A Sociolinguistic Study of Hip Hop. AAVE Features in Songs by Tupac Shakur and Eminem

Term Paper 2016 30 Pages

American Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Methods

3. Results
3.1.1. Tupac Shakur
3.1.2. “Changes”
3.1.3. “White Man’s World”
3.1.4. “Ghetto Gospel”
3.1.5. Keep Ya Head Up”
3.1.6. „Until the End of Time“
3.2.1. Eminem
3.2.2. “Public Enemy #1”
3.2.3. “Like Toy Soldiers”
3.2.4. “We as Americans”
3.2.5. “White America”
3.2.6. “My Name Is”

4. Discussion

5. Resources:

6. Appendices


Sociolinguistics of Hip Hop music is a relatively new field in sociolinguistics and deals with both social and linguistic aspects of AAVE. Many studies were conducted to analyse Hip Hop lyrics, with both Tupac and Eminem as the target artists; Tupac being the explicitly angry rebel against racial segregation and Eminem being the sarcastic and incredibly eloquent young man who had managed to enter the Hip Hop safe zone of African-Americans and strike them dumb. However, a detailed comparison study of AAVE features and variations between the two was not yet conducted, or at least published. This small-scale research study aims to analyse five of the most popular songs by each artist, to quantify, compare and contrast AAVE features in some of the most popular lyrics globally and to provide an option for the social background of each song, analysing their purpose, message and language. This paper will answer two of the most obvious questions in Hip Hop sociolinguistics, i.e. whether there is any difference in use of AAVE features between a black rapper and a white rapper, where both are considered masters of their profession. Another question is whether any of them is linguistically“better” than the other, i.e. leaning towards SE. A common string of features was analysed and quantified for the purpose of comparison and the results were somewhat surprising. However, the songs which were selected have a serious background to them, possibly affecting both artists’use of language.

Key Terms: AAVE, Hip Hop, rapper, Standard English, Contractions, Verb omission, “gonna”/”gotta”,“Ain’t”, Verb agreement, Multiple negations,“Nigga”, Profanities;

1. Introduction

African-American Vernacular English (also called Black English, Black Vernacular English) or AAVE represents the speech or simply an English Language variety that we connect with African-American inhabitants of the United States. It is interesting how African- Americans speak in this particular manner that they share among themselves and at the same time developing/protecting their identity; this means that black residents in the U.S. speak very much alike even though they might share a community with non-black residents who do not speak in that way.

It is important to note, as Ronald Wardhaugh highlights it in his book An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, that the speech of blacks in these cities (e.g. New York City, Boston, Chicago, etc.) also resembles the speech of blacks in southern states in many respects. Recent migrations as well as racial segregations can be a potential answer to this phenomenon, but we have to be aware of the fact that AAVE is not just a manner of speech, but rather yet another dialect of English Language since it has its own phonological, morphological and syntactic characteristics. This particular speech variety, among many others, has been investigated and studied the most in the history of American English. Edgar W. Schneider’s research on dialects of American English, carried out in 1996, proved that (from the mid-1960s through the mid- 1990s) much more publications have been dedicated to AAVE than any other variety of English; many linguists and sociolinguists are still scrutinizing AAVE’s origins, variations, changes and other things, but data is limited since its development is hard to follow. The main question according to Schneider is: ‘Does AAVE tends to distance itself from other varieties of English, or it rather tends to blend with them for some reasons?’ In order to answer we have to look upon AAVE’s position in the twenty-first century. The current continuity of the development of AAVE is surely more interesting than its origin. New sociolinguistics studies show that the distinctive traits of AAVE are probably stronger at the turn of the twenty-first century than they were a century earlier. Of course, these same researches have shown that older black speakers are still speaking in the same manner they did before (the more original one), but younger black community members and residents of the U.S. speak in a modern trans- variety AAVE manner (like their trans-regional urban AAVE counterparts). I.e., AAVE is in fact converging. This should not be surprising since the mobility of African Americans is better now which all together led to the occurrences of inter-regional language. However, AAVE still serves as a sense of ethnic identity; also, regional dialects together with the Standard American English are still associated with “white speech”.1

What has also been a crucial part of African-American identity in the past few decades is the public discourse in Hip Hop music, comprising major historical and social events that have been fundamental to the shaping of African-American nationhood, identity, and citizenship, especially after a sequence of riots in the 1990s.2 Both Sociology and Linguistics, as well as Sociolinguistics have their focus on Hip Hop for over a decade now, perhaps even more than any other music genre. One of the most iconic representatives of African-Americans in Hip Hop, in the public and perhaps in general during the 1990s was Tupac Shakur. Eminem, on the other hand, is often described as white with 'adequate' ghetto and street credibility from Detroit and has become one of the most successful artists in the genre.3 The aim of this small-scale research study is to analyse and compare AAVE features in five songs from both Tupac Shakur and Eminem. Each song is described in terms of social background and message, as well. It is important to note that in order to be representable, such a research study should be conducted on a larger scale.

2. Methods

The conducted research study is both quantitative and qualitative. Methods used were the description of social relevance of the songs and a quantification of marked AAVE features. Hip Hop music was selected as a distinctive AAVE phenomenon and a symbol of African-American culture. Artists were selected by popularity and previous sociolinguistic studies. Five songs were selected from each artist, also based on popularity and social relevance. (Note: Analysis of Eminem’s songs contains an additional listing of AAVE featuresfor comparison purposes.) Phonological features were not analysed. This research study is an adaptation of a similar study of AAVE Features in the lyrics of Tupac Shakur: The notion of“Realness” by Walter F. Edwards and Leslie Ashonly . Only marked morphological, syntactic and lexical AAVE features were analysed in the lyrics, as follows:

A. Contractions of any form were analysed, mostly verb and pronoun: doin’, playin’,‘em, ya, y’all, kinda, gangsta;

B. Main/auxiliary verb omission (includes copula suppression): Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under;

C. Future/prospective gonna/gotta: We gotta start makin' changes;

D. Ain't: And I ain't never did a crime I ain't have to do;

E. Noun/pronoun-verb agreement (includes habitual be, “bin” and “be done”): Tears is rollin' down,baby's mama be stressing;

F. Multiple negations: never go nowhere, I ain't never did a crime;

Note: When “ain't” was used in a sentence containing another negative, the token was included both in the “ain't” category and in the "multiple negative" category.

G. Term “nigga” occurrences;

H. Profanities of any kind were analysed under this category;

I. Other AAVE features analysed are: non-inversion for question formation, AAVE they- them-their forms and other non-standard language; AAVE terms such as “mama” were analysed under this category; Phrases such as “Where my daddy at” are placed in both “Verb omission” and “Other” category.

The aim of this paper is to answer the following research questions:

I. Does Tupac Shakur use more AAVE features in the analysed songs?

II. Is there any difference in the use of individual AAVE features between Tupac Shakur and Eminem in the analysed songs?

3. Results

Nine parameters were observed for each song and both artists along with a sociological explanation of each song. In accordance with the aforementioned, results obtained through analysing the selected songs are presented in the following tables. A chart comprising a total number of occurrences (Chart 1) will be presented and analysed in Section 4. Discussion.

3.1.1. Tupac Shakur

Tupac Amaru Shakur, born Lesane Parish Crooks (June 16, 1971 - September 13, 1996), also known by his stage names 2Pac and Makaveli, was and perhaps still is one of the most influential an American rappers. Shakur has sold over 70 million records worldwide, placing him among best-selling artists in the United States. Both of his parents and relatives were members of the Black Panther Party, whose ideals were reflected in his songs and poetry. Shakur was born in the East Harlem, Manhattan in New York City. In 1972, he was renamed after the last Incan emperor, Túpac Amaru II, the 18th-century Peruvian revolutionary who was executed after leading a rebellion against the Spanish rule. Tupac’s mother was acquitted of more than 150 charges of "Conspiracy against the United States government and New York landmarks" in the New York Panther 21 court case. Shakur lived from an early age with people who were involved with the Black Liberation Army and convicted of serious offenses and who were imprisoned.

When he was twelve, Shakur enrolled in Harlem's 127th Street Repertory Ensemble. In 1986, the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. After completing his second year at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, he transferred to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he studied acting, jazz, poetry, and ballet. Shakur became known for explicitly expressing anger on his records and in his personal life. He often emphasized his disappointment with the U.S. system and its mistreating of African-Americans, as in the songs analysed in this paper. In his career, he had a sequence of felonies and arrests, including a sexual assault accusation case in 1993, upon which he was incarcerated. Shakur was a vocal participant during the East Coast- West Coast hip hop rivalry, becoming involved in conflicts with other rappers, producers, and record-label staff. On September 7, 1996, Shakur was fatally shot in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada.4

The five selected songs by Tupac Shakur's were: Changes, White Man's World, Ghetto Gospel, Keep Ya Head Up and Until the End of Time. Tupac Shakur's use of different AAVE forms noticeably varies from one song to another, possibly due to the seriousness and/or social relevance of the song.

3.1.2. “Changes”

„Changes" was a ground-breaking song released in 1998 featuring Talent. As was mentioned in Tupac's biography, he often made references to the reality of African-American status in the 1990s with frequent references to Civil Rights Movement. In “Changes”, he tackles the war on drugs, treatment of black people by the police, the perpetuation of poverty and the value system in urban African American culture and the difficulties of life in the ghetto. "I'm tired of bein' poor and even worse I'm black, my stomach hurts, so I'm lookin' for a purse to snatch", is an illustration of how many black people in America live in poverty and are not given as many opportunities to do right so instead they divert to being criminals to make ends meet. When he raps "Cops give a damn about a negro?”, he's touching upon a controversial topic of how African Americans, more commonly African American males were targeted by the police, which was often considered positive crime-fighting in that period. Throughout the song, Tupac aims to inspire his people to join him and take a stand against these issues that are holding his people back. He also expresses his disappointment with his own race for the hate and anger they are surrounded by, he says "I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other. We gotta start makin' changes, learn to see me as a brother 'stead of two distant strangers." It appears as if, at a point in time when African- Americans had no one trying to inspire them take a stand, Tupac tried to rise to the occasion and be a leader for his people. This song is based on Bruce Hornsby's 1986 song "The Way It Is," which also deals with race relations. The "Huey" referred to in this song is Huey P. Newton, the co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party. “G” in this song refers to a “grand”, i.e. $1000, whereas in other songs it refers to “gangsta”, i.e. a gangster.5 An interesting observation is the line “…we ain't ready to see a black President”, as it took over a decade to actually see a black USA president, and the world was not ready even then. This song was selected to be analysed first, since its motifs are repeated through all following songs.

The following number of AAVE forms was found in “Changes”, comprising zero occurrences of profanities and most definitely a high number of both contractions and future “gonna”/”gotta”, and he word “nigga” is only mentioned once in all five songs, that is in “Changes”:

Table 1

illustration not visible in this excerpt

3.1.3. “White Man’s World”

The album The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory (1996), which comprises this song, was released under Tupac’s alias, Makaveli, derived from Niccolo Machiaveli.6 “White Man’s World” explicitly deals with the reality of blacks, being full of anger because they feel as if imprisoned. Again, he makes a reference to the possibility of him saving his people, saying “Help me raise my black nation”. The background and the message behind this song are identical to the ones in “Changes”.

The following number of AAVE forms was found in “White Man’s World”, with only one profanity, a single multiple negation, and relatively similar number of other features, except the word “nigga”:

Table 2

illustration not visible in this excerpt

3.1.4. “Ghetto Gospel”

“Ghetto Gospel” was originally released as the second single on his posthumous 2004 album Loyal to the Game. It samples Elton John's 1971 hit, "Indian Sunset".7 The song was written by Tupac Shakur as an call to "end the war on the streets", addressing the senselessness of racial difference, particularly under the cover of poverty: “Tell me do you see that old lady ain't it sad, living out a bag, but she's glad for the little things she has”. In addition, Tupac pays tribute to murdered black activists Malcolm X and Bobby Hutton in the song. Robert James Hutton, or "Lil' Bobby" (April 21, 1950 - April 6, 1968) was the treasurer and first recruit to join the Black Panther Party. The lyrics discuss the evil Tupac perceived in society and state a number of reasons our lives are ruled by fear. He emphases the problem of children growing up in the “ghetto.” Tupac states his vision for a better tomorrow: „ Before we find world peace, we gotta find peace and end the war in the streets”. He is possibly again calling out to African- Americans to look up to his words and follow him with the following verses: “Those who wish to follow me, I welcome with my hands. And the red sun sinks at last into the hills of gold, and peace to this young warrior without the sound of guns


1 Wardhaugh, Ronald. An Introduction to Sociolingusitcs - Third Edition. London: Blackwell Publishers. 1998. page 333.

2 "The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed | An Online Reference Guide to African American History by Professor Quintard Taylor, University of Washington." The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed | An Online Reference Guide to African American History. Blackpast.org, n.d. Web. 17 May 2016.

3 Tate, Greg. "Hip-hop." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 2 June 2016.

4 A&E Networks Television. "Tupac Shakur." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 14 May 2016

5 Songfacts LLC. "Songfacts - List of Songs by 2Pac." Songfacts - List of Songs by 2Pac. Songfacts LLC, n.d. Web. 3 June 2016.

6 A&E Networks Television. "Tupac Shakur." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 14 May 2016

7 Ibid.


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Title: A Sociolinguistic Study of Hip Hop. AAVE Features in Songs by Tupac Shakur and Eminem