As soon as I heard about the Sounds of the Queen City contest, a competition for local hip-hop artists to submit a QC anthem, I immediately checked my enthusiasm by checking the fine print.
I feared that much of what a city’s mayor would sanction as an officially unofficial city song might run directly contrary to what makes hip-hop authentic, smart and appealing.
What would be roundly disappointing is a QC hip-hop contest that discourages the likes of Deniro Farrar, Jay Marshall, Urban Renaissance, Modest Jon, Yung Citizen, and others actually in the Charlotte hip-hop space from having a voice.
Sure enough, the judging criteria prevent artists from submitting anything with “inappropriate language” or that is “otherwise inappropriate as determined by Sounds of the Queen City in its sole and conclusive determination.” Additionally, it states that “entrants should not demean or ridicule other entrants.”
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am – by no means! – suggesting that a good rap song requires trash-talking or “inappropriate” language or content (whatever that ends up meaning).
But as both a long-time hip-hop fan and a linguist that has studied hip-hop as a discourse, I would argue that constraining rap in those specific ways tip-toes along the edge of whitewashing.
My sincere hope is that Sounds of the Queen City doesn’t strip hip-hop from itself when choosing an anthem to represent Charlotte and its hip-hop community.
The contest opened for entry March 1 and closes at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, April 3. More details are available here.
Alright, y’all. If you stick around from here, just know that things are about to get nerdy.
What language is “inappropriate” language?
Where is the line between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” content? By what rules is appropriateness constrained?
You don’t have to be a linguist to see how this is open to wide and variable interpretations. For hip-hop, though, this is particularly problematic in its vagueness.
Rap is so much more nuanced than arranging slang into rhymes. Hip-hop culture is, at once, a product of mainstream society and a conscious resistance to it.
The tension between hip-hop and the mainstream is part of hip-hop, even as hip-hop has become mainstream. Even still, in many ways, rap’s “inappropriateness” is simply part of the genre, if looking from the outside in.
Rap, and what it does best, cannot flourish if appropriateness is not defined by the rules of its own genre.
I fully understand the desire, perhaps even the need, to ensure that an officially unofficial city anthem isn’t chock full of f-bombs and n-words, but where the line for appropriateness is drawn — and why — matters a great deal. The alternative risks erasure of hip-hop’s history and identity.
Plus, the song would suffer for it.
Trash-talking, or braggadocio?
Part of rap’s rise occurred because kids from the streets needed an outlet, and in rap battles on street corners, lyrical abilities were more highly valued than physical bravado, turning their reality of cut-throat competition to succeed and survive into art.
In this way, rap is more than a language. It’s also a place of catharsis, contest, play, and performance.
For rap, this shows up in differentiating the sucka MCs from the GOATs, often through braggadocio and ritualized insult — two sides of the same coin.
Jay Z writes in his book Decoded that braggadocio in rap is like love in sonnets. Figuring out an original, powerful, and clever way of saying you’re the best MC becomes “a metaphor for itself,” he says.
I understand that the Sounds of the Queen City competition is not the arena to start or publicize rap beefs.
But here again, where the line is drawn – and why – matters a great deal.
If “entrants should not demean or ridicule other entrants” means not to call out other entrants specifically, that’s one thing. But it would be a mistake to overextend this to apply to braggadocio in general.
Warts and all, hip-hop has resonated with people on a broad scale, all over the world, for a reason.
It reflects on who we are as a culture, remixes our shared experiences, and gives us back something new.
Hip-hop challenges us to confront controversy and uncomfortable truths, but it also moves us to just let go and dance.
Hip-hop passes along knowledge, and it tells our stories. Through it, we can celebrate our victories, muscle through our defeats, speak truth to power, empower ourselves against injustice, and embolden our journeys. We can also fall in lust and love, or just say hey to the haters.
So, what’s most important in all of this is that we let hip-hop be hip-hop.
Cover art by Ashley Graham