I just watched a documentary called The Great Hip Hop Hoax:
It’s the story of a couple of lads from Scotland who found that no one would take them seriously if they rapped in a Scottish accent, so they instead began rapping in American accents and pretending they were from California. Success ensued, and they ended up living 24/7 as their American alter egos – Silibil and Brains. They got a top manager, a record deal from Sony and appeared on MTV, but eventually it all went tits up and now one works on an oil rig while the other still clings to his dreams of stardom.
I mention this because it’s not the only case of an accent-changing rapper I’ve noticed in recent weeks: the summer’s biggest track in America, spending seven weeks at number one, is this charming ditty from a lady called Iggy Azalea:
If you listen to that with your eyes closed you probably think that Iggy is black, and even with your eyes open you’d assume she’s American. If you did either, you’d be wrong: she’s from a small town in Australia, and faces constant accusations of being fake (interesting that the first line of the song is ‘First thing’s first, I’m the realest’). Here are a couple of the comments that mention this:
So, unlike Silibil and Brains, everyone is aware of her ‘fake’ provenance, but many millions appear not to give a toss – and this is in the world of rap, where authenticity is highly prized. When 50 Cent rapped about his edgy lifestyle it became more interesting because he was an ex-drug dealer who had been shot eight times. Then again, 2Pac was actually a middle-class graduate of a performing arts school, and not so much the ghetto thug his records portrayed, but like Azalea, millions happily bought into his image.
Outside the rap world Elton John’s speaking voice is the camp old man from Pinner that he actually is, whereas his singing voice is the Louisiana foghorn that’s appropriate to the kind of songs he’s chosen to sing. And when OK Computer came out I remember Thom Yorke explaining that he’d tried to sing each song in a different voice in order to best convey each appropriate emotion. One could argue that the voice is just another instrument, like a piano or guitar, and therefore it can and should be adjusted accordingly.
The area of reinvention is an interesting one: massive stars like Madonna and David Bowie routinely practised it several times a year, almost as if the rebranding was a part of their artistic expression, and they have been lauded for it. But when Dylan went electric he was booed by the folk audience who thought he’d betrayed them.
One school of thought suggests that we’re all fabrications, our choices of clothes, accents and interests representing an image we create all day every day, with no more basis in reality than Iggy’s accent or Ziggy’s make up. And if that’s the case it doesn’t matter which choice you make. Some might accuse those who adopt whatever is supposedly ‘cool’ of making a desperate attempt to be liked or respected, but ‘cool’ is a pretty amorphous concept, so where do we draw the line between the divisive and the simple expression of taste (whatever that is)?
I realise it’s strangely appropriate to be writing this post on my first day living in a new country, where I fully expect at least one of my kids to take on an LA accent within the next few months. But taking on the mores of a community that isn’t precisely where you were born must to some degree be inevitable, so why not embrace it, dude?