Caribbean Identity Construction in Pop Music
For some time now, I have been working on Caribbean identity construction in pop music alongside writing my doctoral thesis. After being invited by The Guardian to comment on Rihanna’s linguistic performance in Work in 2016 (thanks to this very blog), I consulted with my colleague Dr. Michael Westphal and we explored and developed this up-to-date and very fruitful topic pooling our expertise.
Most recently, we conducted a multimodal sociolinguistic investigation of Caribbean identity construction in pop music focusing on language production as well as perception. Our data comprised one song each by Rihanna (Work) and Nicki Minaj (Give It All to Me) as well as one interview with Rihanna, in which she describes how she accommodated her language behavior moving to the USA, and a ‘behind-the-scenes’ video showing Nicki Minaj performing Jamaican Creole .
We aimed to find out
- which linguistic resources do Rihanna and Minaj use in their performances? Is there a pattern?
- which other modalities are used to construct their pop persona?
- How are the performances perceived by the audience?
- an analysis of accent, grammar, lexicon for Work, Give It All to Me, Nicki Minaj behind the scenes, and metalinguistic comments of Rihanna on her accent. Below, a list of the reference literature used to identify various linguistic resources:
- Caribbean English Creole (Kortmann & Lunkenheimer 2013; Wells 1982)
- Jamaican Creole (henceforth JC) (Devonish & Harry 2008; Patrick 2008)
- Bajan (Blake 2008)
- Trinidadian Creole (Youssef & James 2008; James & Youssef 2008)
- African American English (Green 2002) & hip hop (Richardson 2006)
- Americanized singing style (Simpson 1999)
- a visual analysis of Work and Give It All to Me
- clothing, dances, Caribbean tropes – display of pop personas
- a perception study of YouTube comments
- criteria for comment selection: language and identity
- qualitative content analysis – inductive coding
We conclude that
- both artists show combination of different linguistic resources but there is no complete blend of resources from different varieties. The type or mode of performing, i.e. singing, rapping, talking is a decisive factor for the choices of different resources (patterned mixture of features).
- JC plays a central role for performing Caribbean identity, no matter where exactly the artist has their roots in the Caribbean. JC carries the symbolic function of Caribbeanness. The more JC features are used (especially morpho-syntactic and less prototypical features) the less intelligible the performance is for the greater part of the audience.
- the videos display clear cultural references to the Caribbean in playing with classic stereotypes, exoticizing the Caribbean, and commodifying such tropes.
- that the YouTube comment section is a place for intense metalinguistic discussions of performed language and identity. For Rihanna’s and Minaj’s performances we can observe the formation of an in-group (directly or indirectly identified as Caribbean), which is very sensitive to different linguistic resources and uses the comment section to define and strengthen a Caribbean group identity; and an outgroup, which mainly discussed matters of intelligibility ranging from neutral questions to linguistic discrimination.
Furthermore, we show that
- performance data are open to multiple sociolinguistic influences and display the dense interaction of different linguistic and cultural resources. Pop culture products are worth studying because they condense and remix these diverse resources.
- social media give insight into language ideologies. Media effects our engagement with language and language ideological worlds. Moreover, it invites for interaction, such as negotiating identities. And, since the internet grants anonymity, it also puts linguistic discrimination on display.
Our take-home message:
Take pop performances seriously!
They are a window into the complexities of globalization.
 Nicki Minaj features in Give It All to Me, a song by Jamaican artist Movado.
 In this video, she imitates a Jamaican woman from another video. Minaj’s performance went viral and fans reposted this excerpt.
Blake, Reneé. 2008. Bajan: Phonology. In Edgar Schneider (ed.), Varieties of English 2: The Americas and the Caribbean (pp. 312–319). Berlin: de Gruyter.
Devonish, Hubert and Otelemate G. Harry. 2008. Jamaican Creole and Jamaican English: Phonology. In Edgar Schneider (ed.), Varieties of English 2: The Americas and the Caribbean (pp. 256–289). Berlin: de Gruyter.
Green, Lisa. 2002. African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
James, Winford and Valerie Youssef. 2008. The creoles of Trinidad and Tobago: Morphology and Syntax. In Edgar Schneider (ed.), Varieties of English 2: The Americas and the Caribbean (pp. 661–692). Berlin: de Gruyter.
Kortmann, Bernd and Kerstin Lunkenheimer (eds). 2013. The Mouton world atlas of variation in English. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Patrick, Peter. 2008. Jamaican Creole: Morphology and syntax. In In Edgar Schneider (ed.), Varieties of English 2: The Americas and the Caribbean (pp. 609–644). Berlin: de Gruyter.
Richardson, Elaine B. 2006. Hiphop literacies. London: Routledge.
Simpson, Paul. 1999. Language, culture and identity: With (another) look at accents in pop and rock singing. Multilingua 18 (4): 343–367.
Wells, John C. 1982. Accents of English 3: Beyond the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Youssef, Valerie and Winford James. 2008. The creoles of Trinidad and Tobago: Phonology. In Edgar Schneider (ed.), Varieties of English 2: The Americas and the Caribbean (pp. 320–338). Berlin: de Gruyter.