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How Iggy Azalea mastered her ‘blaccent’

Australian musician Iggy Azalea performing at the 2014 Austin City Limits music festival at Zilker Park in Texas. (Ashley Landis/European Pressphoto Agency)

SURELY, the strangest turn on the music scene in recent years was a white Australian’s ascent to the pinnacle of American hip-hop. For a spell, Iggy Azalea was the Donald Trump of the rap game: racially divisive, prone to ugly rants — and confoundingly popular.

With her debut single “Fancy,” she became only the fourth solo female rapper to ever top the Billboard Hot 100. In 2014, the four-time Grammy nominee held both the first and second spots on the Billboard chart, a feat not even Beyoncé can claim.

The most remarkable thing about Azalea was the audiovisual gimmick: a towering blonde spitting in unmistakably black tones. Hip-hop, of course, has long transcended the African American community, and there is a path for white rappers to channel the music without drawing too many complaints of appropriation. But dialect, the shapes of one’s vowels and the rhythms of one’s speech, is a far more intimate marker of identity.

Many critics found it offensive that Azalea would appropriate an accent so clearly not hers. “It sounds like a big bite to me — the tone of voice,” R&B singer Jill Scott said on “Sway In The Morning.”

“The question is why? Why is her mimicry of sonic Blackness okay?” Brittney Cooper, a culture critic and assistant professor at Rutgers, said in an essay.

Others have compared Azalea’s vocal style to the transgressions of a minstrel act. Rapper Jean Grae described her voice as “verbal blackface.” Last December, Azealia Banks simply tweeted a picture of a minstrel performer with the caption “this is you.”

But if she’s an appropriator, Azalea is at least not a sloppy one.

The “blaccent” controversy, as the rapper Eve called it, recently attracted the attention of linguists Maeve Eberhardt and Kara Freeman, who listened to and analyzed Azalea’s entire discography. In a July paper for the highly regarded Journal of Sociolinguistics, they argue that the rapper’s songs reveal remarkable fluency in the sounds and syntax of what linguists call “African American English.”

Linguists have long identified unique styles of speaking in black communities. AAE has deep roots in American history, shaped by segregation and slavery, by immigration and dimly remembered mother tongues. As Stanford linguistics professor John Rickford points out, the dialect is inseparable from African American culture, celebrated by black authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Baldwin. Rickford has compiled a catalog of features that are distinctive to AAE, as identified by decades of linguistics research.

Not all African Americans, of course, speak AAE, and not everyone who speaks AAE is black. Immigrants speak the dialect they learned in their home countries, perhaps Caribbean- or British- or Kenyan-inflected English. White people who grew up with African American friends may adopt aspects of AAE in their own speech.

Most people who speak AAE also tend to go back and forth between AAE and standard English, depending on the context — if they’re at a family reunion or at a job interview.

As with the dialects of any other group, such as the Pennsylvania Amish or the Cajun in Louisiana, AAE possesses its own subtle patterns of grammar and phonology, distinct from the kind of English heard on the evening news but no less difficult to get right. This is not something that outsiders can replicate easily.

As hip-hop became mainstream, bits of the dialect have spread through television and music. Many Americans have a passing knowledge of AAE, absorbed from hearing T-Pain sing about buying you a drank or RuPaul calling someone Miss Thang. Snatches of AAE now show up in unexpected, and sometimes awkward, places. The film “Superbad” made a joke of it in a scene where a white character embarrasses himself trying to say “fo sho.” Last week, upscale grocer Whole Foods used “errbody” in a tweet about cornbread, and Amtrak tweeted “#NoBiggie, it's an #Amtrak thang.”

According to this new study, Azalea’s songs reflect a far deeper, more sophisticated understanding of how black rappers speak. “We find her using this nuanced representation of African American English,” says Eberhardt, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Vermont. “She does it very well. She uses the features in the right places and in the right contexts.”

Even if her mimicry is offensive, the research appears to confirm something Azalea has been saying all along. Call her culturally naive or overzealous, but she has been an earnest student of at least some aspects of rap.

“I don’t think the voice makes me fake; it makes me an artist,” Azalea, who still speaks in an Australian accent for interviews and did not respond to interview requests for this story, told Complex in 2013. “Voice is my medium. I should have creative rein to do whatever the [heck] I want with it.”

Iggy’s surprisingly solid mimicry

In their paper, the linguists catalog the ways in which Azalea transforms her voice to sound more like an insider. First, there is the configuration of her vowels and consonants, what linguists call phonological features.

Speakers of AAE often drop their “r's” — saying mista instead of “mister,” for instance. They also harden up their "th" sounds — mouf instead of “mouth,” dough instead of “though,” wit instead of “with.” These are well-known features of the dialect, and the linguists say that Azalea goes beyond them. She seems to be fluent with some of AAE's rarer and more subtle speech patterns.

For instance, she adeptly deploys a sound called “monophthongal ai.” Take a word like time, which features a hybrid sound called a diphthong. The word time has two vowels mashed into one. The word starts with an “ah”-sound as in "tar," but ends with an “ee”-sound like in "team." Taah-eeem. Time.

In African American English, the “ai” sound in words like "time" and "rhyme" is abbreviated. People only say the first vowel. So "time" becomes something like tahhm. You hear this several times in “Fancy,” when Azalea says:

Better get my money on time, if they not money, decline
And swear I meant that there so much that they give that line a rewind

But there is a tricky exception to this rule. AAE does not tend to abbreviate the “ai” sound if it comes before certain consonants. The word "life" for instance, is pronounced in AAE as it is in standard English.

Azalea knows exactly when to dip into the drawl, and when a drawl would sound inauthentic. You can hear the difference at the beginning of “Change Your Life”:

You used to dealing with basic [people]
Basic [stuff] all the time
I'm a new classic, upgrade your status
From a standby to a frequent flyer
Pop out your past life, and I'll renovate your future

It’s not just the way that Azalea forms the words in her mouth. The research finds that her lyrics also demonstrate styles of grammar that are common in AAE, but hard for outsiders to pick up on. Here are three examples.

— Tricky usage of “ain’t”: This word is well-known as a substitute for "are notor "is not": “I ain’t going there,” for instance, or “He ain’t your friend.” But the linguists find that Azalea deploys “ain’t” in a rarer way, to indicate past events that never happened. She says things like “He ain’t even graduate.”

— Remote past “BEEN”: Azalea also correctly uses a grammatical construction that linguists call “remote past BEEN,” which indicates that a situation has been continuing for a long time. This is a feature that speakers of standard English often misinterpret. In 1975, Stanford's Rickford, then at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a survey to black and white English speakers. Among the questions was this one:

Someone asked, “Is she married?” and someone else answered, “She BIN married.” Do you get the idea that she is married now?

To most of the white people in the study, that sentence meant that the woman was once married but not anymore. To nearly all of the black people, it meant that the woman had been married for a while and continued to be married.

Azalea correctly uses this expression in her song “Lady Patra." The meaning here, with stress on the word been, is that Azalea has long been rich, not that she lost a fortune and regained it:

--- Warning: video contains explicit lyrics ---
Paper planes, roger that, 10-4
Got money, been had it, still gettin' more

— Habitual “be”: A distinctive feature of AAE is its use of the verb "be" in the unconjugated form. This grammar shows up in sentences such as “She be trippin’ ” or “He be late.” Again, these sentences carry a specific meaning that is often lost on those who are not native speakers of the dialect.

“He be late,” for instance, does not indicate that someone is currently running late; it means that someone is often late. Linguists call this feature of AAE the “habitual be.

“A lot of white kids will just put ‘be’ everywhere," says Cecelia Cutler, an associate professor of linguistics with the City University of New York. “They think that’s how black people talk. They don’t understand the nuances.”

Eberhardt and Freeman find that Azalea, on the other hand, correctly uses the habitual “be” in her lyrics. For instance, in “1 800 Bone,” she deploys it to describe a situation that happens regularly:

--- Warning: video contains explicit lyrics --- 
That [person’s] in my chat room, my chat room be popping,
Turn that chat room to a freak show and that [person] be topless.

Empirical proof that Iggy sounds like she’s trying too hard

In another section of their paper, Eberhardt and Freeman looked at “copula absence.” Unlike the previous examples, copula absence is not an obscure feature of AAE. It's widely known and imitated.

Here's how it works: Often in situations involving the present tense, speakers of AAE skip over the words “is” or “are.” For example:

Standard English: “She is not here.” AAE: “She not here.”
Standard English: “You are crazy.” AAE: “You crazy.”

Copula absence does not happen all the time in AAE. Speakers turn it up or turn it down depending on the situation, on the audience and the image that they want to project.

Those who use it more are the ones trying to project a "street-conscious" sound, the researchers write. And Azalea uses it a lot.

After coming through all the lyrics from her album and mixtapes, the researchers found that Azalea uses this speech pattern three-quarters of the time in her music. That is far more than the black rapper Eve, but about as often as black rappers Juvenile and Trina.

White rapper Eminem, in contrast, rarely ever skips linking verbs in his music, even though he grew up in a racially mixed Detroit neighborhood surrounded by AAE.

That Azalea exceeds Eminem, and even a black rapper such as Eve, who came from Philadelphia, suggests that the Australian Azalea is overcompensating — and may be engaging in "hyper-performance," as the linguists say. It shows how she relies on her accent to make herself sound authentic. “While other white hip-hoppers may be more prudent in their use of AAE, Iggy appears to use AAE overzealously as a central way of positioning herself within hip-hop,” they write.

Cutler, who has studied young white hip-hoppers extensively, says this is a pattern she has also noticed in her research. Often, it is the people the most distant from the black community who use — or overuse — the patterns of AAE. “Sometimes they take this one feature and they beat it to death — as a way to signal that they’ve arrived, that they know what they’re doing, that they’re part of this culture,” she says.

As Cutler documents in her book, “White Hip-Hoppers, Language, and Identity in Post-Modern American,” this strategy often backfires. Imitating AAE too closely invites ridicule because it offends one of hip-hop’s core values — authenticity. There is a sense, Cutler writes, that “respecting ethnolinguistic boundaries is an essential part of ‘keepin’ it real’ because it is an acknowledgement that one is not trying to be black.”

Azalea’s music attracts controversy because it doesn’t respect any of these boundaries. In radio interviews, she speaks in her native Australian twang — but in performance, she switches into a full-strength AAE accent. And she has been particularly unapologetic about adopting features of African American speech and black culture to further her career.

When Complex asked her about her accent a few years ago, Azalea responded infamously: “If you’re mad about it, and you’re a black person, then start a rap career and give it a go, too. I’m not taking anyone’s spot, so make yourself a mixtape.”

“Or maybe if you’re black,” she continued, “start singing like a country singer and be a white person. I don’t know. Why is it such a big deal?”

Iggy as an example of the wrong way to be ‘real’

One outstanding question from the linguists’ research is where Azalea learned to rap like that — and whether she even writes her own lyrics. "She's showing such versatile, wide-ranging uses of African American English features," says Sonya Fix, an assistant professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design. "These are not features that we see a lot of whites using. But Iggy's using them all over the place.”

Many in the past have accused the rapper of using ghostwriters. Fix says this evidence is more reason to suspect that Azalea gets substantial help with her songs. “It's like, how does she even pick up on this? How does she have access to some of these relatively obscure features?" Fix says. “This, to me, raises red flags about authorship.”

Azalea was born Amethyst Kelly in Sydney and lived in Australia until she was 16, when she dropped out of high school and moved to Miami to pursue a music career. She traveled around the region, spending time in Atlanta and Houston.

Now 25, she has said that her rapping voice resulted from her closeness to hip-hop music and culture. “I lived in the South for five years; you pick up things from your surroundings and teachers,” she told online magazine the Pop Manifesto in 2012. “The people who taught me to rap are all from the South and so was the music I had listened to as a teen.”

It is not surprising, of course, that a motivated person can learn a dialect. Hollywood actors often hire coaches to help them nail, say, a Welsh or a New York accent. The process takes time and effort, but it can be done. Eberhardt and Freeman's research is evidence of Azalea's zeal. The data suggest that Azalea has painstakingly practiced the way she speaks in her performances. Other white rappers have largely avoided this kind of dialect work — not because they are incapable of it, perhaps, but because it's a sensitive matter.

Last year, Roots frontman Questlove defended Azalea’s music, telling Time magazine: “You know, we as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture. If you love something, you gotta set it free.” But even Questlove said he found something about her accent unsettling.

“Part of me hopes she grows out of that and says it with her regular dialect — I think that would be cooler,” he said.

Eberhardt says that Azalea’s accurate use of AAE does not excuse her from being criticized for appropriation. “Maybe you could say she’s being respectful of the dialect, but she’s doing this without any kind of critical reflection,” she says. “The way that she’s taken this language and this culture wholesale and used it to fuel her fame and fortune is disrespectful.”

And critics say that is the broader problem with Azalea. Although she apparently has a diligent grasp of AAE, her understanding of race and hip-hop culture is much spottier. They point to racially insensitive lyrics, such as when Azalea called herself a “runaway slave … master.” Fellow rapper Banks scolded her for staying silent in the wake of the Ferguson protests.

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, contrasts Azalea and Eminem, who he says has adroitly navigated hip-hop culture as a white man. “There was recognition of who he was and where he fit,” he says. “He’s someone who has done a good job of being reverent of the music and its history.”

Moreover, Boyd says, Eminem used hip-hop as inspiration, not as a template to copy off. “When you listen to Eminem rap, he's rapping about his own personal struggles. It’s not the typical narrative. These are themes specific to who he is,” Boyd says.

Azalea doesn't seem to have much of a point of view. She raps about hip-hop tropes such as being the "realest" and the "murda bizness." Her 2014 album "The New Classic," received a mixed 56 out of a 100 on Metacritic, with some calling it a "schtick" and "heavily manufactured."

While Azalea sat atop the music charts last year, the United States' own problems with race were coming into sharper focus. Against the backdrop of police shootings and reinvigorated black activism, critics unearthed old tweets in which Azalea used the n-word, or made jokes about black people and fried chicken: "Just saw 5 black men get arrested out the front of popeyes. #damn #stereotypes."

Insiders tried to explain the situation to her. “[H]iphop is fun it's vile it's dance it's traditional it's light hearted but 1 thing it can never detach itself from is being a SOCIO-Political movement,” rapper and producer Q-Tip said to her last year in a series of tweets about the history of hip-hop. Azalea responded with a subtweet calling the episode “patronizing.”

That exchange marked the beginning of the fall of Azalea’s career. Her mentor, T.I., has revealed that he privately cut ties with her after those remarks to Q-Tip. This summer, she was forced to cancel her tour for lack of ticket sales.

“Hip-hop culture has always done a great job of policing itself,” Boyd says. “After a while, if you’re wack, you’re going to be held accountable. She was wack. And that’s what happened.”

Azalea has spoken about the hard work she put into her craft. The process of learning to rap similar to her black mentors "took a long, long time," she told Gawker in 2012. But no matter how realistic her rapping voice became, it would never belong to her. Instead of earning her credibility, Azalea’s use of the “blaccent” only highlighted how foreign she was.

"It would be dope to hear her with her swag," the rapper Eve said on Sway in January, echoing Questlove's comments. "What are you, who are you, what is that?"

The lesson from Azalea's career is that accuracy and authenticity don't always mean the same thing. Boyd, for one, said it was utterly unremarkable to him that Azalea could learn AAE fluently. The surprise is that she would strain herself to adopt this artificial voice, instead of finding her own.

"You can't try to be authentic," Boyd says. "Either you are or you aren't."

“You can listen to someone's records. You can learn the way they speak. You can imitate that until you're very good at it," he says. "But at no point does that change who you are. You are still an imitator.”