(S)language, Drill and Global Blackness

Language and identity

Language is fundamental for the expression of culture and is therefore, an essential part of cultural identity. It is a method by which we pass on our deepest self from generation to generation. It is through language that we communicate and express and reflects our lived experiences, engrained in our own cultural values and those of our communities. Language, both code and context, is a complicated dance among internal and external interpretations of identity.

Language imparts through culture and culture, likewise is conveyed through language: Michael Silverstein (1998) suggests that culture’s available power works to contextualise parts of reality and connect one context with another. As such, communication is not just the utilisation of images that “represent” convictions, emotions, personalities, or events; it is additionally a method of bringing beliefs, feelings, and identities into a current context.

In this blog, language is explored within the context of Drill/Trap music, as a way of examining culture, contexts, and deeper meanings. As such, language provides a conduit into nuanced contexts and experiences and provides a lens through which to examine and understand specific cultures.

The global spread of drill/trap music is the worldwide spread of African American culture. Bozza (2003) notes that Hip-hop is and always will be a culture of African American minorities but has become an international language that connects and defines countless teenagers’ self-image.

While then, Drill might be argued to have been culturally globalised, much of the sociolinguistic literature on global flows of popular music focus exclusively on the so-called ‘Global Hip-hop Nation’ (GHHN). GHHN is an imaginary transnational community mediated by the use and appreciation of hip-hop music, dance, dress, graffiti and other semiotic systems (Alim, 2009; Pennycock, 2007).

Alim (2006) notes the way linguistically; the global hip-hop nation is a construct built on Smitherman’s (1997) Hip-hop Nation Language (HHNL). At the heart of which are, a set of poetic, rhetorical practices such as improvisational rhyming and sampling first coalesced in the United States and subsequently appropriated by artists in other countries who created ‘HHNL varieties’ (Alim, 2009: 5). The schism between hip hop (nation) and drill reflects broader differences in soft power, and ultimately, societal appeal.

Hip Hop, Language and Post-colonial Identity

As other performers and audiences have embraced Hip Hop, critics have asked whether hip-hop appropriation by white individuals is likely to promote progressive, anti-racist social change (Cutler, 1999) or further marginalise Drill sub-genres. Outside the United States, in societies dominated by people of colour, local appropriations of hip-hop are often evaluated and framed in terms of globalisation’s cultural politics.

Mikhail Barkhtin (1981) notes that the use of a common language for hip hop acts as a metaphor for globalising tendencies of hip-hop posits a unity of purpose and practices. Elsewhere, ‘HHNL’ tensions reflect the fluid changes — centripetal and centrifugal forces — that occur and exert pressures on both unification and dispersal.

For example, Tope Omoniyi (2006: 201) describes the way African hip-hop artists alternating use of pidgin (Nigerian pidgin — Yoruba and Igbo), Creole and Black English as ‘situating of the local-domestic in the global public sphere’, noting this as “codeswitching” practices, which are an intrinsic part of the modern Afro-Caribbean dialect of HHNL (2009: 128). For instance, Grammy awarded artist Burna boy in his song “bank on it” he states:


You can bank on it

You can put a hundred grand pon it

Anything I said, I stand pon it

In a private plane, I land pon it

Le le ooh, dem dey call me Bankole

’Cause I walk around with a bank on me

Show them Gangnam style, put the gang on ‘em

Twist my fingers up and bang on ‘em

Le le ooh, le le ooh, le le ooh

Burna Boy utilises a pun for this line or a play of words. He utilises “Bankole” as a signifier to appraise his riches. As he follows the line up with “cos I walk around with a bank on me”. Bankole likewise turns out to be a name in the Yoruba dialect of Nigeria. Notably, Sabur Oladimeji Bankole is a Nigerian politician who is the youngest Speaker in the House's history.

For Bakhtin, (2009) such variations reflect a wider desire to deviate from the ruling elite’s standardised language. Omoniyi (2009) observes similar features in African hip-hop where pidgin and creole indexes a resistance to the hegemony of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the global hip-hop scene and the prevailing language of post-colonial African elites.

However, when American hip-hop artists index locality, they typically refer to a geographical entity — neighbourhood, city, state, or region (see Forman, 2002). There is other examples of this in practice e.g., artist Pa Salieu (2020) “over there” song from his debut album “Send Them To Coventry”.

[Verse 1]

Mon frère mon frère, you can get corn any time of day

Brudda you affi relate

Where I’m from, you see lies in the eyes of men

When you talk too much, you expose yourself

Tell me why you insist to be prey

Mo-most man made it too easy

I come from a city of violence

Nigga this ain’t Cunch, this is C-O-V

Ideologically, Kachru and Welson’s (2006) work on understanding creole languages and continua may offer a useful insight here as a ‘subvariety’ of American English. In practice, Creole languages (AAVE) cascade but deviate as they do so i.e. where language seeps from the centre into different communities changing as it diversifies. Here, severe creole analysis development and decreolisation works (Ewer, 1996; Mufwene, 2001; Rickford, 1997) suggest that creole-based languages, carrying numerous Afro-Atlantic languages, have gradually gained English similarities over time. Thus, the issue is highly polemical.

The development of hip-hop in Africa is merely a return to its roots (Perry, 2004, 17–19) rightly critiques’ romantic afro-Atlanticism.’ for overlooking the point that ‘black Americans as a community do not consume imported music from other cultures in large numbers. Thus ultimately, the post-colonial Afro-Atlantic hip-hop community is a great aspiration rather than reality. Besides, this may overlook that African American hip-hop is only a part of a much wider circuit of musical and cultural influences.

Such models miss the undeniably more dynamic role pidgin and creole play, barring much of world English. Mufwene (2001, 107) notes that the individuals who speak them’ racial identity rather than how variables develop and the extent of their primary deviations.

Localisation: conflict, commitment and change

The geographical considerations of language raise wider questions about what it means for drill/trap to become localised. There are obvious implications for understanding drill/trap within anthropology and linguistics, particularly worries about the global spread of the English language. By becoming localised — through adopting cultural or linguistic forms — one might argue that we might unwittingly dismiss the dynamics of conflict, commitment and change.

Robbins (2001) notes that in trying to understand the relationship between tradition and modernity, anthropologists tend to emphasise localisation processes and appropriation so that aspects of modernity become localised no matter what. In contrast, it might be tempting to follow this line of thought in drill localisation, thus suggesting that keeping it real means keeping things culturally local. Pennycock (2007) echoes Robbins concerns in noting that ‘when local cultures cut modernity to fit their dimensions, this is problematic.

In the context of Drill, this might infer Drill losing its shape (sound) to such an extent that it becomes something else. It suggests that when local practices of music, dance, storytelling, and works of art encounter diversifying forms of globalised hip-hop, they enable the recreation of what it means to be local and counts as global at the same time.

Language localisation

Language plays an important role, but in more complex ways than an assumption that English implies globalisation and other languages local appropriations — it is a typical process for the localisations of hip-hop to involve moving into other languages (Mitchell, 2003; Pennycock, 2007).

Language and the three spheres of drill

Looking at Drill through the lenses of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis implies approaching Drill as discourse; that is a ‘complex area of practices’ (Fairclough, 1995: 185) in which social knowledge and social realities are produced, reproduced and transformed through a variety of speech genres and mediated by a variety of communication technologies.

Drill’s traditional ‘four elements’ (breaking/ break-dancing, JDing, Rappering or emceeing) and writing rely on performance modes beyond language such as visual representation, sound, movement and technical manipulation of objects. It seems hard then to look at language in isolation.

Even within this broader context, and as hip-hop specialists note, local articulation outside of the United States, departs from the ‘original’ form when measured on language decision, melody theme, social references and sampling practices (Androutsopoulos, 2003a; Kimminich, 2003; Mitchell, 2001). This is based on researchers utilising ‘vertical intertextuality’ (Fiske 1987)to build up a comprehension of Drill as an arrangement of three interrelated ‘spheres’ of discourse: (i) Artists expression (primary text); (ii) media discourse (secondary text); and (iii) discourse between drill fans and activism (tertiary text) while horizontal in textuality captures quotations, references and other processes of ‘textual sampling’ that are ubiquitous in drill lyrics and songs (Mikos, 2003; Roth-Gordon, 2009).

Mitchell (2001) notes rap outside the United States goes through linguistic ‘emancipation’. By this it is meant, early attempts in English, are for the most part, followed by a move to the artist native language(s). This doesn’t prompt a monolingual local rap scene, however; it sets up the local/national language as a default against which other language may acquire emblematic importance.

Language in the second sphere: ‘stylistic splits’ in media discourse

Thornton (1996) delimits the secondary sphere (or text) as ‘niche media’, such as dedicated magazines, broadcast shows, commercial websites, and ‘micro media’ such as non-profit groups, internet blogs, flyers, or cover art (cf mainstream media niche media and micro media as constitutive of a drill open arena). Drill must therefore continually negotiate the conflicting relationship between street culture and the exigencies of media and advertising. Therefore, a central aspect of language in the secondary text is how speech that is characteristic of professional journalism is articulated with those that identify and associated with the drill culture.

In this interaction, Drill’s primary (expressions) and tertiary (discourse) spheres offers assets that media entertainers may draw upon e.g. a broadcaster’s use of complex drill discourse, for example, the celebration of ‘resistance vernacular’ (Potter, 1995) the creative combination of language styles and the aesthetic to linguistics structure.

A less explored area of the tertiary arena is computer-mediated-communication (CMC) which is used extensively across the globe as an additional ‘means of representing critiquing and contradicting the images and issues of drill culture’ (Richardson & Lewis, 2000: 251; Richardson, 2006).

English ‘from below’: a cross-sphere ‘global’ identity resource

English is a hallmark of the interplay of the global and local drill discourse — English is a set of linguistic resources embedded in the respective national language through borrowing, code-switching, or code-mixing (cf Androutsopolos, 2004; 2007). The headline also illustrates how English goes past lexical getting to incorporate formulae, mottos, and different pieces, such as emblematic, formulaic, and code-switching.

English in drill discourse can be seen as ‘English from below’, a term coined by (Peisler 1999: 251) to note ‘the informal-active or passive-use of English’ as an expression of subcultural identity and style In contrast to ‘English from above’, which is promoted by the hegemonic culture for international communication. English from below is motivated by ‘the desire to symbolise subcultural identity or affiliation and peer group solidarity (Preisler, 1999).


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a practising academic writer covering topics surround race culture policies regarding urban UK culture.

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