Iggy Azalea and Ethnolect Appropriation

Influential Blues Singer Leadbelly

A few years back, I was talking to an Irish musician about the American blues. I found it strange that British and Irish musicians, particularly those honing their chops in the 1960s, seemed more taken with the form than Americans. “Well,” the singer said in his inimitable Dublin brogue. “No offense, but youse didn’t give those guys the appreciation they deserved. So all those unsold records ended up on docks across the Atlantic.”

I can’t vouch for this as an economic explanation, but I find the statement touching. Artists like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Van Morrison revered African-American blues and rock musicians to an obsessive degree. It’s also, to be fair, hard not be ambivalent about this fact. Those artists participated in what might be labeled “cultural appropriation” today, imitating both the style and dialect of commercially unviable artists.

The dialect was crucial. Mick Jagger meticulously imitated blues singers’ accents. When Robert Plant exclaims “oh child, the way you shake that thing,” I doubt he’s using a colloquialism from his native West Midlands. British blues appropriation would have been much less sociologically fascinating without the peculiarity (and, let’s face it, implausibility) of British voices imitating the language of African American Southerners.

But is linguistic theft the same as cultural theft? When people talk pejoratively about “cultural appropriation” these days, it often seems their main beef is with ethnolect appropriation. This came to mind recently in regard to Australian hip hop artist Iggy Azalea, who raps in the style of Southern Hip Hop. This interview interspersed with music clips gives an idea of how disparate her rapping and speaking lects are (ignoring some adopted Americanisms in her speech like occasional rhoticity):

Azalea’s fame has generated a line of criticism typified by this article by Brittney Cooper in Salon:

Iggy Azalea interlopes on this finely honed soundscape of Southern Blackness to tell us “how fancy” she is, and ask “how we love dat.” Her recklessness makes clear that she does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry.

Cooper’s linguistic focus here suggests to me that she takes issue with Azalea’s dialect imitation more than anything else (I’m hardly the first to point out that when you remove Azalea’s vocals, her hit Fancy sounds more like Gwen Stefani‘s Hollaback Girl than TI). The focus on accents and dialects which accompanies this debate exemplifies the intensely personal nature of language.

Yet it also, curiously, exemplifies the superficiality of language. While Azalea full-scale dons African-American English’s syntax and phonology, what she actually raps about is rather culturally nonspecific (at least from what I’ve heard). A few hip-hop tropes aside, “Fancy” reads like a universal party anthem. Come to mention it, Azalea occasionally raps about topics far removed from any American experience. Note this stanza from Change Your Life:

We spend our Winters in the Summer of Australia
Eating crumpets with the sailors
On acres without the neighbors
We fast-forward four years more
We long way from piss-poor

Lyrics like that evoke my startled reaction upon hearing Van Morrison sing about “the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row” like a Delta bluesman or Robert Plant sing likewise about England’s druidic past (not that I’m saying Azalea is on par with those guys). It also, in a way, reminds me of Trudgill’s great example of a non-standard-English speaker discussing academic geography. To wit, how you say something doesn’t always correspond to what you say, culturally-speaking. Dialects, like all language varieties, have near-infinite expressive capacities.

It’s valid to criticize appropriation in the music industry. But a distinction needs to be made, I think, between appropriating surface-level linguistic features and appropriating cultures. Of course, it isn’t always an easy line to draw.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to Iggy Azalea and Ethnolect Appropriation

  1. Luke says:

    I’ve heard occasional rhoticity from other young female Australians

  2. bill says:

    Is Mick Jagger guilty of “cultural theft”? He certainly set out to imitate as accurately as he could an African-American Chicago blues sound. But the stage act itself – the way he dressed, his hair, his whole swaggering performance – was very much his own . Meanwhile offstage, Jagger adopted a kind of working-class, East London “mockney” which was no doubt mortifying to his teacher father. The reality is that thousands of white, middle-class English boys were trying on all sorts of cultural clothes in an attempt to find something that could fit – literally true in the case of David Bowie! A case of mimicry rather than theft, I’d say.

    But the first real cross-over act in Rock and Roll was undoubtedly Elvis Presley. The legendary Sam Phillips, boss of the equally legendary Sun Studios, was quite open about the fact that he was looking for a “white man who could sing like a black man”, and when Elvis first sang “That’s all right, mama” in 1954 (a song written by Mississippi delta blues man, “big Boy” Crudup) Phillips knew his ship had come in. Elvis was a white boy who sang what at the time were known as “race” songs.

    So maybe cultural appropriation went hand in hand with the whole Rock and Roll genre?

  3. bjza says:

    “No offense, but youse didn’t give those guys the appreciation they deserved. So all those unsold records ended up on docks across the Atlantic.”

    On the subject of appropriation in pop music, I highly recommend Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta, which zeroes in on this question of why some blues musicians only became popular posthumously with British audiences (and post-invasion, with white US audiences).

  4. John Mclaine says:

    I know that Robert Plant and Mick Jagger were trying to imitate Southern African Americans, but what who John Fogetry trying to sound like?

  5. John Mclaine says:

    I know that Robert Plant and Mick Jagger were trying to imitate Southern African Americans, but what who was John Fogetry trying to sound like?

  6. Anne Zahra says:

    I love your blog and I just wanted to comment on the “Fancy” song. I’m an ESL teacher and I grew up in the Deep South (Alabama). I am familiar with the accent used in the song because I’ve heard it spoken around me since infancy. I was very surprised that the singer is Australian. I’m not sure I’d find it flattering if I spoke the dialect, though. Popular music is “supposed” to be about personal expression, and I’m not sure how you accomplish that by blandly imitating the accent another culture. But music is a business and I guess that comes first.

    And yes, as a Southerner, I did (do) find Mick Jagger’s phony accent irritating. Same with John Fogerty. It sounds fake, and who needs fake?

  7. bill says:

    Is Mick Jagger’s singing voice in any way “Southern”? The band name, The Rolling Stones, came from a Muddy Waters song, and the Stones covered several Chuck Berry numbers in the early days. But both Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, along with greats such as Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley all recorded in Chicago at Chess Studios, and Chess became a pilgrimage destination for many British blues bands of the early 60s.

  8. Dave says:

    Of course she’s using an American Accent/Ethnolect. Its probably a commercial decision more than anything. Using an Australian Accent/Ethnolect will limit your market immensely (Australia, NZ and perhaps UK), using a widely understood american accent/ethnolect expands this beyond just those countries; to the US, and the rest of the world. Its the same reason that UK/Australian/British actors and actresses use american accents and dialogue in most of their roles, they wouldn’t get them otherwise.

    Does australian rap/hip hop exist? yes. But it barely resembles its american counterpart in any way at all. (Youtube search “australian hip hop”). It tends to be loaded with australianisms which would be lost on wider audiences.

  9. DfNZ says:

    Language acquisition for speech and singing aren’t as integrated as people would think. Like how a person who has had a stroke may lose the ability to speak but still be able to sing, a person who only listens to singing in an accent different from their spoken accent may be almost completely incapable of singing in their spoken accent even if they tried.

    With the commercialisation of hip hop and rap music in the USA being highly positioned around black or ghetto subcultures as its selling point it isn’t surprising that someone obsessed with the genre would imitate the language styles or cultural tropes of what they listen to. It isn’t unusual for Old World rappers to rap with a black American accent despite not singing in English.

    The majority of native speakers of English are in North America and as most Americans have a cultural aversion to popular culture that is overtly foreign, the English language music industry is overwhelmingly oriented around American accents. If singers like Iggy Azelea and Lorde hadn’t assimilated themselves enough to be palatable to an American audience they would’ve been unlikely to have been noticed there or have had people complaining about the very sociolinguistic appropriation that makes Americans willing to listen in.

  10. Spiderbucket says:

    Cultural Appropriation started as a way to define the Disneyland type of exploitation where they made certain symbols and stories meet there needs. It’s not illegal (yet), but intelligent people see the difference and roll their eyes but they don’t get depressed or angry enough to start throwing around the term to justly their own racism and lack of knowledge about art and music. And hipsters at Bonnoroo in the headdresses, just look like dopey tourists and they barely have our attention. By the end of the year they will haver moved on. But will you? Culture cannot be stolen. Artists understand this and threat of you are either young and opening your mind or you are ignorant dullards.

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