Turning the tables: Hip hop past, present and future

Marina Terkourafi

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


Frequently in recent years the press and media have accused hip-hop artists of disseminating patterns of violence and discrimination (typically against women). Most recently, the Imus and Big Brother’s Emily incidents in the US and UK respectively prompted a surge of calls on the hip-hop music industry to “clean up its act.” Both involved lexical items purported to be current among members of black communities in the two countries, but taboo-ed if used by outsiders. Hip-hop, in this context, is accused of popularizing, or even idealizing, similar expressions and images, making the boundaries between their legitimate (when, by whom, to whom) and illegitimate use increasingly hard to discern. This paper considers two related questions: Is this a just accusation? Concomitantly, can hip-hop reform itself without changing its distinct identity as a genre? The answer to both will be a qualified ‘no’.

To answer the first question, one must consider the cultural roots of hip-hop in African American and Creole ‘sounding’ practices (Labov 1972, Garett 2005). ‘Sounding’ consists in associating a canonical form (e.g., “T(B) is so X that P,” where T[arget] is a relative of B, X may be justly attributed, and P is obviously untrue) with a canonical function, that of ritual (contrary to personal) insults. ‘Sounds’ are immediately and overtly evaluated by the audience and typically elicit a response by B (e.g., “T(A) is so X' that P'”). The highly elaborated form that sounds can take requires a homologous habitus in order to be recognized, evaluated and responded to. In this way, sounding effectuates both in-group belonging and outsider exclusion. Moreover, it represents an opportunity to display culturally desirable skills, transforming the exchange into an arena where cultural capital may be gained.

The worlds of hip-hop, and of the ‘sounding’ practices in which it is partly rooted, are thus predicated on the notion of performance, understood as “a specially marked mode of action, one that sets up or represents a special interpretative frame within which the act of communication is to be understood” (Bauman 1992: 44). Through performance, a non-literal representation of the world is constructed. Parallel to what Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in Poetics predicts, in hip-hop too, stakes, passions and their outcomes are magnified, and serve to provide, through the audience’s empathy with the actors, an outlet for the audience’s own emotions.

This situation becomes problematic if the link between the performance and the habitus that can generate, recognize and evaluate it, is lost. This is occurring today with hip-hop as it spreads both into mainstream US culture and globally. New audiences lack the familiarity with the cultural practices that both shaped, and allowed it to fulfil, its functions until now. Brought about by its own success, hip-hop is under pressure to reform. It remains to be seen whether its original functions of solidarity-building, exclusion, and cultural capital accrual, will be abandoned and replaced by others, or discursively re-cast to meet the needs of these new audiences. In either case, a new genre of global hip-hop is emerging.

Session: Paper session
Youth Language 5 / Film-TV
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 17