Harambe was a 17-year-old gorilla who died in May after a child climbed into his enclosure. During the peak of the frenzy of online outrage that followed his death, you probably read about him in the news, including on this website. The news cycle faded away, but on the Internet, Harambe is not at peace. The gorilla’s name is a meme that has transcended the outrage cycle that spawned it and is outlasting our expectations for the lifespan of most online jokes.
For weeks now, certain parts of the Internet have hosted a steady parade of ironic Harambe tributes, in a bunch of different permutations. With one exception (which we will get to) they all share the same basic approach: paying tribute to Harambe’s life to the point of absurdity. And a self-awareness about the major problems with the Internet’s intense reaction to stories like this.
The meme began in the days after Harambe’s death, then was absorbed by Weird Twitter and a whole bunch of teens. It’s still around.
How did we get here? First, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what it was like on the Internet when Harambe died.
“Worse than murder”
A zookeeper at the Cincinnati Zoo shot Harambe on May 28, when the gorilla picked up a boy who fell into his enclosure and dragged him; Harambe died, the child survived.
Within hours, the Internet was worked up into an earnest fury at Harambe’s death, the zoo’s decision, and the mother of the boy who entered the enclosure. The scrutiny she faced was particularly intense.
Someone created a change.org petition originally calling for her and the boy’s father to be “held accountable for lack of supervision and negligence,” even though no evidence existed to support a claim that the parents had done anything wrong. The petition amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures before its creator revised the petition and softened the language. The accounts of several witnesses said the mother was watching her children closely at the time.
A Facebook page, “Justice for Harambe,” gained tens of thousands of followers within a day (it now has more than 150,000 of them). The page filled up with grief and rage. “Shooting an endangered animal is worse than murder,” one commenter claimed. People started writing threatening things about the mother online.
As all this happened, earnest images like the one below honoring Harambe started showing up on the Facebook page that served as an epicenter for outrage at the gorilla’s death:
Artists drew portraits of Harambe in tribute, the rage and sadness continues. And then the visual slippage into meme began.
How the meme started
Particularly on Black Instagram, a whole bunch of over-the-top tributes to Harambe started showing up in the days after the gorilla’s death. A lot of those images were reposted to Twitter and re-circulated, based on our search of Twitter references for phrases like “RIP Harambe” in the days after the gorilla died.
Here’s one of the more popular ones, a fake program for Harambe’s “homegoing celebration.”
These jokes are pretty similar to the ones that started taking over the meme world at large about a week later: jokes about mourning Harambe, jokes about the intensity of the Internet’s reaction to Harambe, jokes where the teller left the ironic impression that their inner monologue was just a single word, “Harambe.”
The Weird Twitter version of the tribute, the Daily Dot noted, appears to have emerged about a week after Harambe died, give or take.
The earlier versions of the meme closely mimic some of the more cliched ways the Internet pays tribute to the dead:
One later version of the meme involved rewriting the lyrics of every song on Earth to make them about Harambe:
His name was harambe— leon (@leyawn) June 22, 2016
from a zoo in cincinnati
slaughtered by the city
they had to discipline his body
Others involve photoshopping a particular picture of Harambe into places of honor:
There’s also a sub-meme, “d—-s out for Harambe,” which I’m going to have a real hard time explaining here at The Washington Post given that the first word is unsuitable for our website.
Anyway, the main one keeps escalating. There’s this graffiti remix, which uses both the Harambe meme and the Primitive Spongebob meme in one image. And last Friday, a bunch of teens successfully tricked Google into re-labeling the street outside their high school Harambe Drive.
“WE SENT COMPLAINTS TO GOOGLE MAPS SAYING SHANKLAND ROAD WAS ACTUALLY HARAMBE DRIVE,” Chris Gallagher wrote on Twitter (in a very appropriate capslock) “AND THEY CHANGED IT IM SCREAMING”
(The street is in Willoughby, Ohio. We took this screenshot on Sunday.)
The idea is, the more intense and more sincere-seeming the expression of mourning is, the funnier the joke. Twitter and Weird Facebook have both, in the ensuing months, made an art out of it:
i will not rest until harambe is alive and all our gods are dead— man it’s a hot zone, (@Mobute) July 1, 2016
I think it is touching that after 2016 AD they are going to start over with 1 AH - After Harambe.— Sopranosferatu (@hamsandcastle) June 22, 2016
The other Harambe meme
As Know Your Meme notes, the Internet’s ever-present racists started making bad Harambe memes pretty quickly, too. On June 1, a bunch of trolls posted memes to Facebook comparing an Australian rules football player named Adam Goodes, who is an Indigenous Australian, to Harambe. In the past, Goodes has been called an “ape” and told to “get back to the zoo” by the game’s fans.
The racist use of Harambe isn’t quite its own meme — it’s more a variation on a theme of the longstanding racist meme of comparing black people to primates. It’s the same hateful stuff that was tweeted at actor Leslie Jones last week, and that has long been the basis of racist photoshops of President Obama.
Why the meme still exists
New York Magazine — which scooped us on trying to thinkpiece the Harambe meme into oblivion — observed that the meme’s borderline offensiveness plays a very specific role in its staying power, arguing, ” ‘Harambe’ is still a funny punchline because brands will never touch it.” The brands that try to participate in meme culture can’t use all of the Internet’s jokes, and Harambe is definitely one of those.
But also, the meme persists because it is, at its heart, a criticism of the online cultural environment that creates a phenomenon like the outrage at Harambe’s death. It’s like the meme lords’ version of a jeremiad against the Internet’s outrage cycle, one that feels nearly the same every time. If the Internet never lets Harambe rest, it will be because we can’t seem to stop treating each of these stories in the exact same way.