Memes

A Year Ago We Lost Sweet Harambe and Gained a Meme

What we learned from 2016’s popular and ever-morphing meme.

by Mack Lamoureux
29 May 2017, 8:23pm

Photo by Jake Kivanc

It's been a year since we lost our sweet Harambe.

The 17-year-old gorilla was taken from us in a cruel way. A young boy fell into his habitat in the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28 last year. The boy, who had tumbled into Harambe's moat, was grabbed by the gorilla. This led a zookeeper, fearing for the boy's safety, to shoot and kill Harambe. And then Harambe was reincarnated into a meme.

The meme ran the gambit from fun loving to downright racist. It was a glimpse into the mematic hell we would be living in just a year later and would highlight the very real racism that exists online. In a way, Harambe was a warning to us about the state of the online discourse.

Initially, the death of Harambe led to a bunch of super pissed off animal rights activists discussing animals in captivity and the actions of one zookeeper. But to the internet, Harambe was more than a slain gorilla, he was one of the last beacons of light in the wailing wall of shit that was 2016. He was everything we wanted/needed him to be.

Who can forget Brandon Wardell's "Dicks Out for Harambe" campaign? Hell, even Young Thug immortalized him on a track.

For a while, the Harambe meme was even was used as a cultural critique of how black people are treated in society—alongside the sobering reality that a large amount of people seemingly cared more about the death of a gorilla than the death of black people at the hands of police. It was in some ways both completely sincere and taking the piss out of the whole thing at the same time.

Then, it was all ruined by the usual suspects.

The tail end of the phenomena warned us of a dark storm waiting in the wings. It didn't take long for Harambe to be co-opted into a tool of the alt-right and white supremacists. Working around the "African-ness" of the name Harambe (something that very well may have played into the meme's initial popularity) and how the gorilla was utilized as a comparison of minority communities, the meme morphed to full-on fucking unpleasant. The co-opting of popular culture isn't anything new, but this was one of the first major successes of the so-called alt-right in snatching an extremely popular meme and morphing it into something new—attempting to change the meaning of things is now a major tactic for the crew.

It was, for lack of a better term, a total fucking bummer. The derpy superheroes of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos and the like, started tweeting it out en mass and their fans followed suit. This caused even the originators of the "dicks out" meme to abandon it. People had a hard time realizing that, yes, indeed, their favourite meme had become to mean something else and was now hurting people. But eventually—after a shelf life longer than 99.9 percent of other memes—the focus on Harambe finally drifted.

Now, looking back a year later, it's hard not to see a specter of Pepe the Frog haunting the twinkle in Harambe's eyes.

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