THE ART OF THE ACCENT
The art of “keeping it real” has always been an essential part of a rapper’s image - the NZ rap scene is a testament to that. In Hip-Hop your integrity is everything. Three 6 Mafia put it best, you “live by yo rep”. Rappers often aim to deliver art within the framework of unfiltered truths. In New Zealand, this idea is made apparent with our strong attraction to ‘homegrown’ music. Being in such a small country, you could say that a large part of our love for local acts come from the sincerity in their music.
Some kiwis just like to hear voices that sound like Kiwis. (I can’t help but feel patriotic when I hear ‘Stand Up’ by Scribe). Put simply, we tend to gravitate towards the familiar. However, with new music flowing through frequencies from abroad constantly, it seems as though Kiwis have familiarised themselves with foreign sounds. In turn, the idea of ‘keeping it real’ to New Zealand roots has been redefined in recent years. In the current day, the true identity of a rapper seems to be blurred and the line between fact and fiction is unclear. Ones’ accent is no longer indicative of their background. So it begs the question: If we don’t keep the accent can we still “keep it real”?
Now just to clear things up. I’m not talking about altered vocal delivery like that of Danny Brown or Kendrick. No, I’m talking about changing your accent to sound more similar to mainstream rap artists. A full Americanisation of your voice. This issue has long been debated for years now with split views on the subject. Some believe that what is being said is more important than how you say it. Others argue that it is biting from the States. Over time we have seen people succeed with and without the accent. Depending on who you ask, you might be convinced that a kiwi accent has no place on a track or could be considered to make it unique.
A quick trip back in time will show you how split we are on the issue. In 2004, Dei Hamo dropped his single ‘We Gon Ride’. The smash hit perfectly exemplified the early 2000’s style. Yet in retrospect, the song has now become a topic of debate. A quick glance of the comment section on Youtube will show you both love and hate for the track. Now you’ll easily find one guy in a comment section who’ll call out Dei for using an accent, saying he’s a “try hard” or a “fake Fat Joe”. But the track went platinum. Not only that but it sat at the top of New Zealand charts for 5 weeks.
Whether you liked the track or not, you can’t deny it’s success. Still, it is clear to see the American influence throughout the song, which makes you wonder if people were fans of the music or the trend. ‘We Gon Ride’ is the prime example of people getting behind the familiar. Ultimately, the success of the song shows that we as listeners of music are creatures of habit, with a trained ear to the American cadence. With Hamo’s accent change serving as a channel for success, it was seen by many as sacrificing NZ authenticity with a template to get to the top. So although it may have been an amazing song, it wasn’t considered “keeping it real”.
It is argued that the American accent “just sounds better”. In my opinion, nothing beats authenticity. The use of the American cadence in New Zealand, forces artists to latch on to a culture and sound that isn’t ours. By viewing the American standard as the be-all-end-all, artists risk not being able to cultivate fresh, individual pieces.
However, creating something that doesn’t mimic the States is not impossible. Just look at the scene in the UK. Grime was able to become it’s own sub-genre. The success of Grime never once came from their reliance on American style. From the fashion, to the slang, to the music, the artists and fans never compromised for anything less than the real. That attitude subsequently bled into all facets of UK rap. In turn, their unapologetic style and integrity became recognised worldwide, making waves when it crossed over with the American market. Drake’s collaboration with UK acts such as Skepta, Giggs and Jorja Smith in More Life sent streaming of UK’s homebrew up exponentially by US listeners. Point being, our own raw sound is also there. We just need to reclaim and nurture it wholeheartedly.
It hasn’t been too long since NZ Hip-Hop was at it’s peak. Legends like Scribe were able to push the envelope whilst still holding on to that genuine style of NZ rap. People were able to have platinum selling albums and still keep their local accent. Now I’m not saying we have to start living like we’re in 2003 again, but we need to recognise the power that a movement has.
New Zealand Hip-Hop is definitely on the up with artists like SWIDT, Raiza Biza and Melodownz finally gaining some well deserved recognition. Unfortunately rappers lack that same support that drove labels like Dawn Raid into the mainstream. The same support that put P-Money at the #1 spot on the charts. The love for good homegrown music was there. Unfortunately, it’s disappearance in recent years has led to artists switching their style to cater to a fanbase more comfortable with the American sound. The problem is, when they do that, they’re instantly shit on for it. As fans of Hip-Hop, if we crave a more original sound, we have to be willing to support it as well. We’ve seen it before.
If you ask me, I don’t think we ever needed the American accent. If you like it, thats cool but I can’t help but think it infringes the sincerity of an artists’ content. I still enjoy a lot of the rappers who use an accent. It’s a comfortable sound to fallback on, but it’s completely unnecessary. We’re stuck in a generation where rappers are obsessed with clout. Subsequently, we’ve ended up with a bunch of rappers who all wanna sound the same. People leech off trends and follow sounds that are trendy. None of those sounds are ours to claim though. Without strong support for our own sound and culture, it’s no wonder so many rapper’s choose to take cues from America. It works in a cycle, if we as listeners claim the sound, rappers can claim the accent and vice versa.
So to me, Nah. It can’t be real with a fake accent. But our sound is there waiting.