The Politics & Musicality of Accents in Indian Hip-Hop
In the 2017 hip-hop film titled “Bodied” produced by Eminem, rapper Behn Grymm in an outburst towards his white friend asks whether he’s ever heard of a “code switching motherf***er.”
By code switching he is referring to his ability to sound ‘more’ or ‘less black’ by the way he conducts his word and accent choice. You see, Benn Grymm is trapped in a world that is divided by the colored line. If he sounds too black in white spaces, there is less he can do and vice versa. This idea of ‘code-switching,’ to be accepted and to function in life is an interesting one for it reveals to us how accents are inherently political.
Of course, we don’t have to reach as far as the United States to understand that how a person sounds can be political. Indian upper castes have especially understood the role of accents as social identifiers that betray a person’s social standing in order to oppress, discriminate and keep at an arm’s length.
For example, it is quite common that people from parts of Uttar Pradesh are derogatorily labeled as bhaiyas based on how their Hindi sounds. Or how Punjabis are stereotypically made to sound a particular way in Bollywood films for cheap humor. The instances are many, however, what fascinates me the most as a creator and consumer of Indian Hip-Hop is the political and musical role of accents in homegrown rap.
India is a country of code switchers. Every single day, people get out of their comfort zones and step into unfamiliar territories presenting themselves in different ways to different people for a plethora of socio-political reasons. The right code, the right tone is often what opens the right doors. In the case of hip-hop, rappers and emcees wake up everyday trying to crack the code to find their sound and its place in the genre.
Since it is clear that how you sound, when, and in front of who plays a big role in the formation of an impression and the outcomes arising from it, it is only fitting to factor it in when deconstructing a rapper’s creative process. Why does one Indian rapper sound more American or British, while the other identifiably Indian? Is this a conscious choice?
The method to the rapper’s madness can largely be broken down into two categories-- lyricism and vocal delivery. Lyricism is the foundation of emceeing, so under this gambit, the rapper’s main focus is on poetic devices such as wordplays, puns, metaphors, similes, etc. However, when it comes to vocal delivery, the focus shifts to not just what you’re saying but also how you’re saying it. The emphasis is therefore on cadence, emotion, scale and tone, which is an element of accent.
The history of accent itself is rooted in musicality. Etymologically, the word “accent” comes from the Latin “accentus,” referring to tone, signal or intensity, which in turn comes from the word “cantus,” meaning song. It is no wonder that drummers and other instrumentalists ‘accent’ certain notes and beats by playing them louder or sharper to add a non-mechanical vibrance and humanness to the art.
Therefore, accents are as much of an artistic choice as they are a political one. The creative task of the rapper then becomes the craft of meandering through the sonic aesthetic and its politics.
This creative endeavour is directed by a variety of factors that can be simplified to the term “influence.” For example, Gully Rap from Mumbai has a distinct sound aesthetic that has grown to the extent that it influences more rappers to sound that specific way. In some sense, it has created what can be called a sonic signature or culture. Since the United States is the birthplace and epicentre of hip-hop globally, the hegemonic influence it exerts on rappers and consumers of rap music all over is immense.
It would help to think of all consumers of hip-hop as musical instruments to further our understanding of why Indian rap sounds as diverse as it is as well as the reactions to it. Just like how an instrument such as the guitar has to be tuned in a very specific way to be played in a pleasing manner, the listeners are also tuned to a certain aesthetic and taste.
Since the US is the first point of reference to hip-hop’s “true” sound, listeners are tuned to appreciate the same sort of aesthetic. As long as non-native english rappers pander to the exactness of the US sound, their songs automatically have more appeal and consequently more international success. Any deviations from how the words in the American accent sound then come off as aberrations or unsuccessful imitations of the ‘real’ thing.
Is it to say that English rap from the subcontinent and places around necessarily has to sound the way American or UK rap does to be accepted and appreciated completely? Definitely not. This listening bias is all the more reason that calls for a cultural re-tuning. Handling the pressure of this hegemonic force of accent becomes one of the many burdens of an Indian rapper.
In choosing to conform or not to ideas of acceptable accent and tone then become political for the rapper where they must choose between accepting the road often travelled, or rejecting it for the sake of a new lane of sound. It also calls for a transformation on the part of listeners to understand whether a different, Indian accented sound is really a ‘bad’ sound to begin with, or simply a novel innovation in an ever evolving genre.
The onus must be on the listener to decolonise and shed off listening biases - to not expect what they’re used to, but to embrace what is new and therefore strange. In short, just as the Indian rapper may code-switch for the listener’s acceptance or otherwise to innovate, the listener must code-switch to accept rather than reject.
Accents are identifiers of social location, yes, but they can also be identifiers of innate biases in the listener. Realizing what biases force us to perceive some music as good and other music as bad based on factors as trivial as an accent can go a long way to decondition the self through music.