For a kid born and raised in Mississippi, it was odd to watch BET’s Rap City, MTV’s Yo!, and other mainstream music outlets bend south in the mid to late ‘90s when hip-hop was still east and west coast dominated. The Third Coast — as the Deep South would come to be called — was still little more than a third wheel. At that time, rap in the south was an interregional phenomenon: A game of underground, homegrown syndicates hubbed in New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, and Atlanta and propelled by tape-swapping and word of mouth. It was grassroots.
In 1995 when OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik managed to reach platinum status despite the opinions of industry purists who “talked down” on southern hip-hop, it was a harbinger signaling an outgrowth of the subgenre’s mere interregional appeal. Andre was still “Dre” sans 3000 at The Source Awards in August 1995 when he and Big Boi won Best New Rap Group — and were met with the heckles instead of applause from an elitist New York hip-hop audience. Dre’s brazen, quick-witted response to their chagrin was a declaration that would be heralded as a royal rap mandate for decades ahead.
Chances are, you’re already familiar with the line I’m talking about — the one most often quoted as:
“The South got somethin’ to say.”
To state what should be the obvious, the above quote is not what Andre said.
What he said was “…Da Souf got sum to say…”
Indeed, Andre’s words foretold a seismic industry shift that saw hip-hop proper’s country cousin birth two decades of platinum-certified, chart-topping records that would not only come to dominate east coast airwaves, but indelibly influence the aesthetic future of its entire rap scene — marking the sonic and production styles of a host of east coast rappers and producers (Kool G Rap, P Diddy, Jay-Z, Dipset, 50 Cent, etc.) who readily embraced the culture and commercial viability of the very locale their regional comrades initially boo’d from the mainstream stage.
On the twenty-third anniversary of one of the most talked-about statements in hip-hop history, it’s mind-boggling to imagine that of the numerous academic essays and mainstream think pieces written over the course of two decades mentioning Andre’s words, not one of them transcribes the line as it was actually spoken. Furthermore, it’s proof that mistranslations as subtle as this one can linger forever undetected or, worse, appear innocuous: A simple means of standardizing slang, a harmless “editorial” measure.
In reality, this sort of quiet erasure constitutes the type of centuries-old intellectual violence Black artforms have always been subject to; the kind that occurs when a member of an outside (or colonizing) culture commodifies a minority culture’s way of life. As it pertains to mainstream musings on hip-hop, the furious frenzy of white writers, editors, and academics writing about hip-hop find themselves at a cultural impasse during the transcription and interpretation process.
In 2010, for example, Yale published The Anthology Of Rap, a tome of hip-hop lyrics edited by Andrew Dubois and Adam Bradley, two white professors. In the book’s introduction, the editors position the anthology as a response to the “unmet need for accurate transcriptions” lacking in “user-generated lyric databases,” before conceding that “undoubtedly small errors remain in even the most scrupulous efforts,” theirs included. Shortly thereafter, Slate published an article highlighting the anthology’s numerous transcription errors; among them, errata on radio and cult hits like Nas’ “Ether,” and the complete omission of Black female rappers like Remy Ma.
Journalists and academics who wrote about the prophetic foresight of Andre’s proclamation are not all wrong. They omit, however, that how Andre delivered the statement was just as important as the statement itself. Ironically enough, it wasn’t even a poetic line from a rap song that was mistranscribed, but Andre’s natural native speech. The mistranslation scrubs his words so clean of their distinct dialect that it’s not apparent, without context, that a Black southerner is even speaking; it effectively erases the race, region, and culture of the speaker — all important factors in the case of a statement precipitating the rise and influence of an entire region of hip-hop.
Dre’s insistence on using his native vernacular in a physical and intellectual space where he was both literally and figuratively an “outcast,” was two-fold. For one, it was as good as any middle finger to the status quo. Secondly, it was a clarification that Dre was speaking on behalf of a specific audience (what we’d refer to in “Da Souf” as “his folks”). The willful mistranslation of Andre’s words as “the south got somethin’ to say” was a means of modifying his “southern slang” into a standard form palatable enough for a mainstream hip-hop audience and simultaneously erases the very audience Andre was prophesying for and about — the people who wouldn’t be confused about what he said or how he said it.
Though finding an instance of correct transcription on the internet simply loops one back to the misquote, a Twitter search turns up a number of users transcribing Andre’s words as they were spoken:
So why is it that rap’s greatest moments are retold almost exclusively through a gaze that dilutes them for a white mainstream? Why did two white Ivy League professors feel confident in their abilities to curate an anthology of rap? I’m reminded of an African proverb I first laid eyes on in the writings of Chinua Achebe: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Compare the relatively small presence of Black writers in mainstream journalism and academia to the massive number of white writers writing about Black culture and the lion’s plight seems nearly insurmountable, the blame for such misrepresentation easy to deduce.
In a 2016 piece for Medium entitled “On the dearth of Black hip-hop writers at mainstream outlets,” writer Andre J. Gee takes some well-known American media outlets to task for their lack of Black writers. He references producer Temisan Adoki who created a study sparked by a series of Kanye tweets insisting that certain “white publications” refrain from writing about Black music.
To Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, New York Times, and any other white publication. Please do not comment on Black music anymore.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
I love love love white people but you don’t understand what it means to be the great grandson of ex slaves and make it this far.
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) February 15, 2016
According to Gee, the results of Adoki’s study were jarring: “…Of the 193 names he had come across via Pitchfork’s masthead, a Complex “Best Music of 2015” list, and Linkedin profiles, he found just 13 Black writers and editors between Rolling Stone, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, Spin, Fader, and GQ. 4 each at Pitchfork and Complex. 2 each at Noisey and Spin. 1 at GQ and a whopping 0 on staff at Rolling Stone.”
That there are more non-Black people in mainstream arenas writing about Black music than Black people, resulting in a girth of mistranslations and misrepresentations could signal that Complex and other publications and blogs that have mis-transcribed Andre’s words might have been less likely to do so if their staff included more Black people, just as Yale’s rap anthology might have benefited from a more diverse research and editorial team. But better access to mainstream writing spaces for Black people writing about hip-hop is only half the battle. The other half is the actual decolonization of the cultural whiteness that hip-hop media outlets are already subscribed to. Without it, the few Black writers who manage to gain access to these spaces are still bound to linguistic and interpretive standards that largely prohibit things like transcribing in dialect.
As a Black woman born and raised in Mississippi, who happened to watch southern hip-hop grow up in real time, my frustration with the deluge of white writers who make careers of writing about Black culture is how the oversaturation renders Black voices on black art inaudible. The white gaze obscures the details — the real meta-cultural moments of Black identity contained in these works of art — because said gaze is irrevocably destined to interpret through the eyes of an “outsider.”
Journalist Craig Jenkins shared a similar sentiment in 2016 after Kanye released The Life of Pablo and took to The Needle Drop podcast to discuss the lack of Black writers hired by major outlets to review albums by Black artists . Jenkins noted that, at the time, he had only seen two reviews of TLOP by people of color and mentions a 1960 essay by Amiri Baraka, “Jazz And The White Critic,” that calls out a similar phenomenon with another Black-pioneered music genre roughly decades before hip hop’s inception. Baraka writes: “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been.” The absence of Black experience from critiques on Blackness culminates into flattening, because as Jenkins says, there are “certain complexities of the Black experience that you have to have had from being there.”
Jenkins’ point is akin to a line from a poem by Chicago poet Nate Marshall called “learning gang handshakes” when he says: “… shaking up looks like violence / & love. & it is.” To an outsider, a gang handshake has a singular meaning: Violence. But from an insider’s cultural perspective like Marshall’s, shaking up means love, too. I’m not saying that non-Black people or non-southerners can’t write about Black culture or, specifically, southern hip-hop moments. I’m saying that the oversaturation of white voices dominating hip-hop writing creates the perfect petri dish for what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger Of A Single Story.”
In the case of hip-hop writing, the inevitable blind spot embedded within white perspectives, coupled with a severe lack of Black contribution to the mainstream canon, results in a singular, flattened narrative that nurtures mistranslation and misinterpretation. As Adichie points out, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
What Andre said that August night at Madison Square Garden’s Paramount theater was distinctly Black, poor, and southern. He had dropped an entire syllable from the word “something”; had screwed and chopped the end of “south.” He had Creolized and b*tch-slapped and inverted the colonizer’s English in the stance of a warrior. The mistranslation of Andre’s words as “The South got somethin’ to say,” erases the love of this cultural moment — renders it skeletal and monolithic, an error of hunters.
But to me, when Dre stood on that Source Awards stage proudly donning a dashiki to address a booing crowd of “provincial” New York hip-hoppers while refusing to lose his blackity-black southern country slumdog vernacular to conform to the rough, high-gliding vowels of the the award show’s local rap royalty, when he declared that “Da Souf,” as it were, had sum the f*ck to say, it meant love, too.