From Chi-Town to the Dirty-Dirty: Regional identity markers in U.S. Hip Hop

Jennifer Cramer, Jill Ward

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States of America


Long considered a form of rebellion to both mainstream music and ideology, hip hop has emerged as a powerful construct of social identity. Hip hop has been argued to be a vehicle for the “global spread of authenticity” (Pennycook 2007: 14); however, authenticity here involves “being true to the local, […] telling it like it is” (ibid.), making hip hop simultaneously a strong index of regional affiliation. This paper reinforces this seemingly contradictory statement by showing how hip hop perpetuates local indices of identity on an international scale, at the same time maintaining roots of solidarity within the local communities of origin. Lexical choices in hip hop establish in-group solidarity, while marginalizing those unaffiliated with the region. In the US, these regional markers of identity follow a natural progression from the East Coast-West Coast rivalry prevalent in the 1990s, and are now inclusive of the Midwestern and Southern United States. By exploring the same questions posed by LePage and Tabouret-Keller (1985) in their seminal work on acts of identity, this paper aims to discover how these new indices of identity are currently under development along the lines of regional affiliation.

As artists from these regions emerged on the hip hop scene, local identity markers for those regions also emerged. For example, St. Louis’ Nelly spoke of local experiences: “Cheifin rollin deeper than any mon/ through Jennings mon/ Through U-City back up to Kingsland” (Nelly 2000). Ludacris sampled “Georgia on My Mind” to reflect a more complicated Georgia: “GA, the peach state...Georgia/ Pecan country like catfish with grits/ Candy yams and chitlins” (Ludacris 2005). Lil Wayne addressed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “We from a town where everybody drowned/ Everybody died but baby I’m still praying wit’ cha!/ Everybody cryin’ but ain’t nobody tryin’/ there’s no doubt on my mind it was…Bush!” (Lil Wayne 2006).

Regional identity is indexed by mention of local foods, town names, and other lexical items to effectively convey in-group solidarity and out-group marginalization (cf. Morgan 2001). In this paper, we examine the tactics used by hip hop artists in different regions of the United States to identify with groups in their communities. We argue that particular uses of the lexicon aid these artists in their attempts at in-group solidarity and successful identity construction.

LePage, Robert B. and Andrée Tabouret-Keller. 1985. Acts of identity: Creole-based approaches to

language and ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lil Wayne. 2006. “Georgia…Bush”. From Dedication, Vol.2. BCD Music Group.

Ludacris. 2005. “Georgia on My Mind”. From Disturbing Tha Peace. Def Jam.

Morgan, Marcyliena. 2001. “‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang’: grammar and language ideology in hip hop identity”. In Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English, ed. Sonia L. Laneheart. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 187-210.

Nelly. 2000. “Country Grammar”. From Country Grammar. UMVD Labels.

Pennycook, Alastair. 2007. Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. New York: Routledge.

Session: Paper session
Youth Language 3
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 13