Looking for Azealia’s Harlem Shake, Or How We Mistake the Politics of Obliteration for Appropriation

Nicholas Brady

“Undisciplined and vulnerable, firmly rooted in our time, might we nevertheless feel, even without recognition, the rhythms of the poetry from a future in which M — might be? Might we allow those rhythms to move us to repel the quotidian violence through which we currently are defined without demanding of the future from which they come that it redeem our movements now or then? Might we look after M — now without waiting for the future in which M — might be to issue our present cries?”
-Kara Keeling “Looking for M—“

“Shimmy shake it, and keep it rolling
Rotate it, circle it, shift it and keep it going
Now you made it, and now they know it
Your shakes the favorite, and now they want it”
-Azealia Banks “Harlem Shake (Remix)”

It has been a few weeks since the world was forever changed by the internet-based meme “Harlem Shake.” Like most viral phenomena, I was very tardy for the party. I only found out about the song when Azealia Banks tweeted that she had remixed the song. I thought she had remixed the G-Dep song and was simultaneously confused and excited. However, when I clicked on the Soundcloud link, I was taken to a page saying the song had been taken down. Google searching “Harlem Shake,” I found tons of articles talking about some new meme with videos of white people flailing their arms and then multiplying into groups of costumed white people flailing their arms. It was strange to say the least, but I found myself entertained. This is how surfing the internet goes, you start searching for one thing and after opening several new tabs, you are in a new world and whole other train of thought.

It would seem that it was in this spirit – the spirit of a new digital era – that Baauer made the original beat titled “Harlem Shake.” This beat was made with the desire “to get anyone’s attention,” amalgamating anything that was dramatic and exciting including Dutch-house synths, flames, “trap” style drums, a lion’s roar, and the sample where its namesake comes from: a sample of a Philadelphia rapper named Plastic Time saying “then do the Harlem Shake” screwed up to further amp it up. There are many layers of appropriation happening here, reflecting the postmodern style of pastiche that grabs and smashes together styles and cultural icons from many geographic locations. In this way, the age of the internet (and perhaps more specifically the age of the “cloud”) and the advent of the Mp3 has opened up listeners to an almost infinite variety of music, depending on what you want to type into Google.

As the meme exploded into virality, there was inevitable backlash from many disturbed by the obvious disconnect between the videos and the actual culture of Harlem-shaking. Many from Harlem testified against the dance, arguing that their homegrown culture had been stolen and appropriated without proper credit being given. This is a current topic in the larger historical theme of black culture stolen for the larger consumption of a general (read: white) audience that is the very foundation of American and global popular culture. From blackface minstrelsy to jazz and ever onward, it is through the black that the larger culture gains its coherence and vitality. In that way, we can say that blackness is the life-force of the world, in more ways than one of course. It is with an eye to this history that my friend Justin Jones challenged his fellow speakers on a panel on Hip Hop and Masculinity about the claim of appropriation in the case of the “Harlem Shake” meme. He asked forcefully if we were making too much of this, if there were much better examples we were doing a disservice to by putting all of our energy into this situation (to see more of this debate, click here). I could not agree more, albeit for some different reasons that I will list out here.

The first is my issue with the word appropriation. According to Oxford English Dictionary, the verb appropriate means “to take for one’s own purpose, typically without the owner’s permission.” This definition is simple, yet there is much packed into it. What does it mean to own a (piece of) culture? What does it mean to take a (piece of) culture? The answer to these questions become muddy when we think about the Harlem shake itself. By many accounts, the Harlem shake originated from a resident named “Al B” in 1981, often done in a state of inebriation. Al B has cited the dance’s origins in ancient Egypt, stating because the mummies were all wrapped up all they could do was shake. Bracketing out a discussion of the accuracy of such a legend, let us take Al B’s claim serious that he was channeling the spirit of Egyptian mummies. Does that the mean the “Harlem Shake” is just an appropriation of Egyptian culture? Where is the origin of a dance, which is another way of asking: who owns the dance? Appropriation depends on defining our relationship to objects through the lens of property relations, so that an object is the property of a person or group. This relation is always already thorny, but is especially cut by cultural objects. Cultural objects can certainly be commodified, but the issue of ownership is always wrapped up in relations of power, privilege, and propriety. It is no coincidence that appropriate is also an adjective meaning “proper”: property, appropriate, and the proper (propriety) all share the same latin root proprius meaning “to own.” If we cannot properly delineate ownership for the cultural object, then it is open for the free use by any and everyone. This, of course, props up particular relations of domination, coercion, and force, which will bring us to my second issue with the concept of “appropriation.”

If we are to talk about commodities and property in relation to culture, this should swerve us face-first into the topic of slavery and specifically the “human commodity” known as the slave. What is important to distinguish here is that the slave is not simply an “unpaid” or hyper-exploited worker, but a being open to infinite desires of the master, including (and especially) the wanton violation of her body and gratuitous violence. The most horrifying to consider here is that the very happiness of the slave was owned by the master – this means the master often forced the slave to perform songs on the auction block, in the coffle to it, and for the slave to smile and laugh and joke in his/her presence (this is described as the “terror of pleasure” by Saidiya Hartman in her magnum opus Scenes of Subjection). This politics of appropriation can find its “origin” dispersed among the performance of domination we know as the peculiar institution. What we have called “appropriation” implies that black people own their culture and the master stole it from them. Yet, when we let go of romantic terms our claim sounds like this: a piece of property owns a piece of property and was stolen by the citizen who owns them both. How does a commodity own a commodity? How does the owner of that commodity steal a commodity from his own property? If this sounds cruel, we must remember that property relations (ie the relation of “people” owning things) is not natural, but produced in the development of liberalism that is founded within and because of racial slavery. The master is the embodiment of the liberal subject, a being that can own things. The liberal subject is defined as everything that the slave is not, ie the liberal subject owns slaves because the slave cannot own anything. What is revealed in the terror of the peculiar institution is not that black people have no culture, but it is that everything we did was owned by someone else. The relation of blackness to world has since survived into the time we call “post-emancipation,” and can be traced in the historical development of popular culture, beginning with minstelsy. Blackface minstelsy began in the age of slavery, most notably popularized by Thomas D. Rice’s performance of slave dances and rhythms in songs like “Jump Jim Crowe” as well as his abolitionist performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Appropriation does not only imply ownership, but also respect – a proper way of doing things – that is the very anti-thesis of the slave relation that forms the foundation of our society’s relationship to blackness. It is not simply that slaves could not own property legally, but it is to say that the ontological distinction that makes the propertied subject (and the very concept of property) possible demands the slave to be vulnerable to a perpetual state of disrespect and violation.

All this is to say that the concept of appropriation mystifies what is actually happening when white people “steal” black culture. Stealing implies a crime or a sense of wrongdoing or doing something improper. Yet the very concept of the proper – as well as property – depends on the black to be radically open to violation. So it is not improper to violate the black, it is in fact the definition of the proper itself. That Harlemites are demanding “props” is indicative of this mystification, for the fact is that nothing was stolen. They never owned their own culture, in any sense. They owned nothing, so nothing was stolen. But I am not really saying anything new here, and I doubt I am saying anything they did not already know. Instead, I am laying the groundwork to think through another way of understanding the suffering they are testifying to. It is not that something was stolen from them, but it is that their bodies were evacuated in the process of making Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” This is the grammar of obliteration, and to explicate this we should return to my original Google search for Azealia Banks’ remix.

You might remember that earlier I mentioned I clicked the link provided by Azealia Banks of her remix, only to find it had been taken down. Banks posted the remix on soundcloud, but Baauer and his labelmate Diplo demanded it be taken down because it was an un-authorized remix. Aside from the obvious rejoinder that the majority of soundcloud is unauthorized remixes, this episode reveals the difference of power that negotiates the “open” space of the internet. We have a white producer, who is accused of appropriating Harlem culture, attacking a black female rapper born in Harlem of improperly using his “intellectual property.” Black claims to propriety are met with crickets, while a white man’s claim is heard and acted upon to the detriment of Banks. Diplo took to twitter to begin the anti-Banks commentary, while Banks refused to back down. She made a music video and posted it to youtube, ensuring that her fans would still have access to the song. The spat continued on twitter though, with Banks inadvertently calling Baauer the “F-word.” This re-ignited a sleeping giant in Azealia Banks’ burgeoning career, which is her intramural relations with the LGBT civil rights apparatus, as well as gay male media figures, that simultaneously support and police her. This conversation is deep and necessary (for a much better handling of this topic, click here), yet for the purposes of this essay it is important to mention this because much of the coverage of this “twitter beef” was to categorize this as “yet another Azealia Banks beef.” There is an almost universal consensus that Banks starts and maintains beefs with producers, a storyline Baauer and Diplo cited and perpetuated to deflect attention away from their own fault. Baauer and Diplo’s story is that Banks recorded a remix and they asked her to not post it because they decided to go into a different direction. The different direction was to get Juicy J to record a remix and release that as the official remix. What this mystifies is what Banks brought up: the fact that they came to Banks asking her to remix it initially and then, at the last second, after she had worked, mixed, prepared a marketing strategy, aligned it with her own schedule, and shot a video, they decided they did not want her to go forward with it. So, Baauer and Diplo decided that Banks’ life and career should take a backseat because they wanted another, more famous, black artist to remix their song.

What is happening here is a politics of obliteration. That Banks is thought to be replaceable by Juicy J is emblematic of what so many black people in popular culture have attested to: the systemic belief in the interchangeability of black entertainers. The thought here is that a black female rapper from Harlem can be replaced by a black male rapper from Memphis, Tennessee. Baauer attempts to say that he thought Azealia Banks’ lyrics were only so-so and believed Juicy J could do better. If this is not an example of a white man talking out of his ass, I am not sure what is. I do not need to get into the technical aspects of rapping to say Azealia Banks could destroy any rapper who’s idea of a great song is, “Bands ‘a make her dance.” But this is not about Juicy J, this is about Baauer and the meaning of blackness to his ability to produce music. For him, black culture is not an other’s thing made in specific contexts, but instead are loose, unowned resources of “cool” to be stretched, interpolated, and sequenced into a dramatic product to produce his own name. Thus, the being of black culture (its claims to place and time) are obliterated so that he may write himself into existence over the cleared field. Saidiya Hartman writes, “The elasticity of blackness and its capacious affects enabled such flights and becomings… The fungibility of the commodity, specifically its abstractness and immateriality, enabled the black body to serve as the vehicle of self-exploration, renunciation, and enjoyment” (Hartman, 25). Thus, Baauer is not simply emblematic of an internet-age, post-genre music culture, but is instead an example par excellance of the white imagination using the black body as a vehicle for its own purposes. In other words, Baauer is not (only) a thief, he is a master.

What has surprised me is that in all the uproar about the “Harlem Shake” meme, in all this rage about appropriation and disrespect, Azealia Banks’ actual violent relationship with Baauer has been completely forgotten. I think that in the language of appropriation, we don’t have a way to connect the type of violent imagination it takes to produce the “Harlem Shake” to his embodied relationship with Azealia Banks. Yet, it is in the circumstance of blackness – whether the bodies of Azealia Banks and Juicy J or the melodic force of Plastic Time inspired by the Harlem Shake – that white men like Baauer find their life-force, which they access through obliterating the being of the black itself. It is in the obliteration of our ontological status that blackness opens up as a terrain for white people and the greater society to live in and know themselves. And when the obliterated person returns into view – when Banks protested Baauer’s plans – they must be vanquished and policed. Moreso than the sampling and displacement of the tradition of the Harlem Shake, it is in his relation to Azealia Banks that we find the ultimate example of violence that we should pay attention to and resist. Our rage should be directed at the modes of obliteration that connect “stealing” black culture to the violation of black bodies. Instead of looking for the proper owners of culture, perhaps we can task ourselves with looking after those whose flesh is perpetual open to use, abuse, and obliteration. This is not to cede the ground to critique and resist the arrogance of this society that feels anything Black people produce is actually owned by them, but instead to turn our fight away from a demand to be included and towards the very idea of ownership itself. This may re-orient our politics from a search for propriety, to a form of looking after and beyond, into a new world, a new train of thought, and a new way of being in the world and relating to one another. This form of “looking after” that Kara Keeling points us to in the epigraph might re-orient our demands for respect and protection towards a radical interrogation of the world built on disrespecting and violating black bodies. In that way, we can see the end of this world as the beginning of a world where we can be respected, where we can protect and be protected, and when we can truly be.


Nicholas Brady is an activist-scholar from Baltimore, Maryland. He is former debater and currently a head coach of the James Baldwin Debate Society, the only collegiate debate team housed in an African-American Studies department. He was also a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and currently a doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine Culture and Theory program. (check him out on tumblr or twitter @nubluz_nick)

13 thoughts on “Looking for Azealia’s Harlem Shake, Or How We Mistake the Politics of Obliteration for Appropriation

  1. Reblogged this on What is the Word and commented:
    Because this issue has been something on my mind for a while, I would like to share a colleague’s well thought out response to this. I hope this sparks thought and provides a different perspective of Black Identity Politics, I know it has me thinking! Enjoy.

  2. Pingback: Nicholas Brady | Call of the Loon IV

  3. Yes, I am a huge Azealia Banks fan. However, I cannot skate over the fact that this was a wonderfully written article. You took a very complex, controversial topic and made it easy to understand.

    The best part: “the white imagination using the black body as a vehicle for its own purposes. In other words, Baauer is not (only) a thief, he is a master.”

    Wake up, my people!

  4. This topic was in desperate need of your voice. I am in awe of your ability to at once derail on argument/strategy and use the wreckage to rebuild an even better one. You are to be commended for speaking the truth in a time of illusion and straight up lies. I thank you.

  5. Pingback: Bound 2 (You): A Black Study of Kanye West’s Yeezus | Out of Nowhere

  6. Pingback: “New Slaves”! New Slavery? | The Foma Press

  7. Pingback: How Miley Cyrus’s twerking and the abuse Cécile Kyenge is experiencing are connected | Roet In Het Eten

  8. This is my go to piece for anyone who attempts to engage the discourse and literature around pop music, race and economy dutifully. Brilliant.

  9. Pingback: 2013: year in review | À l'allure garçonnière

  10. I found the link to your article in Facebook after reading comments about Azalea Banks’ latest interview. Your article is so ‘extra’ in wording and content (meaning profound yet wordy) that I will need to sit down with other folks just to discuss the content. It’s that necessary in order to squeeze all the good, juicy bits out of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s