First things first I’m a linguist

YOU like rap and hiphop?!

Not many people know this about me, but I love rap and hip-hop. I remember the moment I got into it. It  was when I first heard those immortal words: “Hi my name is“… A total crush on Slim Shady, followed by a somewhat suggestive poster of him wearing nothing and holding a stick of dynamite in front of him … ahh.. those were the days.

Fancy that!

Iggy is not quite up there with Eminem, in my opinion, but Fancy is a fun, catchy song (at least I love Iggy’s part, not so sure about the other gal’s). The first time I heard this song was on the radio and I was so surprised to find out later she was white! She sounded completely African American. The question is, does it matter? I read this super-interesting article in the Journal of Sociolinguistics (19/3, 2015: 303-327):

‘First things First, I’m the realest’: Linguistic appropriation, white privilege and the hip-hop persona of Iggy Azalea’ by Maeve Eberhardt and Kara Freeman. 

And to the authors, it seems to.

The authors argue that Iggy’s success rests on her being white and her appropriation of AAE [African American English] (=as defined by Jane Hill in her article “Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English,” is a type of complex cultural borrowing that involves a dominant group’s “theft” of aspects of a target group’s language). They accuse Iggy of linguistic minstrelsy (discussed in Bucholtz and Lopez, 2011), essentially performing in blackface .

In Sociolinguistics there has been a growing interest in ways in which language is stylized and used in performative situations. Here we’re going to talk about high performance. (=conscious and intended, as opposed to the unconscious variationist work that Labov did)  According to Eberhardt and Freeman, it “serves to emphasize ideological connections to particular social identities” (p. 303-304). On many occasions Iggy commented on her affiliation with hip hop, her affinity to the culture.

I argue that her success rests on her breaking down of racial borders –  I’ll call it ‘transcending race‘. As the authors say, the use of AAE by whites has been examined, and especially developed in Ben Rampton’s (1995) work on ‘crossing’ -people using language varieties that are not their “own”. However, they fail to mention that Rampton found that this performance helps to break down language borders.

Sure, Iggy hyper-performs, meaning that she overcompensates her meticulous and proficient usage (see Eberhardt’s paper) of AAE markers,but as Cutler says (2003) “individuals who see themselves as members of the hip hop nation may struggle to present themselves as authentic and may be confronted about the legitimacy of such claimed identity”. 

Authenticating hip hop

The social constructendness of authenticity has been a subject of discussion in sociolinguistics and other disciplines. In their paper Hipsters in the hood: authenticating indexicalities in young men’s hip hop talk, Pia Pichler and Nathanael Williams explore the indexicalities of hip hop of four South London men in their mid-twenties, from multi-ethnic working-class backgrounds.

Citing Kembrew McLeod (1999), Pichler and Williams note that ‘Keeping it real’ and other claims of authenticity are not fixed and rigid in the hip-hop community. McLeod identifies six dimensions of hip hop authenticity, also featuring in Pichler’s and Williams’ research: the dimension of ‘staying true to yourself’, being close to ‘the street’, being ‘black’, ‘hard’, orienting to ‘the underground'(rather than commercialism) and the ;old school (as opposed to mainstream). McLeod argues that these serve to protect the culture against erasure but at the same time what constitutes authentic hip hop culture remains part of the local context as much as global context. For example, Michael Jeffries (2011) research on young Bostonian hip hoppers shows that authenticity in hip hop is not static: he found that ‘race-based concerns about authenticity are completely absent from white respondents’. What was important to all interviewees was to ’embrace one’s racial and ethnic identity’. (ibid, p.139 in Pichler and Williams, 2016, p. 2). Furthermore, Alastair Pennycook and Tony Mitchell (2009 in Pichler and Williams, 2016) broaden the definition to claim that ‘local Hip Hop can be both part of international popular culture while at the same time articulating local philosophies of global significance’. Alim (2009) extends this notion even further and refers to Hip Hop cultures (plural). Thus, there is not simply one way of authenticating oneself  as belonging to the hip hop culture, and Iggy is embodying this.

Sociolinguistics challenged the view that authenticity is ‘an inherent essence’, instead preferring to view authenticity as an ideological construct and focusing on ‘authentication as a social process played out in discourse’ (Bucholtz and Hall, 2005:601 in Pichler and Williams, 2016, p. 5)

In their research mentioned above, Pichler and Williams note that their informants reject Miley Cyrus’ positioning herself as being in any way authentically ‘street’ by twerking and calling herself ratchet pussy. These are indexical concepts of hip hop culture. ‘Challenging the authenticity of others allows the speakers not only to signal their own understanding of hip hop culture, but also authenticate themselves.’ (2016, p. 15)


Skill and feminism in art

Broadening our discussion of art, an article published in Selvedge this November: ‘Harlots and Heroines’ gives a fascinating account of what domestic and decorative embroidery says about literary characters. Novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s, written by women and mostly read by women, provide a unique view into the division between those who used plain and decorative (or fancy!) needlework. From the type of work the characters did (whether by choice or not), you could learn a lot about their class, moral and self-appreciation. The different types of needlework, says author Jane Brocket, create a sort of “hierarchy which workers could be submitted to, exploited or rebelled against” (2016, p.74). Some characters, like Maggie Tulliver from George Eliot’s Floss on the Mill, purposefully stuck to plain sewing, indexing (Ochs, 1990) a serious, sensible woman.

Yay! cat!

Decorative skilled embroidery is rarely appreciated in women’s novels and is deployed as an indexing of the character’s traits; vanity, selfishness. Decorative embroidery was meant to be seen and displayed. Dorothy Whipple (in Brocket, 2016) invites the readers to question this very public display of something within a character which might otherwise be kept hidden.

Where am I getting with this? Well, I think that both white and black female rappers and hip-hop artists struggle in the still male dominated society, and that the criticism against Iggy in this case is similar to the needlework example above. In this case, AAE is Iggy’s embroidery and she uses her tools to craft her art and bring out something within her that without rapping, may still be hidden.  So the way I see the criticism, is that it’s just another way of telling a woman what to do and what not do to. The authors of the article agree that Eminem also suffered from some criticism for being white, but I argue that the lengths he had to go to win a place in this community of practice is different because, well, he’s male. (Carol J. Adams wrote extensively about the oppression of women and animals in the patriarchal society).

It would be more telling (and interesting!) to examine the way Iggy speaks about hip hop, rap, African American culture, and the way she positions herself within it, rather than the way she uses AAE in her songs. In any case, this generated a great debate about identity, and hopefully sociolings and all of us can move away from seeing colour because both black and white suffer. In the words of Em:

“Some people only see that I’m white, ignoring skill” (Role Model)


What do you think about this debate?







Brocket, J. (2016) Harlots and Heroines, Selvedge, Vol. 73, pp. 74-76

Bucholtz, M. and Lopez, Q. (2011) Performing blackness, forming whiteness: Linguistic minstrelsy in Hollywood film, Journal of Sociolinguistics, 15/5, 2011:680-706.

Hill, J. (2009) Chapter 6. Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English in The Everyday Language of Racism [online] 27 FEB 2009

Ochs, Elinor (1990) Indexicality and socialization. In Cultural psychology: Essays on comparative human development, ed. James W. Stigler, Richard A. Shweder, and Gilbert Herdt, 287–308. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pichler, P. and Williams, N. (2016) ‘Hipsters in the hood: Authenticating indexicalities in young men’s hip-hop talk’, Language in Society, 45(04), pp. 557–581. doi: 10.1017/s0047404516000427.


The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights





4 thoughts on “First things first I’m a linguist

  1. Oh dear, Mira, I feel I shouldn’t really comment from a position of such abject ignorance on the matter, but I find her cultural appropriation cringeworthy, I’m afraid. I suppose I could read it ironically, in a sort of postmodern way (if that term still applies), but can only see her oeuvre as a vacuous play in commercialism. Not for me, I’m too old it would appear, or too cynical. Probably both.


      1. I wonder, do black people want white people to “break down language borders”? This sort of thing feels to me like an appropriation of culture for commercial means, and I don’t buy the artistic expression bit as the motivator. Pop artists, male and female alike, are making investments in their promo videos and studio recordings, and want a return on that money – or their record companies do. ‘Fancy’ likely cost upwards of $500,000 in total production costs. That’s all money invested by a corporate entity to make money; that’s the primary purpose. I’ve met many pop stars in my former line of work and would say only a very small percentage placed artistic expression above fame and financial gain – it’s a career, after all. Most were very decent people, but understood completely that their perceived identities were central to what they’d come to realise was a business venture. Bowie (who I’d talked to about this) exploited this ironically with many stage persona. He was a true artist, but he was also a very savvy businessman, like Hirst is in the visual arts – and if anyone knows about appropriation it’s the latter.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Good observation, Haiod. The authors of the article go into the whole production of her music and say that the production company that is representing her is run and managed by African Americans. I’d like to believe that while she is working to get money primarily (don’t we all!), she loves the culture and wants to be a part of it. Otherwise I don’t know why she’d cling on to that cheater of a fiance she got for herself!

        Liked by 1 person

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