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Media - Hip-hop and cultural identity

Deepsouth v.6.n.1 (Winter 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by
Janet Harvey

by Janet Harvey

  All rights reserved.


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However, politically flavoured 'direct address' is by no means the only way in which Rap music uses language to assert the subculture of Hip-Hop against mainstream representations.  Being so far removed from their African forbears, many Afro-Americans and Afro-Carribeans necessarily have English as a first language.  Hall quotes Mercer to argue that Jamaicans subvert the coloniser's language "through strategic inflections and other performative moves in strategic, syntactic and lexical codes".15   This has the effect of 'carnivalising' English, making it into a  distinctly national language which is literally indecipherable to the outsider.16   Caribbeans and Afro-Americans have spoken English long enough to develop a wide range of slang, alternative vocabulary and  unusual grammatical patterns. According to Mercer, this hybrid language becomes a cultural weapon, by "..disarticulating certain signs [such as those found in mainstream media] and re-articulating their symbolic meaning".17  This is type of reversal is most evident with words such as black, nigger, homeboy etc which have been converted from racist taunts to markers of black cultural identity. 


Lisa Delpit highlights the contradictions faced by black educators, who know education is of extra importance to economically underprivileged kids, but realise that the system is rigid and unkind to difference.18   When black children go to school, they not only are forced to speak formal English, but to do art, music and almost everything else in keeping with a white person's perception of how things should be done.  This has resulted in a loss of identity and a fierce mistrust of institutions and laws made by white people, a situation which the Hip-Hop community is well aware of.  Hip-Hop pours scorn on formal English by accentuating cultural linguistic variations and reappropriations, continuing a linguistic tradition has no place in mainstream media or the education system.  Just as Reggae music was the popular voice for "a new construction of Jamaicanness" in the 70s, Hip-Hop has mediated the black struggles of the 80s and 90s- from the perspective of black people and in their own, reclaimed language.19


Alternate meanings and grammar are not the only differences between the language of Hip-Hop and dominant English.  Rose discusses symbolic violence in Hip-Hop in relation to the NWA's Rap 'Fuck the Police', which caused "most extreme and unconstitutional reaction(s) from law-enforcement officials".20   The police, officially fearing violence from fans, occupied concerts in huge numbers only to storm the stage at any sign of the dreaded line.  Ice T's 'Cop Killer' provoked New Zealand police to ban his tour some 10 years ago, because of similar fears of violence. Rose blames this phenomenon on authorities' literal understanding of  words which are symbolic in meaning, but do indeed carry a message.  Naughty by Nature MC Kaygee explains simply: "When they say 'fuck the police', it doesn't mean they hate the police, it means that there's a resentment out there in the neighbourhood."21


This is a resentment that is extremely prevalent among American Blacks who have a long history of racism and violence by police. The mainstream media promotes an image of the violent black criminal, which allows police violence to be perpetuated without reprimand. Kaygee tells of being frisked by police while driving from a radio station to a venue, his resentment at having to put his hands behind his head like a criminal is hardly surprising.  Rose discusses a lively Hip-Hop concert which was dampened by the extensive and humiliating searches imposed on the party-goers by police. Symbolic violence against cops appears and reappears in Hip-Hop because the real violence is impossible -  a black man cannot get physical revenge against a cop without landing in prison. Rose quotes Ice Cube's apt term 'revenge fantasies' for this type of message in Rap music.22  Revenge fantasies are an important (and peaceful) form of public resistance to mainstream stereotypes which barely mask the interests of hegemony.  Over-the-top Police reactions against Hip-Hop appear to originate from assumptions that media violence instigates real violence- a form of moral panic which media scholars like Grixti believe to be overly simplistic and unfounded.23  By uniting an alienated and culturally hybrid youth underclass through the expression of similar experience, Hip-Hop could have the power to suppress crime and violence rather than exacerbating it. At the very least it provides a forum for discourse on subjects like police violence, which are denied in mainstream media through the recurring stereotype of the violent black criminal.

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15 Stuart Hall. Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation Framework. 36 (1990-92), p. 80, quotes Kobena Mercer, BLACKFRAMES, pp. 57.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Lisa Delpit, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other Peoples Children in Harvard Educational Review Vol. 58 No.3 August 1998.

19 Hall, Framework, 1990-92, p. 75.

20 Tricia Rose Hidden Politics in Droppin' Science (1996), p. 239.

21 The Show [video recording] (1996).

22 Tricia Rose, op. cit. p. 239.

23 Joe Grixti, Normalising the Unspeakable in New Zealand Journal  of Media studies. No.5.1.(1998).