Academic journal article The Journal of Hip Hop Studies

Bigger by the Dozens: The Prevalence of Afro-Based Tradition in Battle Rap

Academic journal article The Journal of Hip Hop Studies

Bigger by the Dozens: The Prevalence of Afro-Based Tradition in Battle Rap

Article excerpt

The creative use of language has always been a defining feature of Afro-based communities the world over. From the venerated Griots of West Africa to the crowd-rocking chanters of Jamaica, the battle-ready Toyi-Toyi warriors of South Africa and animated American Southern Baptist preachers, men (and women) of words have also held an important place in African communities on the continent and in the diaspora. Today, nowhere is this more visible than in hip-hop culture, in which the artists have become the ambassadors of a community, generation and culture through their stories, dress, demeanor and overall use of language.

Artistic competition has been a part of hip-hop from its very inception. Whether it is the braggadocio-laced lyrics of Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight, widely considered to be the first commercial hip-hop song, or the territorial graffiti, DJ, and breakdance wars of the late 1970s and 1980s in New York, the culture as a whole attributes its birth and growth to that raw friendly competitive element. Although the culture was birthed in predominantly African American communities, it is important to recognize the contribution of Puerto Rican, Chinese, and other minority populations in hip-hop's early days, particularly in the realms of breakdance and graffiti.1 Despite the ethnic diversity in the various elements during hip-hop's early days, Mcing was largely the domain of African American rappers, and thus the literal voice of the culture has been laced with storytelling and rhythmic traditions preserved and re-imagined from the African continent and African Diaspora, combined eclectically with the environmental influences of the eclectic big city. With its growth, hip-hop has developed to have its own sub-genres and sub-cultures, and one such prominent example is battle rap. Battles will typically pit two rappers taking turns to rap in an attempt to outwit, outflow, and demean the other, usually before an engaging audience.

This paper will focus on the subculture that is battle rap, paying attention to its use of language- verbal and nonverbal- and in what ways these cultural and linguistic elements are extensions of traditional Afro-based forms of expression. The study will explore aspects of dress, performance, language use, and the essential interactions between the rappers, their entourages, and the crowd as a whole. While battles now exist in several forms ranging from the organic neighborhood variety to those incorporated into several TV shows, I have centered my research on battles organized by battle rap leagues, for several reasons. Unlike battles on TV, these are not censored and thus showcase the rappers and the audience more authentically. Secondly, a league battle typically lasts anywhere between 25 minutes and an hour (compared to the five-minute battles on TV shows), which allows the rapper to display personality and the crowd to identify with him. Finally, these battles are religiously posted online a few days after they take place, so they're readily accessible.

Literature Review

In examining the revered role of wordsmith in African tradition, I have spent time looking at the enduring history of Griots in West Africa. I incorporated the abridged explanations of the Griot profession provided by the Griot Institute of Africana Studies at Bucknell University. I have also looked at African stories in print and unwritten folktales told to me growing up, and the familial importance of whoever the community's most apt storyteller was.

I have depended on several texts to hone in on the development of the African American language over the centuries and its retention of Afro-based elements while navigating the interaction and imposition of other languages in the USA. Spoken Soul by Rickford and Rickford explores African American Language (henceforth referred to as AAL) through the eyes of the 21st century efforts to get it recognized as a language variety in American academia and society as a whole. …

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