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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Hearing Hip-Hop's Jamaican Accent

Wayne Marshall is working on a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. His dissertation is on the intertwined history of reggae and hip-hop, but he uses the music as a cultural lens through which to examine the complex history of blackness in American culture. Recently, a piece of his was published by the Institute For Studies In American Music at Brooklyn College (CUNY). He describes the gist of his argument like this: "by listening to the shifting connotations of Jamaican-ness in hip-hop from the 70s to today, we can hear how the meanings and definitions of race have changed in NY over the last few decades."
Although hip-hop's dominant narrative typically begins with the introduction of Jamaican sound-system techniques and technologies into the South Bronx, the Caribbean presence in hip-hop tends to recede into absence after this originary moment. Despite an increasing infusion of reggae into hip-hop over the last three decades, a hybridization reflecting New York's increasingly foreign-born black population, hip-hop histories routinely downplay such "outside" influence. Narrative strategies that seek to validate African American aesthetics against the denigration of mass media representations have thus obscured a more nuanced account of hip-hop's social character, with far-reaching implications for our understanding of such notions as race, ethnicity, and nation. The failure to acknowledge Jamaica's place in the hip-hop imagination overlooks the context-specific identification practices through which many performers have expressed the predicament of being both West Indian and black in New York. Such an oversight, in effect, maintains a discursive complicity with traditional, essentialized notions of race.
The paper is fairly academic, but not frustratingly so. If you've ever watched one of those VH1 hip-hop documentaries and thought "this is all very interesting, but why won't they go a little deeper?" then you should read it. I myself have often wondered how hip-hop's Jamaican roots became so obscured, after I learned that the man who is considered the godfather of hip-hop, Kool Herc (more on him later), was a Jamaican immigrant. It is not hard to imagine how he must have brought the Jamaican ideas of toasting and sound system parties with him to the Bronx, ready to be repurposed into a new American music and culture. Wayne Marshall's paper explores the patterns of identification, negotiation, and assimilation that left hip-hop's Jamaican accent so undetectable. Maybe if we all mail him a dollar, he will write a book.


Blogger wayne&wax said...

i'll take the dollars, but really what i need is time (which, yeah, money can buy, kinda). anyhow, thanks for the kind words and the links. i'm working on the tome all the time, but it's slow-going.

nice blog. peace.

8:55 AM  

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