Hip-Hop in a Post-Insular Community: Hybridity, Local Language and Authenticity in an Online Newfoundland Rap Group

Philip Hiscock, Sandra Clarke

Memorial University, Canada

WS128: Media Representations of Minority Language Varieties

This paper focuses on minority dialect representation by the Gazeebow Unit, a hip-hop/rap group formed in 2005 by three white teenage males from a suburb of St. John’s, Newfoundland. This group has enjoyed widespread underground success throughout Newfoundland and its cultural diaspora, with a dozen or so songs. These are available uniquely via the Internet, generally in the form of peer-to-peer downloading networks (among them ). Gazeebow Unit offers an ideal discursive site in which to observe and analyse online media constructions of vernacular culture and language on the part of contemporary adolescents, as well as the stylized performance of local dialect features (cf. Coupland 2001).

White hip-hop obviously raises questions of authenticity, as white performers have appropriated a genre closely identified with African American experience and culture (Cutler 2003); such appropriations may occur even in contexts “without physical references to a local black population,” as in north-eastern England (Bennett 1999: 9). However – as has recently also been documented in a number of global contexts, among them Australia (O’Hanlon 2006 ), Nigeria (Omoniyi 2006) and Quebec (Sarkar and Winer 2006, Sarkar and Allen 2007) – the Gazeebow Unit has constructed a hybrid hip-hop variety, rooted as much in the local as the global. This variety borrows heavily from traditional rap themes (notably violence, drugs, sex, misogyny), and incorporates some measure of African-American lexical items (e.g. fly and homie). Its distinguishing characteristic, however, is the use of local dialect to style local identities. Gazeebow Unit members draw on a host of iconic, often stigmatized, Newfoundland linguistic features, whether morphological (e.g. generalized verbal -s as a present-tense marker, as in (1) below); phonological (such as their signature “yiiss” pronunciation of yes, or rounding of the nucleus of the /ai/ diphthong in, e.g. the name of their suburb, Airport “Hoights”); or lexical (e.g. the term of address boys, pronounced “byes,” fousty in the sense of “mouldy”).

(1) I fights on da yellow bus. Smokin’ all da time, den I commits da crime. (from “Trikes and Bikes,” Gazeebow Unit)

While this is by no means the first case of hybridization in Newfoundland music (see Narváez’ (1978) discussion of syncretism), there are important differences of degree and form with regard to Gazeebow Unit’s linguistic “glocalization.”

The Unit’s online profile (available from the MySpace website above) constructs group members as authentic “skeets,” i.e., as “slightly dangerous” persons “somewhat alienated from the main population by their rural accent, substance abuse, violent tendencies, lack of fashion sense...” (Hiscock 2006). However, their authenticity has been contested in various online blogs, and the group admits that their performance stance does not reflect their true lifestyle, which more resembles that of middle-class white suburban high-school students than of those living on the edge of society. Their parody of local skeet identities thus yields considerable insight into the perception of vernacular dialect on the part of younger urban middle-class Newfoundlanders, and the types of features that they have “enregistered” (Johnstone et al. 2006) as characterizing traditional speech varieties, in a period of increasing globalization.

Session: Workshop (part 2)
Media Representations of Minority Language Varieties
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 17