Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chet Haze- Don't Call Him Chester

by Monica Burton

In Cecilia A. Cutler’s “Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English” she examines Mike, a white, 16-year-old who lives in an affluent part of Manhattan, yet speaks African American Vernacular English with his friends and at home. His connection to African American culture exists through the hip hop music he listens to and the groups of African American adolescents he sees on the streets. He is, what some would term, a wigger.

While there is initially a fascination with the African American community for Mike,  he does not feel accepted by members of this community and grows to resent them because of this. Rather than be flattered by this affluent white teen mimicking AAVE and the behaviors he associates with it, which include violence and gang activity,   To them, his use of the language is theft and not flattery. What’s more, when Mike employs AAVE, he advances the most negative stereotypes attached to it because of his tendencies toward reckless behavior.

What I find interesting about Mike is that though he may use AAVE most when with friends, he generally uses it all of the time, regardless of the context. He did not grow up hearing this language, yet his speech is closer to that of African Americans than the white people that surround him. This puts Mike in an unusual position. He is not accepted among the community whose language he speaks, and his language marks him as an other within his own community.

In popular culture, people like Mike are mocked for the way they speak and the image they attempt to embody because-- as Hill quotes Smitherman in the chapter “Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English”--“Whites pay no dues, but reap the psychological, social, and economic benefits of a language and culture born out of struggle and hard times” (Hill 12).

Recently, there has been some media buzz over Chet Haze (his rap name). His real name is Chet (short for Chester) Hanks. Yes Hanks, as in Tom Hanks. The progeny of Hollywood royalty Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Chet attends Northwestern University and is beginning a rap career. His song “White and Purple,” a remake of Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” hit YouTube in January and from there came waves of criticism and mocking. The criticism is not always of the song, but the identity Chet projects, including the language he uses. Everyone knows that this is not the language he was accustomed to hearing growing up in Los Angeles with successful actors for parents, and some take issue with this. 

A young Chester Hanks with mother Rita Wilson

Shock Jock Howard Stern was especially critical of Chet, discussing him on his Sirius Satellite Radio show. In this clip, Stern mocks Chet’s authenticity, or lack thereof. Stern, like Smitherman in the quote above, views the use of the language and adoption of an identity aligned with hip hop culture as a theft, because Chet did not grow up experiencing poverty or violence-- hip hop themes and experiences commonly associated with speakers of AAVE.

Chet responds to such critics on his Twitter. On February 17 he tweeted: “There should be a new twitter just for Haters. Call it Twatter. Cuz they most likely getting none. Lol.” Here he drops the “are” following “they” as in standard AAVE. He does, however, keep the gerund on “getting” in keeping with standard English. The next day he spoke out against “haters” again tweeting, “People need to realize that hip hop is more than race or economic background. If it speaks to you, then you're a part of it.”

This last tweet rests completely within standard English. It is grammatically correct and he avoids using any AAVE slang. In fact, Chet’s ability to switch between registers of speech is evident throughout his twitter feed, which appears to contain a mixture of standard English and AAVE. This led me to question the contexts in which Chet appropriates elements of AAVE. He chose to defend himself in two different ways, perhaps appealing to two different audiences. In the first tweet, he seems to be addressing those who already approve of his use of AAVE and his career as a whole. This is evidenced not only in the inclusion of AAVE structure, but in the familiar, jokey tone and content. The second tweet, however, is an appeal to a wider audience that includes those who may have mocked Chet’s language and career aspirations. He uses standard English to reason with those who speak this standard and may not understand his adoption of AAVE.

I wondered how Chet divides his speech outside of the Twittersphere. A friend of mine who attends Northwestern cast Chet in a play she directed. Though she said he didn’t talk to her much, he seemed to include more AAVE elements after winter break and that he tries to be “rough and tough.”  His speech changed, however, when she asked him to discuss his character. She described him as “perfectly articulate" in this specific context. The character, she said, was a “tough guy” and everything he could have wanted as it “showed him off how he wants to be perceived.” 

Chet Haze

It seems that as Chet’s rap career began to take off (this winter), his adoption of a hip hop identity intensified. His appropriation of AAVE likely becomes more frequent as he meets more with producers and attracts increased amounts of attention for his burgeoning rap career. He is “Chet Haze, Rapper” in all contexts relating to his rap career, such as his self promotion on Twitter, and when discussing his songs as heard in parts of the Howard Stern radio show clip. However, he switches back into the mode of “Chet Hanks, Northwestern Student” when asked to discuss his character by the director of the play in a theatrical, academic setting.

Chet’s admiration of hip hop and passion for the genre are apparent through his appropriation of AAVE. It seems that he wants very much to be a part of a community of rappers and hopes (at least subconsciously) that his use of the language will encourage acceptance. At present, any actual approval from the African American community is yet to be seen, but perhaps his dedication to the music, and not his adoption of AAVE, will one day earn him legitimacy.

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