Rotten Sounds–M.I.A. and Jay-Z

Ahmad's book

As I mentioned in class the other day, it is important to extend “rotten English” so that, conceptually, the term not only speaks to language, but also to how the transformations and modifications that are made possible through language-use might also impact cultural production on the level of form–to “rotten form.”

Further, considering “rotten form” might help us comment on how in a larger sense cultural production is also potentially transformed by, or perhaps merely subject to, the same social and political forces that have so heavily impacted language. The possibilities inherent in form might also be subject to the same losses and gains that we normally associate with a population’s “access” to a “global” language, English.

Rottenness, expansion, is in the various ways M. Nourbese Philip puts her poems on the page: “English is a foreign l/anguish,” and it is also in mashups (here is a favorite of mine), in pop art movements, in films made by cell phone, and so on. It is not only about the spread of language, but also the spread and proliferation of technological access, which I am sure I will have more to say about in another post! But I will say now that there are some compelling questions on the path that gets us from African American vernacular to hip-hop, word to sampling, and then from American hip-hop to artists like Afrikan Boy and The Wilcannia Mob, whom we hear from on two of the M.I.A. songs we are looking at this week, “Hussel” and “Mango Pickle Down River.”

(I am not sure, but I wonder if we might toss YouTube into the fray, with “rotten marketing,” as in the case of Wayne Wang’s new film, The Princess of Nebraska, which is being distributed exclusively on YouTube. But the parameters, of course, are different for an established filmmaker, perhaps instead pointing to how that which begins “rotten” is quickly assimilated into the mainstream. Now it’s fresh! As A.O. Scott asks in his review of Wang’s film, “Is the YouTube release of a feature film by a well-known director a gimmick or a harbinger of things to come?”)

But, again, rotten language, rotten form–expansion, difference, transformation, and also technology. This brings me to M.I.A., coming to us from “Sri Lanka (via), London and South East United Kingdom,” and whose music not only incorporates global Englishes, but also highlights globalized cultural forms. Like many of the artists we are looking at this semester, M.I.A.’s work is also centered on the “metropole” as a figure, and demonstrates how rotten Englishes and forms are informed by a history of influence, be it through colonization, slavery, or immigration, but also how appropriations of languages and form also contribute to new recenterings, turning an audience’s gaze to sites that may now as easily be conceptualized as the new centers of cosmopolitan culture as they were once names for peripheries.

Further, the historical centers of metropolitan “culture” are also reconfigured in this movement. When M.I.A. calls out to London and New York at the beginning of “Bucky Done Gun,” any racial and cultural signification inherent in those city names is remastered, remixed, by the context in which they appear: in their serialization with Kingston and Brazil; in the injunction in M.I.A.’s voice, “quieten down”; and in how the song musically and visually references the various places named–for instance in her visual reference of  LL Cool J’s “Momma Said Knock You Out” (NY), her kinetic reference to African American and black Caribbean dance forms, in the performance of Afro-Brazilian drumming–and also by virtue of how the very fact of the song, despite its ostensibly various elements, has been transformed by M.I.A. into a single unit of recognition, her song.

Clearly, there is much to say on rotten form, but, for now, let’s just turn to an element of form, sound. Sound has come up several times in our class– for instance tensions between the pleasing sound of a vernacular versus how it looks on the page, or how so much race and class meaning is attached to the sound of a voice, to whether or not one is “tokn yir/ right way a/ spellin,” to use Tom Leonard’s construction.

But even as we so often take the question of power in language as in reference to the disparity signified in our reception of standard or rotten language, it is also important to remember that members of vernacular communities also find social value in the rejection of standard English, which they often quite often know, but also choose not to use. This is apparent on the surface of John Kasaipwalova’s “Betel Nut is Bad Magic for Airplanes,” which is narrated in local languages, Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu, but in which the narrator’s command of standard or even “high” English is also demonstrated, thus revealing an explicit choice in his foregrounding of the non-standard. By making the code-switch apparent, audience and community, inside and outside, us and them, are reflected, and reflected upon, in the narrator’s linguistic movement.

This brings us to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” which includes a scene featuring Jay-Z performing multiple voices, his rap persona, the voice he uses when speaking to the police, and his reproduction of the cop’s voice. In the juxtaposition of these various voices, Jay-Z makes apparent much of what is at stake in the performance of any cultural voice, in any choice of code. Further, there is a certain kind of knowingness, some revelation of other full worlds, that also comes in the video’s use of imagery, and that hews closely to the reversed cultural gaze apparent in Jay-Z’s moments of switch and ventriloquism.

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