Friday, 1 March 2019

Authenticity in the Hood


Whether it’s in friends, designer handbags, or website security, one quality people always want is authenticity. Their fake counterparts are shoddy at best and damaging at worst, whether that be for your emotional health, your belongings, or the contents of your bank account.

The music is real, even if the wool on the collar is not.
In a recent paper, Pia Pichler and Nathanael Williams look specifically at the way identity is authenticated by four young men from South London. Nathanael was one of these four men, and he recorded over five hours of conversation between him and the three others. The conversation covered a range of topics, including class, race, language, fatherhood, and the US; however, the focus of this research specifically covered their discussion of hip-hop.

In order to investigate the links between identity and authenticity, Pichler and Williams draw on Silverstein’s “cultural concepts”, which describe people’s use of linguistic elements that do not have a straightforward interpretation. In order to access the meaning of those elements, you need to be part of a shared cultural sphere with the person who is using them. One example they give is that of a wine connoisseur, who uses certain terms to describe wine which might otherwise mean something different. Using these terms to convey these cultural meanings is therefore a way to indicate your affiliation with that sphere, and make it a part of your identity.

In the conversation that Nathaniel analysed, the four men frequently positioned authentic aspects of hip-hop culture against inauthentic intruders. One example is during a discussion of World Star Hip Hop, a website which features regular content about the genre, from both contributors and users. One of the men, Les, was complaining about some girls fighting on the website, specifically referring to them as “white girls from The Hills”. “The Hills” was a series that focused on the lives of white, upper-middle class women in Los Angeles; by referencing them, Les positions them against the working class and non-white culture of the website. The men also reference cultural concepts within the UK to position things. For example, Les also complains about white kids from Oxford or Cambridge proffering extended opinions on hip-hop. Given the reputation of Oxford and Cambridge as wealthy university towns, this indexes the white person he is complaining about to a middle-class background that is at odds with his supposed knowledge about a predominantly black and working-class genre. This therefore renders the person and their opinions on the best hip-hop artists as inauthentic.

Pichler and Williams also note linguistic features used by the men that are just as important to the construction of their identities. For example, when discussing his brother’s membership in a South London gang, Les says dey and dem as opposed to they and them – a feature known as DH-stopping. He also uses yout and bruv; while the use of such lexical items is not specific to the Englishes typically spoken in hip-hop, they still index an authentic background, as they are features of MLE, or Multicultural London English. As a dialect usually spoken by working class people, often of colour, in inner-city London, it is not at odds with hip-hop culture, which often draws on local dialects.

These are just some of the ways in which the participants authenticated themselves. Now consider the conversations that you have – how do you position things against one another, and what features do you use if and when you do so? You may be doing the exact same thing.

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Pichler, P., & Williams, N. (2016). Hipsters in the hood: Authenticating indexicalities in young men's hip-hop talk. Language in Society 45(4): 557-581.

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

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