April 16, 2013
Brooklyn Park, Minn., which sits just to the northwest of Minneapolis and hugs the Mississippi River, was once the quintessential American suburb: Pretty sleepy. Midwestern. Mostly white. Jesse Ventura, the garrulous former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler, used to be the city's mayor. It was the childhood stomping grounds of a young Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion. The city’s annual festival is called “Tater Daze,” a nod to its potato farm origins.
The Wonder Years could have been set in Brooklyn Park.
Over the past two decades, though, the city has undergone the kind of transformation that’s changing life in so many American suburbs. In 1990, around nine in 10 people in Brooklyn Park were white. By 2010, nearly half the town’s residents were people of color. People in the surrounding area started referring derisively to the town as “Brooklyn Dark.”
Many longtime — mostly white — residents were either moving out or resisting the tide of newcomers. As the shift got underway in the mid-’90s, a white local bar owner spoke up at a City Council hearing: "If you come from a different perspective or a different place, don't bring those standards to Brooklyn Park.” 11. Minneapolis Star Tribune. May 31, 2004. A different perspective. Lurking just beneath those words is an unspoken stake of ownership: this place is ours.
This pattern seems familiar by now: “they” invade, there’s tension, many of “us” leave, whether it’s white folks gentrifying a brown community or brown folks ethno-fying a white one. And as long as the dichotomy was just that stark — as long as white folks and people of color could reliably play the roles of “we” and “they” — the pattern was easy to understand. But what’s happening to the “quintessential American suburb” echoes what’s happening to our classic “Chocolate Cities” like Oakland, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Ga., and what’s happening in hip-hop and pop music. That old story is starting to get complicated.
In today’s Brooklyn Park, there are just too many “wes” and “theys” to keep track of: Fifteen percent of the population is Asian. Eight percent is Hispanic or Latino. The 24 percent of the population that is black includes so many Liberian immigrants that the vice president of Liberia made diplomatic visits to the city in 2011 and 2012. 2Statistics from the Census site and
The 2010 Census estimated there were about 18,500 African Americans in Brooklyn Park. In 2012, according to McClatchy, as many as 7,000 Liberian immigrants resided in the city.
For most of American history, the country’s racial dynamics have been cast in crudely black-and-white terms — with black folks on one side, white folks on the other, and everyone else falling onto some nebulous continuum in between. But our country is now very much in Technicolor, and many of our old ideas about its racial dynamics are getting scrambled.
Like that bar owner in Brooklyn Park, those of us who’ve been here for a while are circling our wagons around the places we thought we owned. And we’re kind of freaking out.
You’ve probably heard the numbers before, but they bear revisiting: by 2043, the majority of the U.S. will be people of color, and in 2011, for the first time, children born to people of color made up more than half of all the country’s births. The rising generation is already growing up in a distinctly different America, where many of those familiar black-and-white narratives already seem like distant history. Early in the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois said that the problem confronting the U.S. over the next 100 years would be the color line. But in this 21st century, America’s major question might be just what happens as that line gets blurrier.
Demographic changes — even seismic changes like those the U.S. is going through — happen over decades. It will be a long time before this young, much more plural America starts to fully reveal patterns of employment, migration, housing and wealth. But these young folks are already starting to create culture, and it bears taking a close look at what they’re making to see what it might augur about the world they’re going to inherit.
Exhibit A: the “Harlem Shake.” (We know you’re tired of hearing about it at this point. We feel you. But walk with us here.)
When the “Harlem Shake” meme was at its apex, it was inescapable. The absurdity lay in its simplicity: one person, usually in a ridiculous costume, would be dancing by themselves to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” as the eponymous dubstep-y song ramped up. But then the beat dropped and boom: everyone nearby was acting a fool and dancing, too. Every day seemed to yield dozens more random and inspired takes on that idea — people on planes, underwater, on college quads, in offices, and in NBA locker rooms recording themselves flailing about in outlandish costumes, humping things, and gyrating goofily to Baauer’s hydrant of seemingly disconnected sounds.
But the videos got under a lot of people’s skins, and not just because of their ubiquity. The “Harlem Shake” — the real “Harlem Shake” — was a dance that had been around for decades in the New York City neighborhood for which it was named. 33. It had a moment in the sun around 2001 when it was prominently featured in the Diddy video, “Let’s Get It.” It bore almost no meaningful relationship to the video craze.
Defenders of hip-hop culture rose up in protest: was this year’s viral video meme just inaccurate labeling? Was it mocking? Was it hijacking?
A defiant graffiti mural popped up on an uptown wall: Do The Real Harlem Shake.
This isn’t just a dance, people were saying. This is a breach of social justice.
“This is about more than just the proper designation of a popular dance, it’s about cultural appropriation,” Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC talk show host, said during a segment of her show about the "Shake." “When communities create original art, they have a right to some creative control over its definition. If you enter a ballroom dancing competition, you’d better not cha-cha during the waltz. Creative interpretation is expected to respect certain boundaries. That’s what conveys the respect, and the wholesale application of the term ‘Harlem Shake’ to flashmob boogie-downs that are most definitely not the ‘Harlem Shake’? Let’s say that’s problematic.”
Problematic. Many critiques of the “Harlem Shake” meme used that word to express displeasure with it; it was just vague enough to be a catch-all for the hodge-podge of anxieties that the whole phenomenon evoked. Several critics summoned a familiar narrative about appropriation: white people, again, co-opting some piece of culture created by people of color.
But just as in Brooklyn Park, something more complicated was happening with the “Harlem Shake.” 44. Not unrelated: the anxieties roiling in the real Harlem. Latinos from Washington Heights, just to the neighborhood’s north, are seriously challenging the established black political machine’s decades-long vise-grip on power. Young white professionals seeking relatively affordable Manhattan housing are flocking there in droves. And so in recent years, Harlem, as ready a shorthand as there is for black life in America, is rapidly becoming less, well, black. For a lot of people, Harlem is becoming someplace unrecognizable.
Moving at the speed of the Internet, the “Harlem Shake” quickly leapfrogged all kinds of borders — racial, cultural and otherwise, while the critique stayed the same.
“Whenever I look at an Internet full of (mostly) white people doing a bastardized version of a dance ... named after f----- Harlem ... and people aren't finding it at least a little problematic, it makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills,” one observer wrote.
As critics stateside were telling people not to do the “Harlem Shake,” kids in Egypt and Tunisia were Harlem Shaking to protest governments they felt were violating their freedom of expression. Four Egyptian students were arrested for performing the dance. They were using the “Harlem Shake” the way hip-hop has been employed almost since the beginning: as a tool for yelling back at adults and the powerful.
If any piece of culture was being appropriated, it was by Arab kids in North Africa, white kids in Australia, and — yes — black kids in Brooklyn Park.
The old narratives just don’t fit anymore.
It’s much harder now to patrol the ramparts of our cultures, to distinguish between the appreciators and appropriators. Just who gets to play in which cultural sandboxes? Who gets to be the bouncer at the velvet rope?
While the Internet squared off over who got to do which “Harlem Shake” and when, battles were being fought closer to the ground over pieces of the song itself. Baauer (a.k.a. Harry Rodrigues) lifted his song’s name from a lyric by a Philly group called Plastic Little, which referenced the aforementioned dance but was not about said dance. He also sampled a reggaeton song by Hector “El Father” Delgado. 55. “Con los terroristas!” — “With the terrorists!” Delgado and a rapper from Plastic Little were pressing Baauer’s record label to pay them for the DJ’s unlicensed sampling of their music. Meanwhile, Baauer was suing Azealia Banks, the hipster rap darling, for releasing a song without his permission in which she rhymes over his “Harlem Shake” beat.
Oh, and where is Azealia Banks from? Harlem, of course.