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Rant: I Don’t Wanna Pull The Race Card, But…

August 21, 2013
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I don’t wanna pull the race card, I really don’t but I must. I must because I can’t think of any other reason why. I’ve followed the thought to this conclusion and therefore I must present it. Here is my non-scientific, totally subjective understanding why people are offended/bothered enough that South African rappers sound American.

It’s not unique to South African rap, it’s pretty much everywhere from Perth to Dubai. Once rap has infiltrated the cultural seams a divide takes place that begins to distinguish local rappers as either American pretenders or native innovators of hip hop. It’s always reduced to these unreasonable caches. Regardless of content or philosophical views, music is essentially sound and how a rapper sounds places him in either of those predetermined clutches.

Rappers who sound American catch a lot of slack from a certain group of listeners. They are deemed to be wannabes, self haters, misled sheep and various other variations on the theme of non-proud South African rapper. I’ve had to read some very condescending blogs about the need for South African rappers to be more ‘proud’ of their heritage from bloggers who write gonzo prose without any sense of irony as to smearing people with the tar of cultural appropriation whilst jotting about drug binges in semi-political outrage and calling it music journalism. I guess if it’s mahala there’s no real reason to complain.

But as I have pointed out in their comments section, this marmish, teacherly behavior is only ever reserved for rap. And as I stated earlier, it’s really not that South African rappers sound American that puts people on edge, it’s that they sound BLACK American. And not just any black American, but like the gun totting, drug selling, woman pimping BLACK Americans the world media has taught everyone to be wary of. Rappers don’t sound like Obama, no, they sound like Rev. Sharpton.

Pop music is American. It has been since the invention of the radio and the creation of the modern music industry. Through the last 100 years American pop has been the driving grind from both World Wars to the recent conviction of PFC Bradley Manning. Jazz music, blues, country, folk, rock n roll, R&B, all of it has rich history in countries and places across the world. From Sophiatown to the Favelas, each pocket of the world is teeming with decades of assimilated American pop. And most of it met resistance based on the intellectually corrupt notion of retaining cultural integrity as if whatever culture they meant to hold onto was a vacuum sealed archeological artifact that would crumble into dust if exposed to sunlight, oxygen and syncopated rhythms.

But eventually the music was accepted, revered even as it took on sophisticated prevalence as Jazz and rock n roll have come to enjoy in theaters and hushed hotel lounges. But rap music still has to contend with the same juvenile accusations and meaningless divisions. Arno Carstens doesn’t ever get these silly distractions on Twitter. Listen to this joint and pick out if you can hears Arno’s Afrikaans heritage through harsh ‘g’s and sighing ‘r’s.

You can’t because it’s sang with distinctly American phrasing and intonations, but seemingly no one accuses Arno of being a cultural miscreant.

Listen to a Mick Jagger interview and then reconcile his distinctly British accent with the deep growls of ‘You make a grown man cryyyyy!” in the song, ‘Start me up’ and place the two accents at the same point of origin.

Abba was a Swedish supergroup who sang in English. Growing up, when Dancing Queen played, was it even possible to identity these lilting voices as Scandanavian? Is it possible now, knowing their backstory.

I will add Freddy Mercury here too to illustrate that a boy born and raised in India was embraced as a rock god, making and singing music with no hint or accent of the persistently mimicked Indian manner of speaking.

Yet rappers are constantly harassed about a practice that is tolerated and encouraged as a career advantage in other genres. Seether, Lucky Dube, Miriam Makeba and countless other South African musicians make and made songs with their natural speech habits lessened and replaced with a practiced aggregate that was universal and certainly Americanised.

The insistence that all South African rappers sound more South African is only worth considering if the demand can be made of all musicians from everywhere making all genres. Not just the ones who happen to sound like angry black men and women. It’s a hypocrisy that presents itself to be in service of retaining a cultural purity when in fact it’s only result is shallow racialism that precludes that a Black American voice is not worth being echoed outside an American ghetto. That to relate to the anger and nihilism or intelligence or beauty of that voice is somehow not a reinforcement of your feelings but a negation of your own distinct background. In effect, it reduces the human experience to narrow locales, with their distinct speech defects.

This isn’t about why some rappers choose vernacular over English or twanging over tjuning it’s about a type of music listener who wants to turn the simple pleasure of making and listening to music into anthropological recognisable classifications. Africans must sound African, Zulus must sound Zulu and Indians like Indian. Saying it like that reveals the underlying regionalism being presented. But that’s not true is it, because no one cares when other musicians borrow and project other musicians from other places, its only is a problem when that other place is Black Ghetto U.S.A.

And that’s why I didn’t want to pull the race card. Because then we have to accept that other black people have a problem with some blacks sounding like other blacks. They’ll accept Lira twanging through an album but huff and puff that Reason is simply a mimic. Even hip hop producers like D Planet who should know better have chimed in about South African rappers who sound American as if in their vast knowledge of music, this automatically negates whether the music has merit or not.

It’s a silly issue to be concerned about. It’s dishonest and opportunistic. And it’s mostly driven by an unintentional and unexamined discomfort that the media demonised young American black voice is the chosen voice for the popular masses through rap music with its inherent bluster, grandiosity, paranoia, danger and persecution.

Aight ‘en. Nuff sed. Peace my N-words.


Written By: (@RealGibberish)



  1. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of American accents in SA hip hop. This article makes it sound like rappers who put on accents are doing it for deeply political and philosophical reasons. I’m not sure that this is the case though. Most rappers who I speak to put on an accent because they believe it makes them more accessible, that it makes them more ‘international’, and, on a more basic level, they just believe that it’s not ‘real hip hop’ if it’s done with a local accent, or in a local language. It just sounds wrong to them.

    I have literally never heard a rapper argue that they are putting on an accent because it connects them to the disenfranchised voice of Black American ghettos. Ironically, a large number of rappers who ‘twang’ (what a ridiculous word for intentionally putting on an accent!) tend to be more commercially-minded and less conscious. The industry that our media idolise actually silences the voices of the politically conscious ‘angry Black men and women’ you mentioned.

    My problem with fake accents is not so much about authenticity as it is with cultural imperialism. A lof of US rap is pumped out by the rich White Westerners who run the music industry, using rappers as puppets to sell product. What we tend to hear in South Africa is not the voice of the oppressed Black majority, but a never-ending barrage of mysogyny, mindless consumerism and the glorification of violence and crime. We consume and assimilate this music, and South African rappers start mimicking it because they believe it’s ‘hot’.

    In Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature, Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that Africa needs literature that conveys the true African experience – from the perspective of the local, not the visitor or outsider. He argues that Local languages are an integral part of conveying that experience, often because much of local tradition has been preserved in that language. He goes on to suggest that cultural imperialism actively damages African society…

    “The biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.”

    I don’t really care what pop artists do to sell records. If they want to put on accents, dress up in meat, make sex tapes or appear on reality TV shows, good luck to them.

    The issue is deeper than just the accent, it’s what it represents. I would just like rappers to think about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and the the potential consequences of their choices.

    • As I said in the article, the article was not investigating why South African rappers twang and others tjune, the main purpose was to highlight the absurd double standards rappers are expected to uphold regarding why they sound the way they do whilst other musical genres aren’t as superficially judged.
      Eminem suffered the same criticism that he sounded too ‘Black’ but if he had made country music which is admittedly regionally far from his Detroit upbringing he would have been accepted. Shania Twain is a Canadian who has appropriated deep American South musical traditions without the continued accusations of neo-colonization and whatnot. I’ve heard honky tonk bands with residences on Long Street that don’t get smeared with the over intellectual tar of indigenous cultural suicide.
      And it’s rather convenient for you to say you don’t care what musicians do to sell records after telling us that the reason they decide to sound American is because they need a thorough de-colonization.
      Also, Ngugi wa Thiong’o makes that point having written books using a very colonial system of information distribution, that being the book. If he wants to invent an authentic African literature he must accept that it has to be created using the colonial vehicle of publishing and copywriter practices and the modern Latin alphabet the way hip hop uses MPC’s and Mics and indeed Ebonics.
      My point remains unchallenged, rappers take flak that other musicians don’t have to. And it’s because rap is a black voice.

  2. This is a really insightful read. It’s literally re-shaped my opinion on the accent debate. Very well written as well. Nice one!

  3. In that case, I guess my argument would be that rappers have probably brought it on themselves but making authenticity such a key part of hip hop culture. If you keep talking about how you ‘keep it real’ while you’re putting on a fake accent you’ve only really got yourself to blame if people question it.

    For me, something just doesn’t gel about a rapper screaming, ‘I rep Cape Town’ in an American accent. I know there are many people who feel the same way. You should have heard the groans of displeasure at the Castle Lite event when AKA was shouting out how much he holds it down for Cape Town, ‘Ask about me in Belleville, yo!’

    Pop artists just don’t make authenticity part of their personas in the same way.

    Rappers in the UK used to rap with an American accent. Thankfully, due widespread popular rejection of twanging, they saw the light and focused on connecting with their audience through relevant content and speech patterns that people could relate to. Then the industry started booming. Arguably the UK is as influenced by the US as South Africa is (if not more so). I don’t ever remember hearing any debate around race though. That argument just seems spurious to me.

  4. @dplanet I’m entirely aware of people’s displeasure at rappers like AKA, that’s why this whole article exists. Personally, most fake accents are pretty bad and detract from the music, but I don’t ever presuppose that rappers should then only sound as their local dialect whilst other genres are allowed and encouraged to cannabilize whomever their influences are. That’s an egregious double standard you still haven’t adequately addressed. Comparing Brittains musical landscape to South Africa’s seems to me to fall under the same oversimplifycation of stating AKA sounds American because he is colonized. Africa isn’t one homogenized cultural group despite the continued rhetoric. In SA alone there are 11 official languages, 2 of which are direct results of colonization. Zambia has 72 languages. People who say Africans must sound Africans betray an ignorance to the vast tapestry of Africa and that in fact is a preclude of people who deem it necessary to define what being and sounding African is for an African. How are you a proponent of culturally narrow prescriptions of local hip hop and then find it spurious that rap music, a primarily black music, is singled out as a spawn of wannabes when other music isn’t nearly as scrutinised? You can’t have it both ways. You can’t discuss cultural authenticity and then decide that black American culture is incidental to hip hop and therefore spurious.

  5. To the brits rappers I’ve heard, Dizzie Rascals, Chipmunk, Tinie Tempah..etc. They sound british to. And other rappers brasil, Mexico, Colombia. They don’t sound american. South African rappers have a tendencey of sound and acting American. Which is why we call them wannabes.

    Brenda Fassie had english songs but on interviews, you’ll hear that she’s South African. Some goes with abo Lira. Arno, Khan, those are rockstars but when you talk to them. They have a South African accent. Rap, Reaggae, Dancehall…etc are one of the few musical genres where you can catch an accent.

    Which is why I wouldn’t say Lira, Adele, Ellie Goulding, Asa, Josiefield sound American. Its not easy to catch an accent to genres like Rock, RnB, Pop. I don’t have a problem with Black American Township Accent. But it should stay there. SAs have viewed Hip Hop there wrong way. They think talking and dressing like Black Township boys means hip hop. Thats the wrong way to see things.

  6. Interesting observation but I would like to point out that Freddie Mercury spoke with a very British accent. His accent didn’t sound “Indian” because he never spoke with anything other than a British accent. He may have spent some years in India but went to a British school and moved to Britain early on.

    Interestingly, Mike Skinner from the Streets raps with a heavy cockney accent (which I presume is not put on). Lilly Allen is another singer whose cockney accent shines through in many songs.

    Cool feature though – real food for thought.

  7. Lets not try justify fakeness. Being a south african rapper but acting american is not acceptable. Ryk Neethling has been dissed a lot for sounding white American. We really not gonna let this go.

  8. Ok.

    Hip Hop got nothing to do with all these other genres mentioned here. Who gives a rat about a pop singer if they are hip hop? Can’t talk about Lady Gaga and L Boogie in the same sentence.

    …What we see on tv is what is deemed ‘commercially viable’, thus you can not say it is ‘authentic’… In simple terms – it is put together in a way that will have a predetermined effect to the listeners/viewers. This is why Reason opted for that sound on Audio3D – we’ve heard how he sounds like, originally.

    ….music channels want ratings, this is why AKA has to sound in a ‘certain’ way to ‘appeal’ to the channel O ‘viewers’.

    I randomly ask older ‘rural’ (if you like) citizens about their knowledge of the existance of hip hop..in general. the answer is always NO…. one Tyma echoed that the way ‘these’ rappers dress is ‘inappropriate’ – meaning you cant be on Lil Waynes ‘swag’ if you want to be taken seriously by grans and fathers in a taxi.
    Baggy jeans ain us – no matter what you say.

    It is not even so.much about sounding American or not, but the exaggerated look that SA rappers borrow from America. This is why rapper’s didn’t wear Loxion Kulcha but Jordans,Airforce1′s…

    The main reason why SA rap will never ‘flourish’ is because it is misrepresented to speak to a certain kind of our society – which is the kids who twang in SA suburbia.

    Try twang ekasi in a taxi during rush hour, and watch and learn. Though I think it would be ‘normal’ if you did at a mall in Sandton…

    …this is why Zuluboy gets ‘hated’ on for being uLova becuase the view is that rappers should dress like 2chains, Lil Wayne and all these American rappers on MTV.

    This is one of those things, rappers must just get real and be authentic. I cant take AKA putting on grills seriously. Teargas came out ‘real’ now they old men running around like High school boys in flashy clothes, if thats not fronting or being a wanna be…

    Why must we sound American when Americans ain tryna sound like Zola?
    We can tolerate a certain level of ‘twanging’, we all catch that american accent when we feel like frontin a lil – but twanging can’t be who we choose to be.

    ….twangers must just get real.

    All Love,