Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wiggas: A Growing Youth Population

By Lizzy Mirisola

            In “Yorkville Crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English,” Cecilia Cutler explores the adoption of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) by white middle class American teenagers who may be expected to use something more reminiscent of Standard English (SE) instead.  Cutler observers a friend’s son, Mike, as he matures during his teenage years, and readily adopts AAVE, both as a linguistic style and as a lifestyle, participating in gang activity in New York City.
            Mike goes through several phases in his adoption of AAVE and a sort of ghetto-ized, African American lifestyle.  The first, which occurs around age 13, is his disassociation with groups he considers “racist” against African Americans (aligning himself with African Americans and other low income minority groups though he is clearly white and wealthy.) This intrigued me because included in the groups he singles out are people of Jewish descent, a minority population that has faced widespread discrimination historically.  And yet, Mike views them as racist against African Americans.  This seems to suggest that perhaps money plays a part in this dichotomy Mike is forming in his head between those who are “with African Americans” and those who are “against them.”  Additionally, Mike tries to distance himself from his high-income neighborhood by using his brother’s Brooklyn phone number.   Cutler notes that this behavior is common for users of hip-hop online chat rooms, who are often middle class but try to align themselves with signs of poverty instead.
            Mike’s behavior becomes increasingly violent during his teenage years, and his language increasingly reminiscent of AAVE.  He creates a “tag name,” joins a (predominantly white) gang and uses drugs.  He gets into trouble numerous times. These are behaviors often associated with low-income Black and Latino culture, and distanced from upper-middle class activities of white children growing up in New York City.  However, even as Mike transitions back to a lifestyle more typically accepted of a white, middle-class college student as he ages, his violent tendencies remain intact, begging the question, was Mike really affected by a desire to fit into a certain culture or was he predisposed to this kind of behavior all along?
            It’s unclear whether Mike’s path would have ultimately been very different had he not chosen to align himself with African American, urban culture.  However, what is clear is that the general trend of white youth seeking to align themselves with African American, urban culture, particularly through the use of language and style is widening to include even younger age groups.  Case in point: Matty B, the up and coming eight-year-old rapper.

            In the link above, Matty B covers Pitbull and T-Pain’s “Hey Baby,” a song marketed towards an adult audience with an interest in rap and hip-hop, music genres historically developed and patronized by urban populations, often of African American or Latino descent.  Using phrases like, “gotta flow now, like a pro now” and “my friends are watchin’.  They hear us talkin’” Matty B portrays what many people would consider “ghetto” impression.  He uses his hands in the same way famous rappers do by throwing them forward dramatically, attempts to deepen his voice (emphasis on the word attempt) and shortens words in a typically AAVE style.  Even his name suggests an allegiance with well-known rappers who often shorten their names to nicknames, don’t utilize last names and abbreviate using letters.  Matty B’s case is particularly interesting because of his age.  In Cutler’s article, she cites contact with kids from the Bronx, Harlem and elsewhere and street culture in general as the probable source of Mike’s transformation.  However, it seems difficult to discern where Matty B, an eight-year old from what appears to be American suburbia, would have picked up the cultural cues to be able to align himself with rap culture originally reserved for low-income, urban neighborhoods.  It’s a safe bet that the media had a strong hand in this, and perhaps Matty B’s parents and friends at school. 
            Matty B has other videos as well, one in particular where he covers an Eminem song which creates a multi-layer effect of “wigga” culture, some asserting that Eminem himself is a wigga. 

            In the Eminem cover above, we are able to hear Matty B speak as he would normally, when not rapping.  The difference between what I presume to be his alter ego of Matty B and his more natural state (when he’s speaking to his sister for instance) is quite significant.  There is certainly a façade being created by his rapping persona.  In additoin, as Matty B teaches his little sister phrases like “cheeyea,” we see the culture being extended to yet another, and younger age group.
            I feel like this post wouldn’t be complete without the obligatory Justin Bieber shout out.  Perhaps the most successfully marketed child star ever, his dance moves and clothing style (shown below) are noticeably reminiscent of African American/Latino Urban culture.

Here, we see Bieber “dougie” and “jerk” (the first a dance move developed during the 1980’s by rapper “Doug E Fresh” and the second a form of inner-city dance developed in southern California (Urban Dictionary)).  Both moves are unexpected of, though extremely well performed by Bieber yet the entire scenario seems somewhat contradictory, particularly given the gaggle of presumably “tween”-aged girls screaming and near-fainting each time Bieber whips out a new move.  A situation that likely would have been characteristic of an inner-city dance battle or concert is mapped onto an entirely different demographic here.  It is an odd juxtaposition.  In addition, Bieber’s clothing style is markedly urban (his pants struggle to stay up throughout the duration of his performance and his consistent tugging is a move often utilized by those in the rap business.)  Bieber, who only recently turned 17 and whose fans range in age from infanthood to adulthood, demonstrates the success crossing over can bring.  He seems to be inherently contradictory of what we as society expect, based on the racial dichotomy that has developed in America of “whiteness” and “blackness.” 

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