How music has reflected and shaped African American speech

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Ciku Theuri: Hey y’all. It’s Ciku Theuri. I’m back with a new episode in our series on Black American English. Today, I want to explore the relationship between African American English and music.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe song excerpt: “Rock Me”

Ciku Theuri: We’ll start in the 1930s. The Great Depression was ripe and Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the South. White women were making incremental strides in society– entering the workforce and exercising their right to vote. And by the end of the decade, one Black woman became infamous for pushing the envelope even further. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a rare and radical musician. She played guitar, an instrument associated with masculinity at the time. She also combined secular and religious themes in her music, performing both the sacred and profane in nightclubs among other venues. Later, Tharpe and another woman named Marie Knight, would go on tour as two Black queer women in love. Boy, was sis bold. She’s now considered the godmother of rock ’n’ roll. Before Elvis, Johnny Cash and Little Richard, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe song excerpt: “Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down”

What Sister Rosetta Tharpe did, and what she stood for, is central to the work of Jordannah Elizabeth. Jordannah is a Baltimore-based journalist and music critic. And I think she’s the perfect person to lay out why musical innovation like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s was often linguistic innovation too. It propelled African American English to a whole new place.

Ciku Theuri: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: Stories about languages and the people who speak them. I want to know: is there a particular role music plays in the evolution of Black American English?

Ciku Theuri: Okay, let me give you all a little background on Jordannah. First thing you should know, she’s very proud to rep her city.

Jordannah Elizabeth: I come from Baltimore City, born and raised, super excited about my culture in my hometown, super excited about my culture in my hometown.

Ciku Theuri: Jordannah has written about all kinds of music but most of her work focuses on women and jazz. In fact, she’s the founder of an online publication called the Feminist Jazz Review. As we were chatting, I figured I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the jazz legend, Cab Calloway.

Cab Calloway song excerpt: “Are you Hep to the Jive?”

Ciku Theuri: Calloway was one of the greatest — if not the greatest — musician of the 1930s. And he was known to use a lot of slang or jive, as he called it, in his music. As his audience grew and became more diverse, those jive terms weren’t so easily understood. So Calloway did something ingenious. He created his own dictionary in which he defines these words. It wasn’t a 4,000-page book with a thick cover — more like a pamphlet. And it included phrases like “jelly,” which meant free, or on the house. A “frolic pad” was a place of entertainment, like a theater or a nightclub. There’s a great video where Calloway actually defines these words through song. We’ll link you to it in the show notes.

Excerpt from the Hepster’s Dictionary: “What’s a dog house? A dog house is a thing, a big bull fiddle that you slap with a swing. Get hip with Hepster’s dictionary”

Ciku Theuri: I had to tell Jordannah about this!

Ciku Theuri: He created a dictionary called the Cab Calloway Hepster Dictionary. It’s said to be the first written by a Black American, and it includes terms that I’ve never heard of before. Terms like “off the cob,” which apparently means corny or out of date. Have you heard of that before?

Jordannah Elizabeth: No, but I like it in that it reminds me of “off the cuff,” which is different. “Off the cuff” means improvising, but I could see how that could have stemmed from “off the cobb,” you know?

Ciku Theuri: Mm hmm. But there are also a lot of terms in there that actually still exist in Black American English today. Terms like “cop,” which means to obtain or to get, like, “Imma cop that. Imma cop those shoes.” What do you make of how Calloway brought the language of Black folk to the forefront as a musician in this way?

Jordannah Elizabeth: First of all, I believe Cab Calloway has roots in Baltimore, along with Billie Holiday and others who spent a lot of time in Baltimore. That’s where hip hop derives from big band and gospel. It’s all a direct descendant. And the fact that Cab Calloway was able to compile the language of his culture. It’s absolutely incredible.

Ciku Theuri: Some of Calloway’s other terms that you might recognize: “riff,” “lick,” “hip”, “groovy,” and “apple,” as in the big town, Harlem. I could list dozens more. But there are so many terms that have become commonplace in standard American English today that find roots in African American English.

Jordannah Elizabeth: There’s this balance with Cab Calloway’s pre-Urban Dictionary saying, “We are who we are, this is what it is, but let’s give it to the world so that it can grow and evolve.” So there’s this balance of acceptance and of radical change, you know?

Ciku Theuri: Mm hmm. It’s interesting you make the connection between Cab Calloway and modern day hip hop. I wonder if there are some specific examples of his songs that have a direct lineage to the art form?

Jordannah Elizabeth: Really, the way he performed his lyrics and the beat and the rhythm, and the cadence that he chose. And then, the call and response with big bands. I’m not an expert on Cab Calloway’s music, but I think about Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe song excerpt: “Strange Things Happening Every day”

The Ink Spots song excerpt: The Java Jive”

Ciku Theuri: The Ink Spots was another musical act forging a new kind of sound and lyricism in the Thirties. This group from Indianapolis was the predecessor of doo-wop.

Jordannah Elizabeth: These groups that just kind of had a beat and a spoken style in their singing — it all just directly derives from that form of early performance in the Thirties. And of course before that, the rhythm-based music of Africa. It’s just all — I believe it’s all connected.

Ciku Theuri: How integral would you say Black American English is in American music? And maybe even more broadly songs that sort of are part of the tapestry of the American experience?

Jordannah Elizabeth: Black American music and Black American language has become a tapestry of cultural language — of global language. Gen Z culture is incredibly influenced by the language of hip hop and hip hop culture. Hip hop is the most listened to genre in the United States of America. And of course, it’s very, very, very popular and influential across the globe. You know, “turnt up” like I didn’t… (laughs)

Ciku Theuri: For those who don’t know, “turnt up” is an expression that describes a state of euphoria and high energy. For example: “I can’t wait to get turnt up with my girls in the Bahamas.” Or “This concert is turnt up.” I should also note that a lot of people use it to describe the joy of being tipsy or drunk.

Jordannah Elizabeth: I remember there was like a TV show and the girls were like, “Oh, this just turnt up!” And there was a young black girl who didn’t really know what that meant. I felt like that young black girl, like, I’m still learning my own culture’s language. So when I listen to hip hop, I have to listen, you know, over and over and over again, like, you know, what’s a bag? Okay. That means, you know, you caught an amount of money. But the older generation was saying, “I caught a lick.” I’m fascinated, you know?

Ciku Theuri: Yeah. I’m that same way. I feel like especially now with Gen Z really challenging a lot of what we’ve known about Black American English and slang in the way it works, I’m constantly Googling Urban Dictionary. What does this mean? Because it truly is like evolving very rapidly, as you say.

Jordannah Elizabeth: I just finished a book, A Child’s Introduction to Hip Hop. And you can map how hip hop spread from The Bronx to Manhattan — and from Manhattan when it embedded the white high art scene. It has nothing to do with the influence of American white culture. Black artists and Black hip hop artists were very clear about wanting to travel. So you can mark when hip hop came to London — you can mark the spread. We should certainly owe it to Black artists, Black writers, rappers and poets because they were intentional. And I don’t think we as a culture get enough appreciation and acknowledgment for having the will and the vision to travel and take the art wherever we wanted it to go.

Ciku Theuri: I wonder now, two years after the social so-called racial reckoning in 2020 — from what you’ve observed, do you think that the gatekeepers of industry have sort of changed their attitude about Black American English from your standpoint as a writer?

Jordannah Elizabeth: No. They’ve changed their attitude about Black people, Black experiences and Black voices. And that’s very much appreciated. The voices that are coming out are different. And many times established, many times merging. But I don’t think we have pieces that are coming out that are strongly influenced by true neighborhood Black community dialogue. No, not really. I don’t think so.

Ciku Theuri: Do you think there’s a reception for that right now, or are we at a point where people are yearning for that or not yet?

Jordannah Elizabeth: No. We have hip hop for that. But now with the global culture we’re all influencing each other.

Ciku Theuri: Now it’s important to underscore, of course, that the evolution of Black American English and the attitudes about it aren’t limited to just music. There are so many other art forms it touches: literature, theater and movies. And Jordannah doesn’t think attitudes about Black American English have changed through those mediums either. Part of it has to do with the authenticity of those narratives.

Jordannah Elizabeth: Are there stories from The Bronx any more? Are there stories from Macon, Georgia? Are there stories from Baltimore, Maryland, that aren’t centered around police and crime and kind of all of those things? Are there true stories of the day to day lives of working class Black people? No. Is there a need for that? I don’t know. I would like to see that done authentically.

Ciku Theuri: Stories that center Black people and their cultures should be told by those who actually belong to and speak the language of those communities, to accurately depict their realities — approaching it with an understanding of who they truly are, not what other people expect them to aspire to be. Jordannah mentioned names of Black artists who brought their truest selves to their art form: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Cab Calloway with his Hepster’s dictionary. These artists didn’t bend to the linguistic norms of what audiences expected. They brought their vernacular to the main stage. And from there, to the globe.

Ciku Theuri: So what happens when a vernacular like Black American English travels outside of the United States? What kind of influence does it have on other cultures? And in turn, how have other cultures influenced Black American English? In the next episode, we’ll get into all of that with someone who interacted with this vernacular long before she even stepped foot in America.

Ciku Theuri: This episode is reported and produced by me, Ciku Theuri. Special thanks to Oluwakemi Aladesuyi, Patrick Cox and Nina Porzucki, Also thanks to everyone at the Linguistic Society of America.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. Another Hub & Spoke show is Soonish. Soonish is a podcast about technology, specifically about that moment when we sense the future touching our present lives. You can find episodes on food and work and travel. The latest episode is about newts! –not the Gingrich variety but those little amphibians. Newts and their connection to the man who coined the word, “robot.” Trust me, it’ll blow your mind.

Thanks for listening — and thanks to everyone who’s rated and reviewed Subtitle. If you haven’t done so yet, please leave us a review wherever you listen. Thanks! We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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