking black communities in the wake of "R&B" - no, not rhythm and blues, but "Reagan and Bush." As he said on CNN: "Race is America's folly."

Yet only one social phenomenon continued to expand the parameters of the country's enduring racial folly. Somebody cue that Baauer track one mo 'gin.

Yep, it seems everybody's still talking about the Harlem Shake, and whether or not the meme-from-Internet-hell is a 21st-century example of clumsy, Web-inspired, cross-cultural pollination or a throwback case of dumb innocents accidentally stumbling upon other people's property (O.P.P.) and claiming it as their own - you know, kinda like how Columbus discovered invaded America. In an attempt to distinguish the real Harlem Shake (originated decades ago by a Harlem man named Al B.) from the fake (originated weeks ago by YouTube auteur Filthy Frank), a filmmaker took a hand-held out into the streets of Harlem and documented Uptown natives getting hella restless over all the YouTube clips showcasing how the rest of the rhythmless nation was ruining their original dance. Now another YouTube video of Harlemites taking back the Harlem Shake is circulating. It features members of a Harlem dance crew known as the Crazy Boyz, who do the real dance over a remixed version of producer Baauer's "Harlem Shake" track. [There are also multiple critiques that touch on how Baauer fits into electro's "trap" subgenre, itself an ironic cultural aberration of that infamous strain of southern rap particular to Atlanta that celebrates drugs and thugs in excess.]

But claims of ownership and authenticity - as valid as they are - almost miss the boat in terms of what this moment is all about. Take the latest viral strain of the Harlem Shake Sheikh, for instance. According to The New York Times, it's emerging as a form of protest in the Middle East and northern Africa, where ultraconservative governments in Tunisia and Egypt seem to make little differentiation between westernized fun and political anarchy.

Islamic fundamentalists reportedly showed up at a language school in Tunisia this week to stop the filming of this Harlem Shake video:

And 400 Cairo activists rallied in front of President Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood office, resulting in their own Harlem Shake dance-off:

All of which sorta reminds me of John Leland's book "Hip: The History," which came out several years ago. In it, he tackles the illusive nature of all things hip - a word, he writes, whose origin can be traced back to the West African Wolof tribe, where the verb hepi or hipi meant "to see" or "to open one's eyes," respectively.

In the book's introduction, he explains how since the word "hip" arrived on American shores in the 1700s via enslaved Africans, it's personified "the feedback loop of white imitation, co-optation and homage." He continues:

"From these origins, hip tells a story of black and white America, and the dance of conflict and curiosity that binds it. In a history often defined by racial clash, hip offers an alternative account of centuries of contact and emulation, of back-and-forth.

Unfortunately, as history also tells us, the originators often end up playing the back, while the innovators get to go forth and prosper.

While the Harlem Shake is more nuanced than the charges of cultural misappropriation that proliferated throughout the 20th century (from Jerry Lee Lewis to Vanilla Ice), it's hard to overlook the timing of Billboard's decision last week to start using YouTube views to compile its Hot 100 chart - instantly making Baauer's "Harlem Shake" a No. 1 debut.

That the phenomenon happens to coincide with the real-life gentrification of Harlem, going strong for the past decade, certainly adds a layer of depth and irony. But it's also giving dance crews like Crazy Boyz new life in the same way hip-hop sampling gave James Brown and George Clinton a new fan base.

Oddly enough, the best explanation for this latest round of cultural pass-the-dutchie comes from the least likely of sources. On last week's episode of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion," he and banjo historian Bill C. Malone conversed about how white folk got hip to the African instrument and, over time, made it their own. If you read the following excerpt and REPLACE THE WORD "BANJO" WITH "HARLEM SHAKE," it makes for an absurd but totally plausible interpretation for the ages:


Keillor: The thing that interests me about the banjo [Harlem Shake], it starts out the 19th century as an African-American instrument - a very rough, crude, maybe homemade instrument - and it's picked up by white people in black face playing in minstrel shows, whereupon African-American people put it aside.

Malone: But not immediately. That took awhile. In fact, you find both of those traditions existing side by side. The white man, the black-face minstrels are going around the country, all over the country, back in the sticks and into the cities, and the style of banjo [Harlem Shake] that they're playing is still existent today. And African Americans were playing their style, the white men were playing their style, and they actually coalesced.

Keillor: But the white men had to put on black paint in order to play music freely and syncopated and with a little wildness.

Malone: I think black culture's always played that role in American life. I think it's always been a retreat for white people who want to let their hair down, experiment with the wild side of life and be a little hedonistic. So what began with the minstrels showed up in rock 'n' roll and ever since that time I think that white people have donned the black face effect to do certain things that they feel they can't do in their own culture.

The Harlem Shake's translation across cultural boundariess - from old-school dance to new-school meme to potential form of political protest - is just the latest example of the evolution and illusive nature of all things hip. In a sense, there's room for everybody to peep game.

Which brings us all the way back to Scalia's ultraconservative bench ass. Maybe it's high time John Lewis, Chuck D, the Crazy Boyz and the rest of Harlem link up and bum-rush the Supreme Court with a full-blown Harlem Shake protest of their own. I'm sure the Tunisians and Egyptians wouldn't mind them reappropriating their steelo for a down cause.

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