The Role of Language and Popular Culture in Civility

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

During the fall semester of 2009, a developmental writing student, who had previously been charged with academic dishonesty, submitted a second assignment in which he had to demonstrate that he understood how to write complete sentences. Although grammatically correct, the messages communicated in two of the sentences that he generated were inappropriate for classroom decorum, as they were sexually explicit. In spite of the fact that the class was told that this was a homework assignment, when asked to account for such sentences, the student replied that he did not know that this assignment was to be submitted to the professor. Weeks later, after the first incident, on being asked to stop talking, a young woman in a freshperson expository writing course made a profane remark and stated she would drop the class before walking out of the room. She had not completed any of the class assignments at that point. Such language, as presented in these two illustrations, is inappropriate for the college classroom.

Our students, as does much of the public, continually use language without regard to the forum or the audience. This can translate into lack of civility depending upon the language used, the situation, and the participants. For example, profane language is used on afternoon television soap operas and children of all ages have access to these programs. Such language is used in movies without discretion, on radio and television talk shows, in music lyrics (particularly hip hop rhymes) and so forth. Often, we focus only on spoken discourse; however, profane written language is used inappropriately in certain journals, certain newspapers, and certain elements of popular culture. For example, Inglourious Basterds is the title of a movie featuring actor Brad Pitt, which was released in 2009. Although the spelling was altered slightly, many of our students who only spell phonetically are insensitive to correct spellings of many words.

Confronted with language in mainstream society that has no regard for appropriate situational decorum, many of our students have no understanding of the necessity for language sensitivity to specific situations. Furthermore, many of our students are participants of hip hop culture, an international youth culture, which has not conformed to previous standards of conduct on many levels, including language usage. Although it is almost forty years old now, hip hop has been one of the major contributors to nonconformity to mainstream standards, especially with the use of language during the last two decades.

What is Hip Hop?

Tricia Rose wrote that “Hip hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity and community” (21).With beginnings in the early 1970s, in the African diaspora and Latino communities in the South Bronx section of New York City, by the end of the decade, hip hop had become an international youth culture. Its five primary elements include taggin’ [graffiti art], deejayin’, emceein’ [rhymin’/rappin’], b[eat] boyin’/b[eat] girlin’ [identified by the media as breakdancing], and after 1990, knowledge. The origins of taggin’, however, go back to the mid 1960s to Philadelphia, where CORNBREAD, a young African American male wrote that moniker on subway cars to attract the attention of a young female whom he wanted to impress. When Kool Herc, the father of hip hop, and his sister Cindy, the mother of hip hop, organized their initial parties in the South Bronx in the early 1970s, where they had friends introduce elements of what became known as hip hop, taggers made the posters advertising these parties. In 1979, the first two hip hop professional commercial recordings were made; however, the second one, “Rappers Delight,” was most successful, introducing emceein’ to youths around the world From then until now, hip hop, with its five primary elements being adapted to local cultural traditions, has grown into a common culture among youths internationally.

According to Raymond Williams:

…culture is ordinary….[T]here is not a special class, or group of men, who are involved in the creating of meanings and values, either in a general sense or a specific art and belief….[T]alking of a common culture…culture [is]…the way of life of a people, as well as the vital and indispensable contributions of specially gifted and identifiable persons…and…the idea of the common element of the culture [is] its community. (34-35)

These five primary elements of hip hop can be seen throughout various countries around the world. Marineves Alba reported at the 2001 Conference on Hip Hop in Cuba that the Cuban government only allows hip hop emcees to discuss the failings of the Cuban government in their rhymes/raps. While working with Teachers Across Borders in Cambodia several years ago, we met several Cambodian-American youths who had been expelled from the United States because of their gang activities in California, who were teaching Cambodian youths to b boy as a way of dealing with their own problems of poverty. Hip hop emcees in Senegal, because of their rhymes/raps, were instrumental in the large voter turnout in Senegal’s last election, as well as the outcome of that election. And President Barack Obama, as presidential candidate, found it expedient to write an open letter to the hip hop community, which was published in the hip hop magazine Vibe in November 2008.

Thus, these five elements of hip hop culture have far reaching implications and have been included in all aspects of mainstream culture including education. The dominant element for carrying this culture around the world is emceein’, also known as rappin’/flowin’/spittin’/rhymin’, which involves the emcee communicating spoken words as an integral part of music, where each word’s syllable is pronounced in time to a portion of or a beat of the music (Yasin 1997). Emceein’, from its origins in the South Bronx in the early 1970s until the early 1990s, allowed emcees to express themselves about life in their communities, about personal issues and about having fun and enjoying themselves. Through emceein’ and its other elements, participants of hip hop culture developed their own Discourse.

The Discourse of Hip Hop

Although “discourse” is the linguistic term to indicate connected language beyond the sentence level, the term “Discourse,” according to James Paul Gee, is “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and ‘artifacts,’ of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network,’ or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful ‘role'”(131). Because hip hop was introduced to many of our students by their parents, who were teenagers when hip hop began, or by older siblings, or those of their friends, hip hop is a primary Discourse for many of our contemporary students, who have grown up listening to rhymes, wearing hip hop gear, reading hip hop magazines, participating in hip hop events and producing elements of hip hop culture themselves. Gee writes:

[p]rimary Discourses are those to which people are apprenticed early in life during their primary socialization as members of particular families within their sociocultural settings. Primary Discourses constitute our first social identity, and something of a base within which we acquire or resist later Discourses. They form our initial taken-for-granted understandings of who we are and who people ‘like us’ are, as well as what sorts of things we (‘People like us’) do, value, and believe when we are not ‘in public’ (137).

For many hip hop pioneers, those participating in the culture during the 1970s and early 1980s, hip hop is a secondary Discourse “to which people are apprenticed as part of their socializations within various local, state, and national groups and institutions outside early home and peer group socialization-for example, churches, gangs, schools, offices”( Gee 137). Those who learned the Discourse of hip hop during its early years had been socialized into mainstream society, with its values for language usage. Thus, initially, messages communicated in the rhymes of the early emcees, before 1990, had positive messages and provided social commentary on various life events which people experienced during that time. The language used by emcees was acceptable to mainstream society; it was “public language.”

Public Language and Private Language

Public language is language that teenagers and young adults employ almost always to communicate with adults at least one generation older than they are; in formal situations, such as in a classroom or in religious institutions; in government institutions, and so forth. Such language may have syntactic and lexical features of mainstream English, some features of African American vernacular English, or vernacular English from various islands of the Caribbean such as Haitian Creole, for example, which is a result of the mixture of French and several African languages. However, public language is noticeably devoid of expletives and other profane language. Public language was the language used by hip hop emcees who wrote rhymes or lyrics before the late l980s. A perusal of the lyrics of “Rapper’s Delight” from 1979, when hip hop music first went commercial, as an illustration, will reveal the absence of expletives or profanity. If one studies the rhymes of Public Enemy from the 1980s, one will not find continuous use of profanity. Recordings of rhymes of emcees from those two decades demonstrate their use of public language.

On the other hand, at the end of the 1980s, a west coast group of emcees, NWA (Niggas With Attitudes), dropped the album Straight Outta Compton that included such rhymes at “[Expletive] tha Police.” The messages communicated by the rhymes on the album followed the formula used by previous emcees; that is, the messages communicated how it was to live in South Central Los Angeles. However, the language used included profane language, not previously used in hip hop rhymes. The language NWA used for the general public was, indeed, “private language,” which is the language that teenagers and young adults use among their peers and those from younger generations. Such language includes the use of profanity, negative and offensive messages, code switches between mainstream and vernacular African American English, creating new words, and so forth. Straight Outta Compton was hugely successful, put the west coast emcees on the map as serious hip hop emcees, and began to change the linguistic features, including messages, of the language used in hip hop rhymes. In subsequent lyrics, NWA began to push the envelope and communicate new messages. For example, in “Chin Chek” they use the words “bitch,” “hoes” (whores), and so on. Messages became sensual and licentious. Other emcees began to follow NWA’s lead and since then, the culture has changed considerably, as have people’s perceptions of it. NWA attributes their use of profanity as a means to garner national and international attention. They attribute entertainment lawyer Jerry Heller with encouraging them to rhyme about sex, violence and the denigration of women, which ultimately led to the sale of millions of albums. In his book, Ruthless, Heller does not deny any of it.


As a result of NWA’s contribution to hip hop youth culture, many adolescents and young adults actively use their private language in public places. This has lead to a clash between generations, tensions regarding what is considered civil behavior and appropriate decorum, and a redefinition of hip hop. Many participants of hip hop, including the pioneers of the culture, do not agree with those who use private language in their hip hop rhymes. In fact, in 1990, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, hip hop pioneer and founder of the social activist organization Universal Zulu Nation, introduced the fifth element of hip hop, which is “knowledge” as a result of the use of private language in hip hop music. This element requires participants of hip hop culture to study and learn about the self. At present, within the hip hop community, participants define music with lyrics that contain private language as ‘rap’ music, which is considered to be the bastard child of hip hop. Lyrics with positive, uplifting messages are considered hip hop. Participants of this culture have been debating the issue for more than a decade. Ultimately, they will solve this issue among themselves regarding language-use in hip hop. On the other hand, those of us who are not a part of this international culture must continue to discuss the issue of civility and language, as well as appropriate and inappropriate decorum. For, if we do not, many of our students who have not become aware of the concept of civility and appropriate decorum will continue to use such private language in inappropriate settings, as did the two students quoted in the introduction to this paper until we, as educators, assist them to become aware of the notions of public language and private language.


Alba, M. Personal Comments on Conference on Hip Hop in Cuba. New School for Social Research University. October 31, 2001. Lecture.

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social Linguistics and Literacies. 2nd ed. London: Falman Press.

Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

Williams, R. (1989). Resources to Hope. London: Verso Press.

Yasin, J.A. (1997.) In Yo Face! Rappin’ Beats Comin’ at You. A Study of How Language is Mapped Onto Musical Beats in Rap Music. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.

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