Word . . . The Language of Hip Hop Culture

Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture by H. Samy Alim

“The African American oral tradition is rooted in a belief in the power of the Word. The African concept of Nommo, the Word, is believed to be the force of life itself. To speak is to make something come into being. Once something is given the force of speech, it is binding—hence the familiar saying ‘Yo word is yo bond,’ which in today’s Hip Hop Culture has become WORD IS BORN. The Hip Hop expressions WORD, WORD UP, WORD TO THE MOTHER, and similar phrases all stem from the value placed on speech. Creative, highly verbal talkers are valued.”

That is a passage from Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture by H. Samy Alim. He’s quoting Geneva Smitherman to show the importance of the spoken word. He goes on to show how words can be used as weapons.

“We know that the most powerful people in society tend to control speech and its circulation through mass media. We know, cuz the Wu-Tang Clan’s Rza told us, that ‘words kill as fast as bullets.’ Words are far more than parts of speech; they’re weapons of mass culture to be deployed in the cultural combat that we, invariably, as humans, find ourselves in. Unfortunately, with teachers of young Hip Hop Heads still sayin that the language of their students is the very thing that they ‘combat the most,’ we learn this lesson very early on. In this sense of cultural warfare—the micro and macro forms of social control through culture—Hip Hop Linguists are ‘combat linguists.’ Yeah, we know it’s a war goin on, but don’t get it twisted. We are never the aggressors.”

“The force of speech is expressed poetically by Mos Def in “Hip Hop” (1999), as if co-signing and bearing witness to the truth in Smitherman’s statement. In one of the most oft-quoted opening lines of Hip Hop, he begins: ‘Speech is my hammer bang the world into shape now let it fall—HUH!’ When asked directly about the genesis of this line, Mos explains:

That’s just something that came to me. It’s my relationship to the way I’m using language in Hip Hop. You do build your world with language to a large degree. You build your world with what you say. Affirmations. ‘I’m gonna do this.’ ‘Things are gonna change.’ Then you start to act out those things. If you tell your children that you love them and that they’re special to you, hen they start to feel that way about themselves and they start to treat themselves that way. If you tell your children the opposite of that, then they start to live that out.”

Alim explores different types of language in this book and looks specifically at the language of the hip hop nation.

He explains that “Hip Hop Nation Language (HHNL) is a language that lives and breathes, moves and grooves, creeps (but never sleeps) in the Black communities of the United States Ghetto (as Onyx would say). In actuality, HHNL is inextricably linked to the Language of Black America ‘from the hood to the Amen corner.

In addition to the preceding, HHNL can be characterized by ten tenets.

  1. HHNL is rooted in Black Language (BL) and communicative practices. . . It is a vehicle driven by the culture creators of Hip Hop, themselves organic members of the broader Black American community. Thus HHNL both reflects and expands the Black American Oral Tradition.
  2. HHNL is just one of the many language varieties used by Black Americans.
  3. HHNL is widely spoken across the country, and used/borrowed and adapted/transformed by various ethnic groups inside and outside the US.
  4. HHNL is a language with its own grammar, lexicon, and phonology as well as unique communicative style and discursive modes. When an early Hip Hop group, The Treacherous Three, rhymed about a “New Rap Language” in 1980, they were well aware of the uniqueness of the language they were rappin in.
  5. HHNL is best viewed as the synergistic combination of speech, music, and literature. . . HHNL is simultaneously the spoken, poetic, lyrical, and musical expression of the HHN.
  6. HHNL includes ideologies of language and language use
  7. HHNL is central to the identity and the act of envisioning an entity known as the HHN.
  8. HHNL exhibits regional variation. . . Even within regions, HHNL exhibits individual variation based on life experiences.
  9. The fundamental aspect of HHNL—and perhaps the most astonishing to some—is that it is central to the lifeworlds of the members of the HHN and suitable and functional for all of their communicative needs.
  10. HHNL is inextricably linked with the sociopolitical circumstances that engulf the HHN.

This was an interesting read about something that is often overlooked in discussion and the growing literature of hip-hop music and culture. Pick up a book, explore this rich culture, and learn something. That’s my word!

My List of 2020 Reads – my annual reading (b)log