|Who's the 'authentic' hip-hop artist? Mike Jones or George Watsky?|
In discussing issues of authenticity surrounding linguistic acts, one has to first acknowledge the present stereotypes of language, and more specifically, individual linguistic varieties. Because of its imperial and slave history, the United States has myriad anxieties involving the use and proliferation of what linguists currently call African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Within dominant white ideology, there exists an interesting fascination with all things deemed black, especially regarding linguistic practices. Over the past few decades, in conjunction with the global rise of hip-hop and its subsequent cultural institutions, it has become increasingly popular for white, often affluent, youth to participate and claim a stake in the various facets of hip-hop music. This has resulted in numerous national conversations surrounding the implementation of AAVE (the ‘language’ of hip-hop) into the mainstream. Essentially, as hip-hop has expanded into other varieties of music and culture, so too has AAVE ‘mongrelized’ the U.S. notion of unmarked, standard English. In this way, discussions of hip-hop as a valid and productive art form center on its often provocative lyrics present in Top 40 songs. In her article “Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English”, Cecilia Cutler suggests that when white youth implement AAVE into their everyday linguistic processes, they are appropriating an ethnolinguistic identity to which they have no claim. For Cutler, when an affluent, white teen, Mike, adopts AAVE as his language of choice, without attempting to claim an authentic black identity, Mike is somehow adulterating hip-hop culture, black identity claims, and AAVE linguistic meaning:
Hip-hop is increasingly claimed to be a multi-cultural lifestyle rather than a symbol of ethnic group identity, particularly by white adolescents but also by others. As such, it seems to allow white access to a commodified, ephemeral black experience at various moments or phases of their lives without requiring overt claims of black ethnicity, and the sociolinguistic meaning of AAVE appears to be adjusted in the process (Cutler 435)
This quotation seems to argue that there is something beyond language that makes hip-hop a uniquely black cultural formation. By tying the linguistic practices of AAVE to a cultural phenomenon in hip-hop, Cutler suggests that hip-hop should be a “symbol of ethnic group identity”. I find this troublesome because it seems to lead to the conclusion that merely by using AAVE, in combination with some understanding of what black looks like, an individual is necessarily part of the hip-hop group identity. Additionally, it understands hip-hop to only consist of those linguistic practices that are inherently African American, which we know do not exist; there is no such thing as a linguistic feature that is a priori tied to a racial group, since both race and language are constructs. As such, I am willing to argue that there are many instances in which an individual identifies with the black group identity without using AAVE, as well as situations where those who consider themselves black use AAVE, yet disregard hip-hop. There seems to be something more than AAVE and blackness at play when discussing ‘authentic’ hip-hop culture.
I am interested in complicating Cutler’s assumption that it is Mike’s linguistic appropriation of AAVE that functions as the medium through which hip-hop culture and black identity are threatened. I wish to suggest that while the white appropriation of AAVE certainly has a major role in complicating hip-hop identity, at its core, hip-hop is an issue of individual identity ownership, rather than a set of linguistic practices. Knowing that racial grouping is socially constructed to fabricate nonexistent boundaries between groups, it becomes difficult to suggest that a cultural formation belongs to one group of people and not to another. Further, just because a group of people share an arbitrary characteristic (in this case race and/or language), it does not logically follow they then must share the same culture. Instead hip-hop is predicated on an individual’s ability to successfully perform self. Even though MCs like Mike Jones and Soulja Boy are black and use AAVE, there are questions surrounding their validity as rappers because they appear to be performing some abstract understanding of what hip-hop represents, rather than using hip-hop to convey individual identity. Those rappers with the most ‘credibility’ or ‘authenticity are those that are able to tell a cohesive individual story, often utilizing AAVE and blackness as sources of inspiration.
Understanding hip-hop as this complex collection of individual narratives, as opposed to a culturally unified race and group of language users allows for us to reevaluate who should be allowed to appropriate hip-hop. Consider the case of my friend, George Watsky; George is a professional slam poet who recently released a hip-hop album on which he produced, rapped, and mixed all of the tracks. George is an affluent, white college educated 23 year-old male from San Francisco, CA. Several months ago, George released a YouTube video titled “Pale kid raps fast”, in which he eloquently represents his extreme whiteness, using ‘standard’ English in a hip-hop format. Based on Cutler’s understanding of the intersection of language acts and hip-hop identity, Watsky would be appropriating hip-hop culture in a way that transforms its group identity away from blackness. However, this video, with its 7.5 million views, has been championed by many hip-hop figures and fans. The content of his rapping covers individualized topics from his fears (“I don’t wanna end up in the gutter with a bottle of malt liquor”) to his confidence in self (“Who’s he? You gotta be kidding me. Do me like Gabourey Sidibe.”) Even though Watsky compares himself to a homeless drunkard and an overweight, black actress, there is no issue of appropriation because he is able to elucidate his ownership of these anxieties, using culturally relevant metaphors and stereotypes. In this way, Watsky is enacting the true essence of hip-hop, beyond the linguistic and racial stereotypes fabricated through the commodification and globalization of the art form. By using his own language and identity in a hip-hop context, George Watsky does not deteriorate the significance of hip-hop as a tool for voicing black identity, as Cutler suggests. Instead, he successfully demonstrates the ways in which the structure of hip-hop lends itself to creative expressions of individuality and struggle.