A central theme in Hip Hop is that of ‘Keeping It Real’. Artists must strive to remain true to their roots (regardless of their success) if they are to be respected by their peers. Hip Hop music has its origins in the West African culture of story-telling, in which the most proficient story-teller in the tribe, the Griot, is accredited the task of regaling the group with his tales. The Griot’s role is not just that of the entertainer, but also of the historian, social-commentator, poet and praise-singer (Hale 1998). In order to defend his prestigious role from competitors the Griot must demonstrate his story-telling prowess in the content of his lyrics, and the way they are put to music
Fast-forward several hundred years and the descendants of West African tribespeople arrive, via slave ships, in North America. As these people continue to survive in the modern-day United States of America, so do their cultural practices; including that of the Griot. Once the Hip Hop movement had begun to establish itself in the 1980s, the role of the Griot became reflected in that of the MC: “the rapper is a modern African griot, the verbally gifted storyteller and cultural historian in traditional African society” (Smitherman 2000). In order to be successful, an MC must demonstrate the very same skills practised by the Griots, but with the added proviso that they must remain loyal not only to their region and upbringing, but to the West African tradition of story-telling: they must ‘Keep It Real’
New York is often cited as the birthplace of Hip Hop: it is where DJ Kool Herc laid the foundations of the movement at his legendary parties, and where the five elements of Hip Hop (rap music, turntablism (DJ-ing), break-dancing, graffiti art, and knowledge) came together in a cultural melting pot. As the subculture developed in the 1990s, two prominent young artists came to the fore: Nasir Jones and Shawn Carter (among many others). Both come from a similar background, and both claim to be the most proficient MC ever to have come out of New York City
This study will take no part in such a debate, but will objectively analyse the language use of both the aforementioned artists. Both speakers use a variety of English known as African American Vernacular English (henceforth AAVE), and reflected in this dialect are speech patterns that date back to their West African roots (see Section 2, below). This study will use the lyrics in the music of their respective debut albums as its primary data, and via quantitative analysis will compare the extent to which they adhere to the variants of AAVE. It will therefore determine what it means, linguistically, to ‘Keep It Real’, and how far each of the two artists conforms to this ideal. This will enable us to answer the research questions (as stated in the abstract, above):
1. Do the speakers use AAVE variants to any significant extent?
If Hip Hop is a modern, cultural representation of the African American socio-historical experience, then it is reasonable to assume that this will be reflected in the speech of Hip Hop’s rappers. If this is the case, then we would expect to find a high frequency of AAVE features. If this is not the case, does the language reflect something else, or are the speakers using some other method of reflecting their identity?
2. Which features are used, and in which linguistic and extra-linguistic contexts are they used?
The coding schema for this study (see section 3, below) will establish which features are and are not used in the speech of the two artists, thus providing an account of which features actually form part of modern AAVE speech. After all, “the ‘standard’ for nonstandard speech is shaped through day-to-day conversations – and not by teachers or grammarians” (Baugh 1983: 12). Given this, the study will also seek to determine the variable contexts in which these features occur
3. What kind of patterning, if any, emerges in the speakers’ use of AAVE variants?
Quantitative analysis will provide insight into how these features are used, not just in terms of their linguistic and extra-linguistic contexts, but in terms of their frequency, their usage in relation to one another, and as markers of identity
4. Can this pattern be explained according to the principles of Labovian variationist sociolinguistics?
Labov’s central principle (1966, 1972) is that language variation is not free, but rather systematic and accountable (on the basis that it is constrained by both social and linguistic factors). This principle of “structured heterogeneity” (Weinreich et al. 1968: 99-100) forms the basis of the linguistic inquiry in this study. Any variation in the data will be accounted for, where possible, in a manner consistent with Labov’s variationist sociolinguistics
[A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY]
The extant literature that motivates this study uses several terms (some more controversial than others) to refer to what is now known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Until the 1970s, AAVE was known as ‘Black English’ (BE) or ‘Black Vernacular English’ (BVE). This term was partially replaced by ‘Ebonics’ (an amalgamation of ‘ebony’ and ‘phonics’) after it was first introduced by Williams (1975) in an attempt to re-dress the negative connotations associated with new terms such as ‘Nonstandard Negro English’. This term was popular among non-linguists, and was associated with an Afrocentric political persuasion, but was not fully adopted by the linguistic community. By the late nineties, linguists and non-linguists alike converged on ‘AAVE’, presumably because it captures precisely what it aims to describe linguistically, and is (hopefully) devoid of offensive/negative connotations. It is for these two reasons that this study will adopt the use of the term AAVE when referring to the grammatical system of English used by African Americans today
Edit song description to add:
- Historical context: what album the song's on, how popular it was
- An explanation of the song's overall story (example: "In this song, Eminem corresponds with a crazed fan who ends up...")
- The sample used for the beat — use WhoSampled.com and wikipedia as references