What Came First, the Harlem Shake or the Egg?

The Internet meme of the moment (or perhaps already past) is the Harlem Shake, a video meme in which a group of people dance crazily to a song by artist and producer Baauer. It has a bit of a “plot”-the videos open with the beginning clip of music with one person dancing while others around them act nonchalantly until the music switches, the lyrics “do the Harlem Shake” come on and then everyone is dancing crazily in various states of costume. There are some variations, but that is the general concept. The meme has taken off, with videos by the famous and not-yet-famous contributing to the canon. I find them quite funny–you can see a history and greatest hits here.

The meme, however, has its critics. For there is an original dance called the Harlem Shake, created in Harlem in the early 1980s and popularized 20 years later when it was used in a music video by the Harlem Hip Hop artist G. Dep. The critics claim this is cultural appropriation. For example, this clip from CNN commentator Melissa Harris-Perry.

Harris-Perry raises some important points, especially around the issue of race in this country. The question this raises is what is authentic? What is appropriation? There does exist conscious appropriation, in which one culture uses another for its own effect, oftentimes with the intent of destabilizing the appropriated culture. But many times this “appropriation” is done unconsciously-the result of different cultures, symbols, belief systems, ideas coexisting. It’s the natural evolution of systems of thought-nothing exists in a vacuum, we are always borrowing from each other.

[Within Judaism we wrestle about what is authentic, what is real. And Jews have been appropriated from. (For example, the rise of Jewish culture among non-Jewish Poles, in a land that was “cleansed” of Jews; and recently I had a conversation at a rabbinic conference about the idea of a “Christian Bar Mitzvah.”)]

The path from the streets of Harlem to Internet sensation is far from direct. What I can glean from Internet research (not my own knowledge of music history), is that the popular dance was referenced in a lyric (“do the Harlem shake”) in a song by the Philadelphia-based Hip Hop group Plastic Little in a 2001 song called “Miller Time.” In 2012, that lyric was sampled (a common practice of using small clips of music, sound or words from one song to create an effect in a different song) in a song by the artist Baauer, which was called (presumably after the lyric) “Harlem Shake.” Then, almost 9 months later was the first dance video released (by a bunch of people in Australia!).

Got that? Dance invented, popularized in Hip Hop video by someone other than the inventor, referenced in song lyric by still another group, song lyric sampled by yet another artist, dance to that latest song popularized by a whole other set of folks. There are several steps from one dance to the other. And it is even unclear that the people who created the original video meme were trying to make a dance called the Harlem Shake. The name-because of the use in the lyric, not the original dance-stuck. And, by watching the videos, you can tell that the new “Harlem Shake” isn’t even a specific dance. It is a theme, or action, or sketch. It is, as the good folks at Wikipedia point out, a meme and not a dance. And the original Harlem Shake still exists, still accessible, still able to be performed with its own integrity.

Maybe the times we live in just make it that much faster to borrow, change and reproduce. Maybe because of the much greater accessibility of information we are able to track changes in culture in a way that in the past may have been much more subtle. If the Internet was around when the original dance was invented it would have become a meme. And it might not even have stuck around if G. Dep had not used it for his own purposes.

By looking at our own tradition we see these forces as work. We are drawing close to Passover and to Easter. We Jews will sit around the Seder table eating matzo (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs), “reliving” the story of the Exodus and reflecting on the themes of redemption. Christians will celebrate Easter mindful of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, “For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Appropriation? Or a shared symbol structure used for radically different ends?

Plus, both traditions share and incorporate the symbol of the egg, representing spring and fertility and new life. This is not found in the Torah, nor the New Testament. It is probably something that even predates Judaism and Christianity. How it got to Passover and Easter, who can tell? But before YouTube and the Internet, cultures evolved, incorporated, assimilated and revalued–and stayed authentic.

Maybe the egg is the original meme.

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