Since he was tragically killed on May 28, Harambe the gorilla has transcended his lowly origins as some random zoo gorilla. In his afterlife, he has become a superhero, a mega-meme, the internet’s gorilla.
The "Harambe" meme takes myriad forms, including popular sub-memes like over-the-top parody memorials and the popular viral slogan "dicks out for Harambe." It has also been decried for its racist undercurrent, despite the fact that black communities played a part in creating the meme and popularizing its initial spread on social media.
On Reddit, forums memorializing him, like r/Harambe and r/dicksoutforharambe, have gained thousands of readers since Harambe’s death. Online petitions have abounded to erect a White House statue of Harambe, make him a Pokémon, put his face on the $50 bill, and change the name of Cincinnati — the Cincinnati Zoo was Harambe’s home until his untimely demise — to "Harambe City." A Texas-based presidential poll indicated Harambe getting 2 percent of the popular vote (with last year’s meme, Deez Nuts, one point ahead). He’s been spotted on T-shirts and at the Republican National Convention, and at QuakeCon, a popular gaming convention, this shrine for Harambe quickly filled up with irreverent tributes to our dead ape cousin.
Harambe has been declared the "meme of the summer," and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. In 2014, we were all pouring ice buckets on ourselves; last year, we were arguing over a dress; this year, we’re (irreverently) mourning Harambe.
"Grandpa, what was 2016 like?"— Bradley (@traitorbaby) August 15, 2016
*sirens blare, the phrase 'dicks out for Harambe' flashes over and over in my mind*
Me: I don't remember
The media has observed the Harambe phenomenon largely with bafflement. "The Internet won’t let Harambe rest in peace," opined the Washington Post in July. Many have compared the meme to an extended "dead baby" joke, though New York magazine dismissed the entire phenomenon as "fairly standard internet non-sequitur nonsense humor." Many outlets also hint at the meme’s more offensive sides.
Above all, everyone seems perplexed by the meme’s longevity.
It’s easy to boggle at the popularity and persistence of the Harambe meme. But like every great meme, this dead gorilla combines several traits of internet culture — including the best and the worst of us.
In case you missed it, here’s what happened to Harambe
On May 27, Harambe celebrated his 17th birthday in the Cincinnati Zoo. On May 28, an unsupervised 4-year-old child determinedly climbed into the zoo’s gorilla enclosure and fell into the moat. Interpretations of what happened next differ wildly depending on who was telling the story, but Harambe the gorilla proceeded to strut about the child, drag him out of the moat, and stand over him. While zoo officials clearly believed the child was in danger, other onlookers believed Harambe was just as clearly protecting the child.
Ultimately, zoo officials shot Harambe, killing him instantly, opting to use real bullets instead of a tranquilizer dart in order to protect the child if Harambe reacted badly to the tranquilizers before the drugs took effect.
The internet hysteria over Harambe was initially pretty over the top, resulting in major public criticism of zoo officials for making the decision to kill the gorilla instead of tranquilizing him, and an onslaught of harassment directed toward the child’s mother for her perceived negligence. Media outlets reported days of protests and candlelight vigils at the Cincinnati Zoo and other zoos around the country, while #Justice4Harambe trended online.
Harambe was always about more than a single gorilla
Protesters angry about Harambe’s death were upset for a number of reasons. Many believed killing the gorilla was unnecessary, though numerous wildlife experts insisted it was the only safe option; still others believed the entire incident spoke to the inherent cruelty of raising wild animals in captivity.
Harambe’s death occurred the same week in which 1,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to immigrate safely into Europe. Given that the gorilla’s death largely overshadowed the conversation about actual human life, backlash to the backlash was swift to follow. Cosmopolitan called the public’s reaction "sexist and racist," noting along with other outlets that the public seemed to value the life of a gorilla more than the life of the endangered child or the safety of his mother, both of whom are black.
So Harambe’s death was inherently a complicated, polarizing subject. The situation was always going to be controversial. But whether it was coming from advocates for Harambe or for child safety, or advocates for animals never being kept in zoos in the first place, the anger over the issue quickly seemed to cause outrage fatigue. That is, the Harambe situation quickly reached the point at which the anger over the Harambe situation was more draining than the actual Harambe situation itself.
This is where the internet stepped in.
Harambe’s meme origins are important to understanding what kind of meme Harambe became
Various sources place the early memeification of Harambe as originating from two equally vast yet different repositories of internet culture: Instagram’s black community and Weird Twitter (the common name for a loose grouping of meme- and humor-based Twitters), which started churning out over-the-top Harambe memorials like these:
As a form of protest, black social media communities embraced the Harambe meme to comment ironically on the ways in which society tends to minimize and overlook the deaths of ordinary people of color. Meanwhile, the contrasting outpouring of grief over black celebrities can sometimes seem artificial — much like the grief over Harambe. Here’s a good example of the way these different points of commentary converged through the meme:
The spread of the meme, however, placed it within the hands of communities that politicized it in a different way. As many noted during the online harassment of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, a frequent tactic of racists on social media has been to compare people of color to the gorilla. Harambe jokes fell into the hands of the right-wing internet almost immediately — though not necessarily because of racism. The creator of the QuakeCon Harambe shrine, Tony Oritz, described himself as a Hispanic Trump supporter to the conservative site Breitbart, and claimed the gorilla for his side of the spectrum in a tongue-in-cheek interview:
I believe Harambe would understand that it’s the fear mongering and corruption that liberals and the mass media have been pushing for so long that got him killed. The one thing that would have prevented the tragic loss of Harambe is having a proper wall in place. There’s only one candidate who is supporting tighter border security and a beautiful wall and that’s Donald J. Trump.
Harambe was always a meme waiting to happen
When he invented the term "meme" in his famous 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins described it as a cultural mode of transmission that works by replication and succeeds through imitation, similar to a gene. Decades of cultural study have been devoted to defining what a "meme" actually consists of, but in an age when internet culture and meme or remix culture are practically synonymous, this process of replication and imitation is simply everywhere, as inherent to modern culture as the internet itself.
Memes seem to live and die by the moment, but the most successful memes seem to have a few common elements: above all, humor, and almost always a sense of irony. A successful meme contains an element of genuine fun, but it often also contains an element of social commentary or ironic commentary on social issues.
Let’s take, for example, the brief but awesome "Damn, Daniel!" meme that swept the internet in February. As an idea, it was extremely innocuous: an inherently hilarious and affectionate video of a kid (Daniel) coming to school and wearing white Vans. As a meme, it contained an ironic embrace of corporate branding: People responded to the meme by simultaneously laughing at the video’s white Vans worship while wanting to buy white Vans themselves. Then they extended the commentary by mocking their own wish to buy Vans.
The best memes always have multiple layers within layers that contradict and conflict with each other, while ultimately responding to a larger social impetus — in this case, overhyped commercialism.
The parts of internet culture that thrive on this multilayered interplay coalesced around the Harambe meme. It served as an opportunity to deconstruct the histrionic level of modern media and social media commentary. It favored irreverence and cynicism.
If you were a progressive, the Harambe meme gave you a chance to mock what you viewed as the hypocritical haranguing of the mainstream while avoiding real issues of social justice; and if you were a conservative, the Harambe meme gave you a chance to mock liberal hysteria.
If you were the kind of person wanting to use the Harambe meme as an excuse to be offensive and juvenile in the name of whimsical fun, then the Harambe meme was all yours. If you were looking for an actual excuse to be racist, then the Harambe meme provided that as well.
And if you were among the many, many people who were genuinely sad about Harambe’s death, the meme gave you a way to honor his memory — sincerely or otherwise.
A study in irreverence — and sincerity
According to the Daily Dot, the first person to coin the phrase "dicks out for Harambe" was Twitch user bigdaddyshaq. Around July 3, days after Harambe’s demise, he reportedly mentioned the joke in an unrecorded Twitch chat to user Sexualjumanji, who then repeated it in the first recorded (now deleted) tweet that would become the meme:
We comin with them dicks out to avenge harambe !!! pic.twitter.com/bGy1mhqcyz
— crumbling brick ruin (@sexualjumanji) July 3, 2016
On Vine, comedian Brandon Wardell independently came up with the concept in a viral post featuring cult figure actor Danny Trejo:
Though the meme was probably an example of multiple discovery, Wardell and Jumanji still had a spat over who rocked out first. Meanwhile, the phrase flew around the internet, becoming an all-purpose slogan that went with everything.
You are, my fire,— Harambae (@as_one_does) August 15, 2016
The one, desire,
Believe, when I say#DicksOutForHarambe
Yet even at its most random and spontaneous, for all its complexity and ludicrous variants, the meme has never really ceased to be about paying tribute to a dead gorilla. What’s fascinating about the Harambe meme is that it simultaneously manages to encompass so many other parts of contemporary societal concerns at once, while still maintaining its primary focus.
On Metafilter Tuesday, a group of users had a prolonged and earnest conversation about whether they, and the rest of the internet, were memeing Harambe ironically or not. The fact that such a conversation can exist, with such fervent advocates for multiple interpretations of the meme, almost three months after Harambe’s death, makes the Harambe meme somewhat unprecedented. After all, with most other long-term memes, everyone reifying the meme is in on the message. Everyone knows they’re Rickrolling ironically; everyone knows they’re ice-bucketing sincerely.
Harambe, though, is a different kind of meme; it’s Schrödinger’s meme, both ironic and sincere. And while many might feel that continuing to proliferate it on the internet is tantamount to flogging a dead ape, one thing remains true: As long as Harambe the meme survives, so will the memory of Harambe the fallen gorilla.
Update: On August 23, days after the Cincinnati Zoo spoke out against Harambe's post-life memeification, the zoo deleted its primary social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Zoo spokesperson Thane Maynard had previously told the Associated Press that the zoo was "not amused" by the meme and its many iterations, adding, "Our zoo family is still healing, and the constant mention of Harambe makes moving forward more difficult for us."
The Harambe meme, meanwhile, shows no sign of stopping. The dead gorilla has inspired numerous song tributes, an alleged high school football sighting and a professional football tribute, and the requisite yearbook photobomb.
Harambe naming polls have also picked up steam. Media outlets spread a hoax article from a fake news site (cached) that a newborn gorilla in a Chinese zoo had been named "Harambe McHarambeface" — a cute combination of the Harambe meme with the famous "Boaty McBoatface" naming poll. Earlier in September, the Philadelphia Zoo had to close its public naming poll for its newborn gorilla after Harambe memes overwhelmed it.
Clearly, we're just not ready to stop talking about Harambe.