The Languages of Global Hip Hop is a book that examines Hip Hop music in Germany, France, Egypt, Hungary, South Korea, Greece, Cyprus, Norway and the US. It is the work of academics who have gained insights about sociolinguistics from this study. I caught up with the editor on skype to see what some of her views were.
Marina Terkourafi is Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in America and was a very friendly and interesting person to talk to.
What was the primary motivation for the book?
Marina Terkourafi: The way this worked out was a totally grassroots effort. It started out of the blue during a discussion I had with students of advanced socio-linguistics that I was teaching in the Spring of 2007, and somehow, I don't remember how, we came to the question of 'Rap vs. Hip Hop', are they two different things, are they the same… I had about 12 students in that class and they each had a different opinion. But what struck me was how involved they all were. So at the end of that class we said, you know let's keep talking about this and there's people out there working on this. So I started making some contacts with people and discussing the possibility of bringing some experts on campus to continue that discussion.
And the first workshop happened in November of 2007, then I organized another panel, in April 2008 in Europe at a sociolinguistics conference. At that point there were a few worthwhile papers that had been given either by students or colleagues that covered quite a range of countries. So the idea was, we have enough here that also covers new countries. So then I solicited a few more, from countries that hadn't been written about, such as Cyprus. The chapter on Cyprus is the first one ever to appear… the guy that did it was actually much more into British Hip Hop when I contacted him, but was an artist himself and also knew the local scene in Cyprus. He's a journalist there, as well as graduate student in communication and media and he was interested to do it. So we're putting together papers that have been presented and solicited ones – that's what led to the volume. So it was almost a product of its time, there is interest in the field and the right people were around.
What reception do you expect for the book from inside and outside of Hip Hop?
Marina Terkourafi: That's very hard for me to say! The first time I met my publisher face to face was the month the book was published in the US (September 2010). It had already been released in the UK in July. And he mentioned that there were a lot of orders coming in from the US already, and that sounded promising, we may be moving on to a paperback fairly soon which will make it much more approachable. The price of the hardback is extremely forbidding.
Marina Terkourafi: I wish we could do something about that, I was given no choice. But I sincerely hope it's going to be out on paperback in the next couple of years or sooner.
So people are obviously reading it, I haven't read any reviews yet. I don't want to pre-empt what people will think until they do. I think one thing I expect they might pick up on was it's different from some other research about Hip Hop – there's other research which is more ethnographic in focus which is what we were doing. But there's also a distinct line of research dealing with Hip Hop and for instance issues of pedagogy or gender, there is a distinct subfield of Hip Hop literacies and those have a slightly different mission from what we did. They are a very strong voice in the field of Hip Hop studies. So something that people might pick up on is that we are not doing any of that.
Some people think of Hip Hop as a medium for bringing about social change. Someone who reads (this book) will realise fairly early on, it's much more on the lines of sociolinguistic social studies analyses but not so much necessarily with an activist streak.
I'm a bit worried the Hip Hop academics are not necessarily communicating with each other.
Marina Terkourafi: There isn't just one way of studying Hip Hop. And you can see that. I myself use the term 'Hip Hop studies', but there's definitely a lot of voices there. I think that's a good thing, a sign of a healthy field. There are different opinions about what's going on, and different goals at the same time. I define our research in this book as using Hip Hop to study globalisation and language, a sociolinguistic goal.
The idea of globalisation is so diffuse that you have to pin it down somewhere. That was the attraction of Hip Hop for me personally, and in doing this volume, it emerges – that yes, globalisation is happening and here you can see it in the way the languages are fused, in the way the topics are taken up, in the way the metaphors are taken up, the kind of references you find in literature, they are alluding to each other's work and picking it up across continents. So for me all of that was very interesting.
Now if you don't share the same goals, sometimes there isn't much dialogue, even though you might be working on the same subject. Someone can study (for example) football – I know someone was working on the psychology of football and football fans. Someone else might be working on the physics of football, someone else on the media reception or the financial aspect. Even though all those people are focusing on the same phenomenon they don't necessarily need to be informed about the other's perspective.
You can also say that in a very large field (like Hip Hop studies) you cannot possibly keep up with everything. And it's also a new field so new names are emerging all the time. There doesn't need to be cohesion unless you share the kind of 'lens' through which you are looking at Hip Hop – the reasons you are looking at it. Then you need dialogue, but dialogue doesn't necessarily mean agreeing!
Is it important to preserve and archive the language of Hip Hop?
Marina Terkourafi: Archiving is always good. There's no academic will tell you it's a good thing to lose data! That's what libraries are about and with digital media it's made that a lot easier – so with Hip Hop I don't think there's any immediate danger of having that lost, except for the artists who don't have access to the resources that would allow them to archive their music. Of course it's also a spontaneous performance – there's the music produced in a studio and everything else that happens on stage that may be informal – but that's part of the process too.
In linguistics there is this new term "Hip Hop Nation Language", well it's been around for the last 10 years. (This comes from) H Samy Alim who you must have heard of. I'm not sure if he initiated the term, but he talks about it as 'the cutting edge of the cutting edge' saying African American English on the street has more street cred than mainstream English and Hip Hop Nation Language takes that even further. One interesting thing he has done is document linguistic phenomena that are features of African American English which are taken further in HHNL so in that sense people have talked of it as a language. And that concerns US Hip Hop.
At that point you might say, yes there is a Hip Hop language within the US. And that gets exported along with the genre to other parts of the world. Now what happens at that point is, it gets fused with… and that's what we are documenting in the book. To an extent some of these scenes are quite new so you can still observe the code-switching going on. At a later stage you end up with almost a mixed code which would be the equivalent of HHNL in those languages – something that doesn't exist outside of Hip Hop. Often the end stage is the local youth language but taken further by means of Hip Hop (and may also be used outside of Hip Hop).
So you have this new mixed code in Norway. In our chapter on Norway they call it the multiethnolectal speech style and they are documenting how the young kids use that. It combines elements of Norwegian but also Berber, English and lots of others. And Hip Hop is the medium where that fusion happens, but it is used beyond it. Now if you allow that that process will happen in all the different scenes, that's extremely interesting linguistically. We are not talking about a single language, but a lot of processes that are happening and are each slightly different wherever they happen.
Preservation is always a little bit worrying for a linguist because we are more than aware that each time we use language, everyday we keep changing it. Languages evolve…
There is no single Hip Hop language to preserve. And that's much like the genre itself, the way of making the music. There are several versions of it and they keep changing and evolving all the time. And that's what we should be archiving. The best way to archive it is to archive the diversity of what's going on.
KRS-1 has a song where he explains the meaning of the words ‘Hip Hop'. Also Grandmaster Flash had a track on his last album called ‘We Speak Hip Hop'…
Marina Terkourafi: I love that Grandmaster Flash song! What's interesting is that there is a lot of awareness that it may not look the same – in linguistics we always make the distinction between form and content, form and meaning. Of course the two can be intimately related but they are not the same thing. It goes back to structural linguistics and the idea of signifier and signified. Signifier is what you hear or see, signified is what you have in your head, what it means. And I think they are very much aware of that… they are making the same point. They are saying 'we are using different signifiers, we are using different languages, but we are getting to the same thing'. We are talking about the same content, the same culture, the same approach to life.
And I think speaking Hip Hop for them refers to the content, it doesn't refer to the specific language they use to do that. They are taking the meaning part of language – language has both form and meaning, but it's the content part that they are referring to as what they share in common. That's how I understand it and that's why I think it's great. That's a great point to make about diversity, coming back to people who want to use Hip Hop as a common ground for people to meet. They are saying we may have our differences, we may have different languages and come from different countries but let's meet on this field that we share a love for.
How has Hip Hop and the study you have been involved with affected you personally?
Marina Terkourafi: That's interesting, thanks for asking. Because although I explained I got into it because of my students – I listen to Hip Hop I'm not that old! So (before) I only had that exposure as a fan, I hadn't looked deeper and read the literature before discovering how its really lights up students. When you are an educator you search for those topics, because that's what gets the students into it. Now I've supervised 1 senior thesis (undergraduate), 2 MA theses and 1 PHD thesis on Hip Hop. What you want is to find something which will get your students interested and excited and they put linguistic theories to it.
Having started there I gained a much greater appreciation for the people that are producing it and really it is a very lively artistic process. Not necessarily everyone in the scene or the ones who get exposure, but there are people out there who are making extremely incisive political and social commentary through Hip Hop and very often they are in their late teens or they may not be very old but through this medium they become so articulate. And society should listen. That's what I've enjoyed, finding out the local talent and what they have to say. Hip Hop may be giving them a code to say it in a much more effective way than if they were interviewed for the 9 o'clock news. Somehow it brings out of them that critical attitude and it's wonderful to see.
It's also very hopeful for the future. The young generation is very critical to what's going on around it and its making statements whether it be about wars or capitalism… sometimes they show a lot of…
Marina Terkourafi: Yes! Intelligence and critical thinking.
PS. Since this interview was recorded, the Arab spring has happened and Hip Hop along with social media have been credited with making a lot of that possible. The Greek Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East and Islamic Studies (CEMMIS) has compiled some of that information in a new video "Rapping out the message of the Arab Spring", including interviews with Tamer Nafar, member of the Palestinian group DAM (one of the articles covered in the chapter on Egypt), and with Ahmed Ali (Saltibagos), member of the Greek group No Batter.
By: Esh | IBMCs on Facebook