By Jamal Denman
On March 13, Hamline University in St. Paul hosted a forum titled, “The Harlem Shake as Blackface: A Critical Look at Cultural Appropriation.” The forum was a panel discussion about a recent YouTube phenomenon and its relation to racism and people who identify themselves as White appropriating elements of cultures created by people of color.
The panel of nine was made up of scholars, professors, students from Hamline, local artists, and others described as being nationally known speakers and activists connected to either hip hop culture, the city of Harlem, privilege, or appropriation who can share their experiences and expertise to shed light on why the “Harlem Shake” videos are a problem.
For those who are unaware, the “Harlem Shake” being addressed is not referring to the dance made popular by Harlem youth in the 1980s; instead, it refers to a track created by a producer named Baauer, who named it “Harlem Shake.”
The track itself is not what is necessarily causing the commotion. It is the fact that it is used in videos uploaded to the Internet showing people moving around wildly to the track, and that it has created a sort of phenomenon, having influenced many different people to create similar videos. Even companies and brands have taken part in creating versions of the “Harlem Shake” video, including one made by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The problem that most people seem to have with the videos and the original track is that they have nothing to do with the dance, or with Harlem for that matter. Some people even see it as another instance of White folks taking something from Black culture and trying to make it their own.
The event came to fruition, said Hamline student Josh Wood, after “critical conversations took place” in his exceptionality class, a course taken by undergraduates intending to major in education led by Professor Anthony Nocella. Hamline made a “Harlem Shake” video of its own, leading to a conversation about appropriation and why some regarded the “Harlem Shake” videos as “problematic.”
The students then began brainstorming with their professor to come up with ways they could “put on an event to resist the fad.” As a result, Nocella organized and coordinated the “Harlem Shake as Blackface” forum.
Six of the panel members — public speaker Jamie Utt; Hamline University student organizer Mia Jackman; local DJ, DJ Francisco; Hamline University student organizer and president of the Hip Hop Collective Mariah Kenya Cannon; award-winning poet and spoken-word artist Ryan Willians-Virden; and artist, performer, poet, educator, spoken-word artist and dancer Antoine Duke (aka Keno Evol) — were physically present.
Others took part in the conversation via Skype from their various locations across the country: Chris Mcguire, producer of the famous YouTube “Harlem Reacts to ‘Harlem Shake’ Videos” that has gotten more than nine million hits to date; Don C. Sawyer III, professor at Quinnipiac University, born and raised in Harlem, NY; and public intellectual, author, and hip hop scholar Daniel White Hodge.
The basis of the conversation was to discuss the appropriation of culture — who does it, what its effects are, and how the “Harlem Shake” videos epitomize the issue. Everyone on the panel shared a personal story regarding their experiences and views related to the “Harlem Shake” videos and what they felt about the phenomenon.
But it was Daniel White Hodge who posed the question that seems to be at the heart of the discussion: “Who gets to tell the story of hip hop?” Hodge also questioned if those who did not grow up in environments similar to those where hip hop culture was cultivated have a true understanding of the weight and meaning behind the lyrics, music and movements associated with the culture.
Jamie Utt spoke on the topic from the point of view of a White male who considers himself in a position of power and privilege. Utt asked and attempted to answer the question that people with a mindset similar to his own ask of themselves: “How do we resist cultural appropriation?”
Utt admitted to having practiced appropriation and said, “If any White person is not paying attention, we’re probably appropriating.” He suggested that any White person concerned with how their actions affect people from other cultures needs to listen. “Listening is the root of justice,” he said, specifically listening to voices outside of one’s own community and thus becoming “allies” to those who have been historically oppressed and denied opportunities.
The conversation shifted to various topics that have had a major impact on the lives of inner-city youth in America — from music to the Internet, racism, capitalism, and the education system. The event concluded with comments from the panelists and people in the audience, many expressing a strong hope that the event was only a start of a continuing conversation that needs to take place.
Jamal Denman welcomes reader response at [email protected]