During the NBA All-Star Game, a young girl named Jalaiah Harmon performed a dance she created called “Renegade.” The dance has been a viral hit, performed by countless celebrities, Tik Tok influencers and ordinary people across social media platforms.
Jalaiah, creator of Renegade, performs at the NBA All-Star Game! pic.twitter.com/w5qtYTrjeh— NBA (@NBA) February 17, 2020
Harmon’s All-Star Game performance was a late addition to the docket, however. All-Star weekend is a spectacle, so it wasn’t surprising the NBA tried to capitalize on the dance craze. But the league initially invited several white Tik Tok influencers — including Charli D’Amelio and Addison Easterling, who had popularized the dance — as part of the festivities. Harmon, who is black, was absent among the invitees, and that absence was met with anger online.
On the Friday before All-Star weekend, rapper K Camp, whose song Harmon had danced to, tweeted a video thanking her for making his song the biggest in the world. Before that, there had been an online movement to recognize Harmon as the “Renegade” creator. The NBA, by planning to leave Harmon out of the weekend, quickly became another example of the problem of appropriation. Here was another minority, a young back, female creative, having her idea taken and profited from, while she sat at home and watched.
The situation might seem inconsequential; it is about a dance, after all. Dances become crazes then fade away all the time on social media. But the situation also illustrates very clearly how cultural appropriation occurs, and what those who fight against it would like to see instead.
Often, the conversation of appropriation gets flattened into one about the fluid nature of inspiration. The argument denying cultural appropriation’s existence is that the free flow of ideas is the basis of creativity. People take inspiration from everything, and to claim strict ownership over an idea, like a dance, is to demand that others cannot imitate or take the idea further. It is to be against the nature of creativity.
But that argument is idealistic and a decoy. It is a reframing of the conversation to ignore the nature of power that is at the core of any argument about appropriation. To claim inspiration should flow freely among everyone is to think everyone has the same ability to create and be rewarded for their creativity. It’s to forget the power imbalances of the material world.
In Harmon, many people recognized a historical problem that has been exacerbated by social media, in which the ideas of minorities are profited from by those who were “inspired” by it. Meanwhile, individuals who created the idea often fade into obscurity. In some cases, an idea that was dismissed or demonized when it was in sole possession of minorities, will then be celebrated when taken away from them.
In an article from 2017, Teju Cole wrote that appropriation isn’t a problem of creativity, but of justice:
“But taking on the identity of others, appropriating what is theirs, is invasive and frequently violent. I have heard appropriation defended on the grounds that we have a responsibility to tell one another’s stories and must be free to do so. This is a seductive but flawed argument. The responsibility toward other people’s stories is real and inescapable, but that doesn’t mean that appropriation is the way to satisfy that responsibility. In fact, the opposite is true: Telling the stories in which we are complicit outsiders has to be done with imagination and skepticism. It might require us not to give up our freedom, but to prioritize justice over freedom. It is not about taking something that belongs to someone else and making it serve you but rather about recognizing that history is brutal and unfinished and finding some way, within that recognition, to serve the dispossessed.”
The movement for Harmon didn’t demand others stop doing the dance, but they acknowledge who created it so that she could be justly rewarded. Harmon deserved to have opportunities open up for her just as they had for those who had taken what she made. Rather than wringing their hands over the nature of creativity, those who defended Harmon demanded that the young girl be correctly placed at the center of the craze.
oh wow the tik tok girls already linked with the original creator of the renegade dance pic.twitter.com/Vr1gIeLcPX— alex. (@makeupIady) February 16, 2020
It was heartening to see that the NBA eventually decided to recognize Harmon. Bringing her to the All-Star Game and giving her a chance to perform will help her profit from the dance going forward. And all the NBA did was simply acknowledge her role. It took nothing away from those who are inspired by the dance, nor did centering Harmon prevent influencers from profiting.
In fact, the dance was elevated when she was able to do it alongside those influencers. All that changed was the balance of the scale between a creator and those who were influenced by her. The relationship was made more like the idealistic version of creativity, rather than the parasitic version that too frequently takes root. Creativity and inspiration continued to coexist, but in a better, more fair manner.