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Music Monday: African American English Goes Global

July 11, 2011

Singer Joy Denalane.

Written by guest blogger Casey Wong

From Jamaica, France, Puerto Rico, Japan, to Palestine, to almost every continent on Earth, hip-hop has gone global.  Joy Maureen Denalane, born to a German mother and South African (Xhosa) father in Berlin, adds a new twist to the global spread of African American English (AAE) and culture.

With a new album (“Maureen”) on the way, her third studio album to date, Joy Denalane has risen from an ambitious 16 year-old pursuing her love of music, to a critically-acclaimed international soul-singer and performer. So what’s the catch? She’s singing in German. So what’s the real catch? She’s singing in German with African American English features.  In an interview from 2007 we find Joy pointing out a reason for some of her African American English influences, “I was born and raised in Berlin, I am really a German but people might sometimes think because of my accent that I’m American . . . the reason why I speak the way I do was just because I work with African-Americans. So, I just picked it up like that, you know?”

Although Joy was exposed to virtually no African American English speakers during her childhood, she grew up in a household filled with African American music.  At the tender age of sixteen Joy decided to leave school and pursue a music career, greatly influenced by her father and her brothers’ introduction of hip hop music (“when I was a teenager I would listen to hip-hop from my brothers”), and caught her first break collaborating on the single “Mit Dir” with popular local German hip hop group Freundeskreis.

Although Joy released an album in English in 2006, “Born & Raised,” which featured collaborations with Lupe Fiasco (“Change”) and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon (“Heaven or Hell”), her reputation and power rests on her first solo studio album released in German in 2002, “Mamani.” While Joy has not yet found widespread sales and recognition in the United States, she has been referred to by many of her German fans as “Germany’s First Lady of Soul.”

Joy lists her greatest “contemporary inspirations” as Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Faith Evans, Tweet, and Beyoncé.  Below is a list of some African American English features found in one of her popular singles, “Höchste Zeit,” from her hit album “Mamani.”

  • Use of Hip Hop Nation Language (HHNL) vocabulary, derived in the context of and utilizing African American English.

In the line “Ich seh’ uns pimpin’ in videos, egotrippin’ in interviews,” Joy uses the vocabulary items pimpin’ and egotrippin’, which originate from hip hop and ultimately AAE,  in her German lyrics.

  • Speakin’ on “gittin’ ovuh,” a feature of the African American oral tradition.

Translated from German, Joy says, “What the hell is going on with us, I see us pimpin’ in videos, egotrippin’ in interviews, and we call it rhythm and blues.” She makes reference here to the common criticism by hip hop pioneers and hip hop “heads” about how contemporary hip hop music and culture has lost its way and become a commodity relying upon the “gangsta-pimp-ho” trinity to sell records (for more see Tricia Rose’s The Hip Hop Wars).  Joy speaks on what is needed for the survival of rhythm and blues, what is needed to “git ovuh” on a corrupting music business.

  • Gerund reduction (when the word-final ng is reduced to n’).

In the line, “Ich seh’ uns pimpin’ in videos, egotrippin’ in interviews,” we find Joy enunciating pimping as pimpin’ and egotripping as egotrippin’.

  • Use of rhyme and assonance, commonly found in the African American oral tradition.

In Joy’s music, she makes use of not just rhyme, but also alliteration:

Was zum Teufel ist mit uns los

ich seh’ uns pimpin’ in videos

egotrippin’ in interviews

und das nenn’ wir dann rhythm & blues

wir sing’ den soul verkaufter seelen

die vergänglich sind, nie mehr aufersteh’n

Joy rhymes los and videos, pimpin’ and egotrippin’, interviews and rhythm & blues, sing’den and seelen, and Sind and aufersteh’n.  Joy also makes use of assonance with the recurring “i” sound (as in the word “in”) in the successive words pimpin’, in, videos, egotrippin’, in, and interviews:

  • Tonal semantics in the African American oral tradition.

Joy frequently makes use of intonational contouring and talk-singing in the tradition of African American soul artists.  Although Joy’s vocals are for the most part in German, it is easy to see how she has been undeniably affected by the African American Language musical tradition of singers as Aretha Franklin and Etta James.

  • African American oral tradition of blending the sacred and the secular.

Joy makes use of the African American musical tradition of artists like Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, Ray Charles, James Brown and Michael Jackson, whose music we find blending the sacred and the secular; that is, incorporating religious or spiritual ideas, imagery, or practices into primarily secular music.  The translation of “Höchste Zeit” from German is “High Time,” and we find Joy’s song concerned with a message that can be seen to be blending the sacred and the secular.  The recurring chorus is a good example:

Es ist höchste Zeit aufzusteh

aus dem Totenreich der verkauften Seelen

was nützt uns all das Geld, wenn das Ende naht

es gibt nur eine Welt zu bewahr (2x)

which can be translated to . . .

It is high time to get up

from the dead souls of the sold

what good is all this money, when the end draws near

There is only one world to be preserved (2x)

We at Word. hope to hear much more from this phenomenal artist in the future.

Casey Wong is a second year Sociology of Education Master’s student at NYU.  He dedicates this blog post to M.A., an inspiration for his study of African American English.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kimchikraut permalink
    March 2, 2012 2:59 pm

    AAE is the prestige dialect of English among the world’s youth. I bet the aspects of American culture expressed in AAE have created more goodwill for the USA that the Marshall Plan or the Peace Corps.

  2. Knowle permalink
    June 4, 2014 5:49 am

    “Hip Hop Nation Language (HHNL) vocabulary”

    What exactly does this term mean?? The so-called “hip-hop nation” simply appropriates, repeatedly, the speech of African-Americans. There is no such thing as “hip hop nation language”. It is simply appropriated African-American dialect and vocabulary.

    A japanese listens to hip-hop but they appropriate African-American vocabulary to attempt to link it to hip-hop. I promise you, japanese is not even in the so-called hip-hop vocabulary. Yet they listen to hip-hop.

    So let’s call it what it is and stop trying to remove African-Americans from it. It’s African-American vocabulary, the list often varying according to the region of the US the AA vocabulary is being appropriated from.

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