After releasing his sophomore album Heavy Is the Head at the end of last year, UK rapper Stormzy ventured stateside to promote his work. Between making his US TV debut on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and sitting down to talk with esteemed radio host Charlamagne tha God, Big Mike’s marketing efforts seemed to have gone down wonderfully — but naysayers on Twitter were aggrieved with the way that the rapper communicated himself.
“How does Stormzy rap. But stutter when speaking [sic],” wrote one user. “Stormzy is way too inarticulate for a rapper, waffles in circles before getting to his point,” commented another. In typical Stormzy fashion, he took to the platform to defend himself: “Yes I stutter and sometimes I struggle to get my sentences off, my brain moves fast and I wanna make sure I’m saying the right thing so sometimes I verbally trip over myself,” he tweeted.
The rapper is part of a growing number of hip-hop artists who are actively outspoken when it comes to their socio-political standpoints. Famously, Kanye West has worn a Make America Great Again hat and expressed his desire to run in the next presidential election, while Cardi B has also taken to Twitter to voice her opinions on the current state of Congress. Despite being hugely successful within their field, both have come under fire for supposedly lacking the articulation needed to effectively partake in political discourse. In Cardi B’s case, notable Trump supporter Mindy Robinson even responded to the rapper’s thoughts, with a subedited version of one of her tweets and the comment: “You’re going to need more school than that.”
From members of the public to fellow celebrities, rappers are receiving flack for the way that they communicate outside of their work more than artists from any other genre — and this can largely be attributed to their use of slang. “Slang stands in contrast to the standard variety of a language — the variety typically constructed by the dominant group in a society and associated with education, business, government, and mass media,” explains John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at dictionary.com. “So, what are we judging when we judge slang? The people who are using it: the groups with less access to opportunity and power who are historically oppressed.”
In the UK, this backlash over slang use has been particularly felt by members of the grime scene in recent years. In reaction to Grenfell and the Windrush scandal, which are both incidents steeped in racial politics, rappers have taken to social media and appeared on television to express the disaffection coming from BAME communities. Grime artist Marci Phonix featured on Channel 4 News in 2018 to discuss the injustice of Windrush with MP Kwasi Kwarteng. In response to his argument, a disgruntled viewer commented: “Spare us from the ramblings of inarticulate grime artists/rappers because there are believe it or not, thinkers/intellectuals within the BAME community that have an opinion on this.”
Similarly, rapper Hassan Matthews, also known as Saskilla, publicly supported the Grime4Corybn campaign and partook in Grime4Grenfell, a charity event held to generate money for survivors of the tower block fire. To promote both causes, Saskilla appeared on the BBC news segment VictoriaLIVE several times. “Theresa May don’t care about the mandem, she don’t care about the gyaldem; she don’t even care about black people,” he was captured saying on camera. “I believe it’s essential that rappers talk about important issues if they are affecting [their] fans,” says Saskilla. “My mother brought me up to be somebody who has always spoken my mind and never shied away from having tough conversations, and that’s how we all should be.”
This propensity for black men within hip-hop to use their platform to speak freely has often led to them being stereotypically branded, too. The most obvious contemporary example of this is Momodou Jallow, otherwise known as J Hus. Like his peers, the rapper often addresses issues related to race, class, and education within his songs. His latest album Big Conspiracy includes notable track “Deeper Than Rap,” in which he spits: “I’m just a roadman so why am I preachin’?” – a line which purposefully calls into question this false notion that the act of rappers voicing their opinions is somehow ludicrous.
On social media, J Hus is known for posting equally bold statements. In response to his musings, he’s often described as a “Hotep” — a term used to define a person who advocates for radical black nationalism. “The term trivializes comments made and sometimes can bypass and obstruct the very real need for critical discussions around certain issues,” explains music journalist Nicolas Tyrell. “The tendency to circulate corresponding Hotep-inspired memes further makes a mockery of J Hus’ statements — it’s a way of invalidating his speech by using humor as a veil.”
Given the origins of hip-hop, this chastisement of outspoken rappers is ironic, to say the least. Since its inception, the genre has been a vital tool for people of color to communicate feelings of discontentment. “Rap music puts a lyricist front and center, providing an extended stage for expression,” explains Kelly. “The emphasis on hook brings the listener in, the beat inspires movement — all this creates energy on top of the fact that humans love to follow along with a character.” Old school hip-hop collectives from the ’80s and ’90s were characteristically vociferous: Public Enemy released music that was distinctly pro-Black, while N.W.A rattled politicians and the police alike with their debut album Straight Outta Compton.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the rise of mumble rap has been rebuked by followers of original hip-hop. Popularized by the likes of Future, Migos and Playboi Carti, this form of music is distinctive for the fact that the vocal delivery is largely inaudible. Back in 2018, rapper J. Cole caused a stir with his album KOD and its outro track “1985.” The song’s lyrics translate as a direct attack against this nascent hip-hop sub-genre: “I hear your music and I know that rap’s changed / A bunch of folks would say that that’s a bad thing / ‘Cause everything’s commercial and it’s pop now / Trap drums is the shit that’s hot now.”
In a sense, mumble rap has helped to perpetuate the idea that rappers are fundamentally ineloquent. However, some believe that it’s a novel means of communication that shouldn’t be overlooked. “Like genres such as drill, mumble rap to a certain extent operates by shortening words and manifesting new phraseology,” explains Tyrell. “One can’t deny the impact and space that has been allowed for the genre and it’s continued influence on talent set to dominate this next decade, such as Baby Keem.”
As an art form, rap is lyrical in its basis — meaning that it’s inherently a vehicle to translate a message. Although rap is a structured format that can be diligently crafted in comparison to natural speech, which is rife with fillers and mistakes, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Take Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. The rapper offers insight into life for black Americans by intentionally using the group’s vernacular.
In a sense, rap is also often used as a means of retaliating against prejudice, so to judge rappers on the way that they speak is to invalidate their craft and the empowering effect that the genre has — especially on marginalized communities. So, for those still intent on critiquing rappers for the way that they orally express themselves in any format, Stormzy said it best: “So yeah go on and laugh at me you bunch of cunts.”