I just switched over and saw a bit of the New Zealand Music Awards. DJ Sir Vere came out to present a hip-hop award. His first words as he hit was podium were, “I’m Rick James, bitch.”
He then launched into a little rant about the criticisms that had been thrown at New Zealand hip-hop over the years, that people said they were “wannabe Americans.” He didn’t say that they weren’t wannabe Americans, but he concluded that New Zealand hip-hoppers now “own it” (I assume ‘it’ is the music industry, or similar).
The American accents in hip-hop topic is interesting. I’ve been thinking about it a bit lately.
Now, there used to be a time when anyone employed in broadcasting in New Zealand had to speak with a perfect BBC English accent. The New Zealand accent wasn’t considered good enough to be used to deliver the news. It was inferior and embarrassing
Of course, over the years we gradually realised that the New Zealand accent was actually quite cool and, well, was perfectly all right to use to deliver the news, to tell it like it is. Now when we see those old news bulletins, the BBC accent stands out and makes it seem like a bunch of Englishers had taken over New Zealand’s airwaves in the ’60s.
And this, I reckon, is a similar situation to what’s happening with accents in hip-hop.
Americans invented hip-hop. They started rapping with their own normal accents. So when hip-hop made it to New Zealand and New Zealanders started rapping, they based it on what they heard from America, so the music, the rhyming and the accents all sounded American.
Over the years New Zealand hip-hop has progressed so that there’s this unique Pacific hip-hip sound (looped beats, strummy guitar, like Sisters Underground’s “In the neighbourhood”, much of Nesian Mystik’s work); when lyrics mention AKs, it more likely to be Auckland than the all-but-invisible AK-47; but the American accent largely remains.
When Dark Tower rapped in their ordinary accents, it freaked people out. They seemed like a weird novelty act. American accents are still normal in New Zealand hip-hop. People can’t yet break away from that particular sound. The New Zealand accent isn’t commonly acceptable as an accent to rap in.
Back at the New Zealand Music Awards, Scribe has just accepted another award. His acceptance speech is spoken in a quiet, very New Zealand-sounding voice that’s in marked contrast to the snippet of his performance that had just been shown, with his loud, American-sounding performance persona.
But there are a few cracks in the system. In the UK the same criticisms have been thrown at UK rappers, but artists such as The Streets and Dizzy Rascal are doing really cool rapping in very English accents. They are making the way they talk cool on their own terms.
I have this idea that in the future – maybe it’ll take 20 years – eventually the New Zealand accent will seem normal to be used when rapping. We’ll look back at the MCs of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s and chuckle at what will then seem like unsophisticated, almost embarrassing attempts at sounding American, the verbal equivalent of blackface.
But until that magical breakthrough in cultural pride and identity happens, the best thing we can do is to keep on supporting those MCs and DJs and the trucker-cap-wearing arseless booty girls that seem to pop up in every hip-hop video lately.