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Best of 2012 | Fake American Accents

by Ts’eliso Monaheng / 02.01.2013

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.”

*Further reading:

http://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/72905/Issue1-zachariah-dominelli-identity-construction-and-australian-hip-hop.pdf

http://proudlyafrikan.org/hip-hop-in-south-africa-the-new-cultural-imperialism/

http://eng.sagepub.com/content/38/3/248

http://jci.sagepub.com/content/33/1/43

**Opening image courtesy Pink Lyte.

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RESPONSES (23)
  1. Ross says:

    Excellent! Of course this applies in a big way to rock, blues, folk and also the presenters on kids TV – SA kids are watching these young ‘cool’ kids going all “wassup yo” with the caps and the hand gestures – SABC needs to own their part in our continued feelings of inadequacy and performers need to grow the fuck up and be themselves.

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  2. Thato Tsotetsi says:

    Absolutely stunning read Ts’eliso!
    You’ve covered all the bases here without seeming to be leaning towards any point of view, which in my books makes you an excellent writer!

    I would add my own two cents’ worth but I’m afraid it might take away from the awesomeness, so I’ll leave it at FUCKING KIF!!!!

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  3. siviwe says:

    U r wat u consume and a lot of what the youth consumes is american. Ask most school kids about artist not even from they era, like paul ndlovu, chicco or stimela, they probably won’t know. Yet u ask them about marvin gaye, dr dre or run dmc, they can probably sing a tune for u. The big difference for me is that a lot of upcoming artists are only exposed once they are in the industry to artists from they own background, whereas they are exposed to american artist from their infancy. I think we should actually appreciate and congratulate the current crop of artist for making the effort of knowing who preceded them and educating the current generation cause to be they are the only ones really making an effort to do so. Jozi educated this generated about Mahlatini yet our own minister of sport chose Brandy to headline the sports awards. Rather these laaities with their american accents than ministers with local accents who do nothing for the culture.

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  4. zo says:

    Does ABBA’s Dancing Queen sound Sweddish? Should Freddie Mercury have been restricted to singing in Parsi? I suppose Amy Winehouse’s Rehab would benefit more from cockney slurs instead of the decidedly cross Atlantic garbles?
    Matter of fact, who is more American between Amy and Adele? Amy, you might say? The Salaam Remi’s, the Me and Mr Jones, The Negro Blues pathos. Which is the real point here. These rappers are not faking some homogenous American accent. It’s a Black American accent. A black ghetto, pissed off, over sexed, over stimulated, biased voiced. It’s actually pretty stupid to expect a generation of intergrated blacks to either sound like their parents who were bantu educated or like the white laaities they attend school with. Surely in that vacuum the ascension of hip hop in the media provides an example (It could have easily been UK Grime or some such, but they didn’t have the media presence).Who cares what they sound like or they are saying. let them create. its better to create shit, than be idle.
    When is Arno Carstens going to be asked to sound more Afrikaans? Are you really trying to tell me Prime Circle sounds less American than AKA? Does LiquiDeep have to remake their songs in seSuthu for Natalie Crue’s admiration? No, just rappers? Okay, got it!

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  5. Ts'eliso says:

    Thank you to everyone for your views/contributions. Much appreciated :)

    @zo: I believe Mahala has an open-door policy, so you are very much welcome to write a counter-article – pitch[at]mahala[dot]co[dot]za

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  6. Bruno says:

    Its easier to tolerate US accents in local hip hop than it is from presenters like Phat Joe and Vusi Twala who have to work so much harder to keep it going over the course of a television or radio show.

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  7. African says:

    What exactly is the intention of this article? What is this writer trying to achieve? What is American accent anyway? Last I checked American accent is not an homogeneous element as you’d want us to believe here. Perhaps you meant ebonics. The fact that you even dedicate an entire article critiquing how an African artist uses a foreign dialect as opposed to what he/she is actually saying is beyond my comprehension.
    Africa has way too may issues and problems even in arts and it kills me that with your skills as a writer you’d even waste your time analysing how other busy Africans are talking/singing/rapping in a foreign dialect.
    All of this rappers mentioned here can speak, sing and rap in their local dialects just as they do in their foreign dialect. The identity of Africa is so pathetic that young kids like Camp Mulla try to show their city in a more presentable manner and all Africans/Kenyans can talk about is that the video is American. C’mon we can do better. We waste too much time critiquing America that we even forget how our streets look like.

    Anyway. ProVerb killed this conversation in ‘Reveal’. Nothing more to say.
    Peace!

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  8. Thato Tsotetsi says:

    @ African…

    Shut up, you’re sounding very African-American right now…*rolls eyes*

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  9. Ts'eliso says:

    @African: I would take you seriously if you’d made an effort to present a coherent argument. Flesh out your argument and send the results: pitch[at]mahala[dot]co[dot]za

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  10. Jaimy says:

    You’ve covered American gangster accents in African music, but there are a few other points that really annoy me, like how they talk in Compton style accents during interviews – even though they were not brought up in Compton or have never been to the crime ridden areas of America. Putting on an accent for music is fine – it’s entertainment. But why use the fake accent for interviews and just general chit chat? Do they talk like that to their family at the dinner table?

    Another extremely stupid habit they have is the use of the word “nigger” – in their music and during general conversation. “Hey check out my niggers here”. It’s so dumb!

    Also, what’s with the body gyrations while trying to talk? They’ve been watching too much Boyz n the Hood, and are glorifying American gangster culture and totally forgetting everything about where they come from.

    One artist that I do respect is Kenya’s Nameless. He’s played all around the world but his feet are still firmly on the ground. He sounds Kenyan and he stays away from crap such as “money, bitches, niggers and swag”.

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  11. Anonymous says:

    I am a huge fan of hip hop, and have been since first discovering it on tv as a teen in Dakar. I came to the US instead of going to France because of the appeal of hip hop. I am receptive to the beat but especially to the lyrics, the turn of phrase, the obvious and hidden meanings, the metaphors and the similes, the cadence and the tone, the form and the content. Yet, I cannot listen to any African artist rapping in a western language, specifically French and English for the simple reason that the put on accent does not fill the holes inherent in expressing oneself in a non-native language. The poetry used tends to be pedestrian at best and the imagery becomes too forceful, lacking the subtleties, the ease and the playfulness, along with the poetic license that is present when one is rapping in their native language. The article mentions Daara J, which is a group that I enjoy because i can get the poetry present in the wolof language, which is a very subtle, rhythmic and deep tongue that allows for a rich and full poetic expression.
    I can listen to French african rappers because they are now native to the language and the culture, making it their own. Their tone,accent, worldview and stories are just not French, they are French through the prism of their roots, just like american rappers exist within a culture that is separate but still within the larger american culture. I tried to listen to some of the clips embedded in the article and could not because they lack originality. They are obviously inspired by the worst american hip hop both in tone, visually and in spirit; and if I deem the original to lack originality, how could I like the unoriginal?

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  12. African says:

    @Ts’eliso – You’d take me seriously if I presented a coherent view/argument on how a fellow hard-working African speaks a foreign language? Sorry I’d rather remain a joke to you then. I’m making an effort supporting their good music.
    Peace

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  13. Blues says:

    But there’s an assumption that because it’s vernacular, it’s not Americanised. Misguided assumption…

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  14. Mpho says:

    I gotta agree with African on this one. I see no point to this article (except the educational bit). Good music – not accents or variations thereof – sells!

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  15. Mbonisi says:

    The problem with you the peepo of this cowntry is that you want a rainbow nation and yet to still push the very ideas of apart and hate…speaking in Minister Mbalula’s accent or pronunciation of words. Prokid was born in the US but he spits his rhymes predominantly in Zulu. I hope you did not write this article on a Macbook while you wearing a Diesel pair of jeans. Shut up if you wearing Converse All Stars or drinking a Red Bull. Bet your undies are Calvin Klein. The point is we the consumers understand their “wass up yos” and we ain’t letting no caveman tell us otherwise. We live in a global village. On a more serious tip. I am Zimbabwean , my wife and daughter are South Africans. My eldest brother is married to a US lady and their kids are Americans from Bronx and my other brother lives in Leeds married to a British lady and they have two lovely boys , Wish to invite you to our family gatherings. We all speak in English in three different accents but we perfectly understand each other. Back to hip hop. Drake is from Canada, Wycleff Jean is from Haiti. Nicki Minaj is from Trinidad and Tobago, find out where Rihanna is from . Listeners embrace the music because we see the glass as half full not half empty like you. Do yourself a favour listen to Distant Relatives by Damian Marley and Nasir Jones featuring artists like K’naan from Somalia….you will appreciate all the other hip hop accents we rap in!

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  16. little river says:

    the fake accents are a result of a culture forced upon them.

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  17. bo$$ says:

    Well the way indians and coloureds live in durban isn’t much different from the latinos and niggers in the states and english is our mother tongue but you don’t see us acting all american all the time and don’t let trevor noah fool you half the drive buys and drug dealing in this city is done buy indians. Check the SAP stats.. (~^,) and all the real black gangsters in this city don’t even act american.. Lol its only the suburb blacks that’s lost.. Whoosh

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  18. janine/media says:

    Well written article, I must conclude that Die Antwoorde and PROZAKTLY are the rap artist to look out for in South Africa that rap in english/afrikaans and actually sound South African. Its sad that Aka sound soooo much like Jayz and american along with De lez and Glits gang and people still listen, cause the truth is that there are a lot of us laughing. Let’s all hope that these fake wannabes wake up and smell the roses someday. :)

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  19. Banana City says:

    Why does everyone think Waddy did Die Antwoord because he was tired of not going platinum? Die Antwoord is some art, but well accents is accents. You are made of your influences, SA and African Hip hop just has to mature but I feel like we’ll get more from our neighbours north of these borders than anything from SA. We’re too connected to the West.

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  20. artykuly says:

    odukten als Einzelhandelsgeschä

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  21. Ckeno says:

    We live in a global village and being Kenyan, African, South Africans is non of our business. The only thing that matter is doing what makes you better….The issue is POPULAR CULTURE VS CONSERVATIVE CULTURE!
    And about forced culture dont you think the Westerners were better by at least allowing translations? The Arabs do and never did..QURAN STAYS THAT WAY..u just learn Arabic to understand itthat is; To abandon African culture for at TOTALLY FOREIGN CULTURE…!

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  22. Ckeno says:

    We live in a global village and being Kenyan, African, South Africans is non of our business. The only thing that matter is doing what makes you better….The issue is POPULAR CULTURE VS CONSERVATIVE CULTURE!
    And about forced culture dont you think the Westerners were better by at least allowing translations? The Arabs dont and never did..QURAN STAYS THAT WAY..u just learn Arabic to understand it that is; To abandon African culture for a TOTALLY FOREIGN CULTURE…!

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  23. Anonymous says:

    As for the hand gestures and everything else besides the sound,you dont have to be american to sing about cars,girls and money.Any black person in the world will know this:black people just love swag.It has got nothing to do with where you come from.

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