Caitlin Cleaver: The Harlem Shake — A Rallying Cry for Arab Youth?

[ 0 ] March 17, 2013


by CAITLIN CLEAVER for ISLAMiCommentary on MARCH 18, 2013:

The Harlem Shake.  It may seem to many of us like a crazy dance that’s been sweeping the nation’s community of YouTube fanatics. But is there more to it?

In fact, its significance has been much more powerful in the Arab world, where protests and uprisings — and even dancing — against oppressive regimes are sometimes the only recourse for political action.

In case you have been living under a rock for the last month or so, and have no idea what I’m talking about, The Harlem Shake is a 35-second dance video performed in masks and costumes and set to a clip of American music producer Baauer’s song of the same name.

Everyone from the University of Georgia Men’s Swim and Dive Team, to the cast and crew of The Today Show on NBC, to the Israeli government, have filmed and posted their own versions to YouTube.

While the video has been compared to Korean artist Psy’s viral music video, Gangnam Style— because of its rapid ascension to the status of a common knowledge pop-culture reference — I would propose that the Harlem Shake is one of the internet’s first viral video memes.

The Harlem Shake is a combination of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first called a “meme” — which he defines as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”—  and a viral video (a video that spreads quickly via Internet sharing, especially through social media).

Several videos are cited as the original Harlem Shake, but none of the first videos follows the pattern of the eventual meme. The trend is organic and viral. In fact, the viral video meme hybrid became a mainstream popular culture reference in the course of less than a month, and from there it went global.

The exponentially escalating popularity and ubiquity of the Harlem Shake has fascinated digital theorists such as Douglas Rushkoff.

In an interview with Forbes a few weeks ago, Rushkoff said, “It’s interactive, in that people actually make one of these things…even just knowing this phenomenon exists when it’s happening is a form of connection.”

As I followed and studied the meme for weeks, I kept looking for the first social movement that would pick up on the meme and use it as a form of protest.

Who would be the first to tap into this network of connected Harlem Shakers and make a statement about something that matters to them? Who would use this for change?

In the course of my research, I was reminded of organic social movements from the recent past – the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and generally anything that the hacktivist group *Anonymous does.

These groups and movements are decentralized and based in grassroots action. They have nothing close to a top-down organizational structure for coordination and dissemination of videos or messages.

All of my research on this strange dance fad indicated that the Harlem Shake was a meme with big potential. As I saw it, if a social group got a hold of it, they could start a revolution because its circulation pattern was essentially a premade framework for activism and revolution.

I was not quite sure how the meme would manifest itself if adopted for a revolution. I have been astounded at the way in which many youth in the Arab World have taken up the Harlem Shake as their rallying cry.

An article in Al-Monitor credits the U.S. Embassy in Algeria for the exposure of the strange dance meme to the nations of the Middle East. Employees at the embassy filmed and published their own version of the meme on February 21, relatively early on in the spread of the fad. (an online news source that focuses on the intersection between technology, art, culture, and science) posted an article earlier this month describing some of the first organized revolutions that are using the Harlem Shake as a form of connection and advertisement, presumably based on the example from the U.S. embassy.

The day after the Algerian embassy video went online, a group of young Egyptians posted a version filmed in front of the pyramids.

The next day, four students were arrested for doing the Harlem Shake in their underwear in an upscale neighborhood in Cairo.

Just a few days later, an Egyptian group called the “Satiric Revolutionary Struggle” produced a Harlem Shake video that they had filmed outside of the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo – an act that the Brotherhood chose to ignore rather than involve authorities.

In Tunisia, several students got into a skirmish with a group of Salafist Muslims who attempted to stop their recording of a Harlem Shake video on February 27. After the Tunisian minister of education opened an investigation, a wave of Tunisian Harlem Shake videos began popping up online in protest. Students even gathered outside of the Tunisian ministry of education to stage a video there in response to the investigation and condemnation of the dance.

Also in late February, A Harlem Shake also broke out in the streets of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in broad daylight. The police eventually dispersed the crowd, but no one was arrested. Those gathered were taking a risk, since public gatherings like that are illegal. Logistically, coordinating this event under the radar of the authorities is an impressive feat in itself, and symbolically that only makes it more important.

An article on quotes Sabiha, a 21-year-old student who participated in one of the Harlem Shake protest videos. She said, “This dance for us represents a way to vent, to forget for a little while all the stress we’ve been under for the past year.”

What does it all mean?

The Harlem Shake has become a symbol of revolution against the establishment. The most popular aspect of it seems to be the anonymity provided by the masks and costumes, which allows people to rebel without risking their lives or their freedom.

It is clear that many young people in the Middle East have recognized the power of virality and the Harlem Shake meme. They have now harnessed its potential as a tool for revolution. Its tone is lighthearted, but its message clearly says, “screw the establishment, we’re going to dance if we want to.”

*Anonymous is a group of individuals in an on- and offline community that embraces anarchy and opposes internet censorship and surveillance. The group has hacked government websites and participated in various movements for social justice. Anonymous is considered by many internet subcultures to be a kind of defender of digital freedom.)


Caitlin Cleaver is a junior studying International Comparative Studies and Policy Journalism at Duke University. This semester she is taking a seminar at Duke University, taught by Associate Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies Negar Mottahedeh, called Social Movements and Social Media, which traces the evolution of social media from newspapers to the radio to Facebook and Twitter and its role in movements and uprisings.


Related Posts:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Americas, Featured Videos, i-Comment, Middle East and North Africa, Muslim Life & Culture, Politics & Current Events, Science, Tech, Media & Social Media, Student

Leave a Reply