Harambe the Gorilla's Bizarre Eternal Life as an Internet Meme
Though we’re not through the year yet, 2016 has already seen a slew of iconic figures pass away. From David Bowie to Prince to Muhammad Ali, it has seemed like every corner of pop culture was in mourning at some point.
But the stranger parts of the internet didn’t latch onto any of those deaths in quite the same way they did for Harambe the gorilla. Harambe, as you may remember, was the 17-year-old Western Lowland silverback gorilla who was shot and killed by zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into his enclosure.
But even as the story faded from the news cycle, Harambe continues to live on in the collective mind of the internet, entering into a rarefied state of venerated meme status.
“Justice for Harambe,” “Honoring Harambe” – Facebook groups and pages that were sincerely meant to let people grieve over the animal’s killing – gradually mutated into image macros and Photoshop games, a shared lingua franca on internet gathering grounds like Twitter, Reddit, Imgur and 4Chan.
It’s hard to know exactly when Harambe memes became politicized, but they eventually did, with the gorilla appearing in bipartisan Photoshops as election coverage increased throughout the summer.
The animal’s name became a punchline that could easily replace “9/11,” “Bengazi,” or any other controversy du jour.
And it shows no signs of stopping. Sneaking the gorilla’s name into political protests has become a fad for the kind of people who are interested in that sort of thing …
… while his meme-ification continues apace online, as he appears, wraithlike, in the context of larger memes.
New York Magazine postulated an interesting theory behind “the dark humor of Harambe memes,” as they called it: “It’s a meme that will never be co-opted by internet-literate corporate Twitter accounts or deployed by some hapless news anchor hoping for a viral moment … ‘Harambe’ is still a funny punch line because brands will never touch it.”
For whatever reason, the Internet refuses to allow Harambe to fade from its collective memory – perhaps because of the outrage that drove the original coverage of the event. Cecil the Lion wasn’t adopted in quite the same way, but by putting Harambe through the randomized chaos of Internet communities like 4Chan and Imgur, he will live forever, free from the news cycle that builds up and then abandons subjects on a week-to-week, click-by-click basis. “Don’t forget about Harambe,” is the subtext of each of these memes and absurd sight gags. “Don’t ever forget.”