Originally published 07 May 2012
“In defence of artists who ‘sound American’, when I first started rapping, I had a fake East Coast accent,” said Slug of the group Atmosphere at an Urban Music Workshop leading up to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. “I grew up listening to East Coast rappers, and I thought, that’s what you’re supposed to sound like. So for many, many years, that’s what I sounded like.” Slug said that it wasn’t until much later on that he started to honestly embrace who he was, before adding “it’s something that I see in many different communities around the world. When I visit, a lot of the times the artists from those particular communities do sound American.” He concluded by saying that perhaps the artists in question had not yet “found their own voices”.
Ghanaian-Romanian rapper Wanlov the Kubolor ruminated on the same topic when I spoke to him, admitting that before he embraced his background fully, he still used to represent his thoughts, but under the guise of “a different person”. Wanlov says that he wasn’t rapping in the way that he spoke, but rather adopted a guise for rap purposes. His resolve came as soon as he stopped trying to pander to what he thought other people wanted to hear. “As soon as I realised where I had to be, I was there. As soon as I stopped catering to the Americans or what the world thought was hip hop, I just said, oh, I just have to do me.”
So is it just lazy and derivative to rap as if you’re chasing that elusive American dream? Or a calculated attempt to break into those lucrative global markets? Perhaps it’s just a default to the norm, to what one found attractive – in the vein of what Slug has been saying above. In my view, the very notion of ‘accent’ lends itself to ambiguity; people everywhere speak with a certain inflection, be it in their own vernacular where, for instance, there is the Jozi version of the Zulu accent, as well as the Natal version of the Zulu accent.
While some may be excused due to their upbringing in foreign territories (Tumi Molekane and Ben Sharpa immediately come to mind), it is hard to understand nor explain the inclination of so many other rappers to ‘sound American’. Currently leading the pack of South African mainstream rap, AKA’s flow borrows heavily from Jay-Z, whom he has expressed pride in once being compared to.
Further up the continent, Western influence is prevalent in videos by acts such as Kenya’s Camp Mulla. Nigeria may have completely overtaken the DRC as Africa’s leader in all things musical, but what the mainstream acts have done is to merely adapt Western elements: the bling, the women, and the aspirations portrayed in videos emerging from their American counterparts, to their locale. But their scene seems to have ‘evolved’ to a point where these parallels are almost blurred and easy to ignore.
Phiona Okumu, journalist and music editor at Afripopmag, reckons that [South] Africans are not alone in the domain of American accents: “I spent half my life in England. UK hip hop went absolutely nowhere until Rodney P and the likes came and ‘made it their own’. What followed was resonance and public acceptance.”
But what of globalization and the inherent cross-pollination that results? What of the oft-cited claim that ‘no idea is original’? Blogger Mikko Kapanen finds it bemusing that South African artists are given a hard time about how they rap. According to him, the focus should be more on one’s content. “I’d say all of the artists I come across in Finland and Sweden who use English as their language tend to have very American accents, but the content – now I am talking about the artists I like – is localised or regional.”
Mikko makes another observation: “I understand that there is English spoken in SA, but I don’t think it changes things completely, because it isn’t the first language for most.” To him, it is okay to sound slightly American, as long as the rapper in question is not “carbon copying the content” of American mainstream hip hop.
South Africa’s biggest commercial radio station, 5FM, hosts a hip hop show every Monday night anchored by DJ C-Live. A cursory listen is guaranteed to make a purist have gag reflexes, but one can argue that Hip Hop Power Nights (the show’s name) plays that type of music because, to quote an overused adage, it is what the people want. To what extent, then, are broadcasters liable for the amount of Americanised influences so prevalent in South African hip hop?
C-Live, still dazed and carrying sour grapes from a shitty review Mahala gave his pet project eons ago, declined to comment on questions ranging from whether he felt responsible for educating the South African hip hop massive about other types of rap, to whether he was aware of the overarching influence of American rap on his show.
Part of the Beatbangaz and erstwhile host of the GHETTO PIMP show with partner DJ Eazy on UCT Radio, DJ Azuhl, was, however, very forthcoming with his views. He reckons that, as much as the audience may demand to hear a certain sound, the onus is still on the broadcasters to introduce alternatives. That balance, he feels, is not there, stating that: “Quotas are ridiculous! Why should a country’s artist be quota’d, and [yet] we import American culture etc… shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Azuhl dismisses the current model of the public broadcaster, from radio to television, as “appalling”.
He feels that major broadcasters “feed and support a capitalist system which is based on making money”. So, in his views, anything that sells is considered fair game. This, in turn, feeds into the illusion that “whatever’s foreign, is better”. Subsequently, we are left with a whole culture which panders to the Western model of operation, hip hop notwithstanding. He echoes Wanlov’s sentiments by stating that the alternative to ‘sounding American’ is simply “to be you”.
Natalie Crue hosts a programme called Global Beats every Saturday on Sky Hook Radio. I asked her whether she senses any overt American influences in the music submissions she receives weekly from all across the world. “A lot of the music references American hip hop. By reference, I mean that some artists go out of their way to co-opt our vernacular and cultural markers that are distinctly American.” She found the adoption of the word nigga baffling, and said that “the term obviously has a negative connotation” and that its liberal use by artists from overseas is “disturbing in many ways”. She also found that some rappers tend to use words without necessarily understanding their implications, and made it clear that “it has become more of a trend of sorts. I also see quite a few artists adopting ‘swag rap’ as an act. Those types of submissions are deleted.”
Natalie feels that by adopting these cultural markers, a rapper loses authenticity. In her opinion: “Swag rap is a weak attempt by those in the American music industry to co-opt hip hop and make it marketable to a hipster crowd.”
But could it be that rappers who choose to adopt a persona, an American one at that, do so subconsciously? Phiona seems to agree: “Coming up South African (especially in Johannesburg) rappers were hugely infatuated with East Coast rap. It’s what influenced them and I guess it’s what shaped their sound. It’s worth saying that a lot of South African kids (who aren’t rappers) sound like Americans. I guess that’s the TV influence.”
However, Natalie is of the opinion that, “artists that choose to use American accents to communicate their creative expressions are taking the easy way out.” She makes clear her admiration for acts such as Kanyi and Driemanskap who, in her view, “use their respective vernacular rather than co-opting American images and accents that don’t necessarily represent them as artists.” She rounds off by mentioning the Daara J Family, and other artists who have gained overseas acceptance by embracing their language and cultural identity.
This then brings us to the flip-side: Die Antwoord.
The now-global phenomenon started by Ninja and his side-kick Yo-landi, have been criticised by many for their appropriation of a culture that they do not fully understand nor even belong to. Filmmaker Dylan Valley (Afrikaaps, Lost Prophets), is split regarding his feelings towards the duo, acknowledging the satirical aspect of their act, but also questioning whether their audience really gets it? “Their biggest audience is arguably international, who wouldn’t get any of the coloured references because for the most part they don’t even know about coloureds.” But would Die Antwoord have achieved massive international success on the back of appropriated coloured accents and cultural representation. Valley offers Max Normal.tv’s Good Morning South Africa album where the two “’played themselves”, as an example. That project barely made a ripple in comparison to Die Antwoord. So it goes without saying that Die Antwoord, replete with their appropriation and blackface parallels, has benefitted from ‘flipping the script’.
Tom Devriendt, contributor to the excellent Africa Is A Country blog, feels that people tend to bring out the ‘fake accent’ diss when their intention is to let someone know that their music is bad. “We’ve got plenty of Belgian artists singing or rapping in English or French. We’ll laugh at some for their turn of phrase, maybe a strange pronunciation now and then, but when the music’s good, we’ll quickly forgive them.” He reckons that people are more concerned with an artist’s originality. “What is more important is for an artist to reflect their environment. People will only allow them to get away with sounding American, when it doesn’t sound alien.”
Mikko agrees. “Negative influences aren’t necessarily American, but they just happen to come from there because mainstream hip hop has traditionally come from there and music industries like to promote those artists with big money.” He believes that the argument/critique of an American accent stems more from what topics a rapper chooses to address, as opposed to their manner of speech.
However, not all is grim on the South African hip hop landscape. Although his raps are in English, Iapetus Records’ Robo the Technician’s flow embraces a street aesthetic that can render even the most violent of felons to crumble under the weight of his acerbic ghetto narratives. With his Pioneer Unit imprint, Dplanet aims to expose more of the sub-terranean hip hop that has potential to become a valid cultural export in years to come; theirs is a movement more focused on social relevance than, say, the amount of ‘swagger’ one possesses.
It would be interesting to discover from purveyors of the fake American accent doctrine what the alternative is, since ‘Africanisation’ lends itself to another paradox, that of which version of Africa is deemed valid. Phiona Okumu also points out the difference between an accent and an ‘ism’, adding that “sometimes it’s subtle”. She thinks that rappers could be “referencing the culture of hip hop rather than idealising the American accent over their own.”
The last word goes to Mikko: “starting to rap often coincides with the age when one is seeking
for and trying out identities to relate to. So perhaps it’s got both aspects – some of the English is learned from the music (or the learning is more meaningful from the music) and the other is to confuse the American accent as something that is part of hip hop and attempt to identify with it by adopting the accent.”
**Opening image courtesy Pink Lyte.