I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 1xtra for the documentaries (ok, it’s an urban music station and I’m 35 – I don’t usually listen to Radio 1xtra at all). But the other day I stumbled upon a great hour-long program called Speak Britannia, about accents and dialects and how they feature in contemporary UK hip hop music and youth culture.
It was fascinating – especially when discussing the link between accent and authenticity, or being ‘for real’.
There’s nothing more important in hip hop – being true to your roots and the people you grew up around, rather than pretending to be something you’re not.
In terms of how you ‘spit’, or express yourself verbally in your music, that means rapping or singing in your natural accent. Not an issue if you’re from east or south London (“safe, blud”), where grime and other urban music genres first emerged – those accents are the signature vocal sound of UK urban.
But what if being ‘for real’ means spitting in a Scottish, a Bristol or a Yorkshire accent? It turns out there’s a real contradiction in urban music between being authentic and having the right sound for the mainstream.
One section of the program focused on a Scottish MC who was laughed offstage at a contest for rapping in his native accent.
Getting a foot in the door with a Glasgow accent proved so difficult that he went as far as developing an alter ego, an entire fictional persona, who performed in an American accent – and was an instant success. (He later dispensed with the act after losing the will to continue faking it). It seems that urban music, like many cultures, can be deeply conservative about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
Grime MCs and DJs are in a uniquely tricky position, where the sound of the vocals isn’t just about clarity but about whether you are reppin’ the ‘real’ voice of the streets. Think of the radio DJ Tim Westwood, the vicar’s son with the infamous pseudo-rudeboy drawl. It’s a cultural issue, not just a vocal one.
This issue of authenticity comes up a lot with my clients, when I try to describe how accent reduction and speech training fit into a contemporary world where you’re constantly reminded to ‘just be yourself’.
When I meet clients for the first time, they usually start by saying ‘I quite like my accent’. It feels dishonest to try and suppress their natural sound, because it’s part of who they are and where they’ve come from.
They’re right to feel this way. I don’t teach people how to ‘put on’ a British accent, because how are you meant to be confident and speak from the heart in your professional and personal life if you feel like a fake?
Thankfully, I can’t think of many professions where it’s still considered essential to speak with a flawless English accent (actors in Downton Abbey, perhaps?) The British have generally become more accustomed to different accents from their newsreaders, their doctors and their bank managers. Regrettably some prejudice still exists: I shared an article on social media recently about how ‘accentism’ is still prevalent in Britain. I don’t feel that individuals should be expected to pander to these prejudices, but I think it’s important to remember what I say to most clients: that a good communicator doesn’t make her listeners work too hard to understand her.
I always reassure people that accent reduction is about clarity: finding a sound that is still ‘you’, but that most people can easily understand. Most English speakers, especially in London and the bigger cities, can cope with different accents, but the easier it is for them, the more likely they are to get what you’re saying, and not be distracted by how you say it.
Then you’ll not only be ‘for real’, you’ll be live-o fam, y’get me?
No, didn’t think so…