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The Rap: More Than Just Hip-Hop

April 17, 2010

Speaking a language involves more than just knowing where to put a direct object or how to conjugate the past tense. Knowing a language, or at least being a fully functioning speaker, also involves knowing the social rules of the language. Think: who can say what, to whom, and under what conditions?

African Americans place a high value on the spoken word. This tradition goes back to slavery and even further to the oral traditions of African nations. Being able to speak using rich, full language is a highly valued skill in the African American community.

This verbal performance is known as the rap. The rap is used in many contexts and also in verbal arts such as signifying, capping, testifying, and toasting.

Signifying is the act of talking negatively about someone through stunning and clever put downs; it is humorous and done for fun or to make a point. One type of signifying is called the dozens. “Playing” the dozens, which commonly takes the form of “yo momma” jokes, is exaggerated talk negatively aimed at an opponent’s family:

“Yo momma so fat, when I tell her to haul ass, she gotta make two trips!”

Another type of signifying is boasting. Boasting can come in two forms: bragging, which is to be taken at face value, and woofin’, which is purely idle boasting:

“I got my twelve gauge sawed off. I got my headlights turned off. I’m ’bout to dust some shots off. I’m ’bout to dust some cops off.”
Ice-T’s Cop Killer

These kinds of verbal performances are used to achieve group approval and recognition. The above examples are purely secular, commonly used in street culture style associated with barbershops, pool halls, and street corners. However, the African American community also uses similar speech qualities in a sacred style grounded in the black church. This manifests itself in the worship patterns at traditional black churches characterized by spontaneous preacher-congregation calls and responses, hollers and shouts, intensely emotional singing, spirit possession, and extemporaneous testimonials to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Check out this example—Gangster’s Paradise—of Rev. Otis Moss III giving a sermon at the Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago.

In his sermon, he uses certain rhetorical qualities that are common to both the sacred and secular styles of African American English. As seen in the video, these qualities of AAE can be used even if a person is speaking with standard grammar. So, if a person is speaking using standard grammar but they still seem to be “talking black,” they are probably using one or more of the following rhetorical strategies:

  • Exaggerated Language – the use of uncommon words and rarely used expressions
  • Mimicry – the deliberate imitation of speech and mannerisms of someone else for authenticity, ridicule, or rhetorical effect
  • Proverbial Statements – familiar black proverbs; short, succinct statements which have the sound of wisdom or power
  • Punning – the deliberate exploitation of the ambiguity between similar-sounding words
  • Spontaneity – the use of an overall formulaic structure with specifics to be filled in
  • Image-Making – the use of images, metaphors, and other kinds of imaginative language giving speech a poetic quality
  • Braggadocio – a physical badness, fighting ability, lovemanship, or coolness with the aim to convey omnipotent fearless being
  • Indirection – a point made by the power of suggestion and innuendo
  • Tonal Semantics – the use of talk-singing, repetition, alliterative word play, intonational contouring, and rhyme all carefully chosen for sound effects

These strategies can only be used in certain circumstances. Knowing when you can and cannot use them is a large part of speaking African American English. Typically, these strategies should be used only among other members of the community (other speakers of AAE). This social convention can be broken down further into the smaller communities like the church or the “street,’ as mentioned above.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ayeska permalink*
    April 18, 2010 12:24 am

    I love the African American English speaker Rev. Otis referenced, namely Tupac.
    His raps illustrate so many AAE linguistic strategies, it’s amazing! Not to mention the content of his raps, which are usually very political, and socially-aware. His mastery of AAE is impressive… makes me wonder why students can’t be evaluated in their native dialect, that way they can show off their skills.

  2. Cara Shousterman permalink*
    April 18, 2010 3:24 pm

    It’s funny how Ice-T’s whole persona has changed… Now he’s taking it to twitter when there’s a conflict:

  3. Brittney Gerald permalink
    April 20, 2010 12:38 am

    It’s amazing how often the rhetorical strategies are used in the mainstream among non-AAE speakers. Most people don’t realize how much their own language or dialect, and even their culture as a whole, is influenced by the same one they choose to ignore and condemn.

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