Roma Rap and the Black Train: Minority Voices in Hungarian Hip-hop

Sarah Elizabeth Simeziane

University of Illinois, USA

WS139: Hip-hop across the globe: what exactly is going global?

Over the past 20-30 years hip-hop has become a world-wide phenomenon. Although it retains recognizable features associating it with African-American urban culture, at the same time it has been adopted and appropriated in such a way that it also reflects the local culture where it is produced. International hip-hop artists have applied the core of the genre itself by cutting and mixing African-American hip-hop and adapting it to their own sound and their own experiences.

Language choices also stem from the artists’ linguistic practices and environments, as they employ the various linguistic varieties at their disposal in order to achieve the artistic and commercial ends they seek. In this paper I seek to examine how these constraints interact with the linguistic resources available to, and the artistic, social, and political aims of, a popular late-90’s Hungarian Roma hip-hop group, known as Fekete Vonat (Black Train). By looking at how Fekete Vonat resembles, diverges from, and contributes to the Hungarian and global hip-hop communities in terms of language choice I will also look at what their code choices may indicate in terms of constraints on code-switching in hip-hop.

Within other genres of Roma music, the use of Romani is common, particularly in traditional music. In Fekete Vonat’s work, however, the use of Romani appears to be a marked choice within this particular genre. In their most recent album A Város Másik Oldalán (On the Other Side of Town), the primary language of the album is Hungarian, and Romani emerges as the in-group code, occurring in songs with more light-hearted themes. Hungarian is the sole language used to convey political and social messages about the conditions of the Roma within Hungarian society. In choosing Hungarian for these messages, they are simultaneously identifying their target audience, the general Hungarian population, as well as reinforcing their own identity within that community, not only as Roma, but also as Hungarian. Fekete Vonat also uses references to African-American culture in a way that differs from other popular Hungarian hip-hop groups and thus establishes a different type of hip-hop identity.

I examine various constraints on code choice both by Hungarian Roma and in popular music, and show that code choice in music cannot be viewed as simply mirroring everyday linguistic practices. Several other factors intrinsic to the act of producing a commercial artistic expressive form constrain linguistic choices: the intended audience, in particular mutual intelligibility and differences in status between the artist and audience, the subject matter, as well as marketability. The goal of this paper is to examine how Fekete Vonat works within these constraints in order to establish their own identity and the identity of their intended audience with respect to the various topics they address.

Session: Workshop
Hip-hop across the globe: what exactly is going global?
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 01