The co-construction of whiteness in an MC battle

Cecelia A. Cutler


Within hip-hop, MC (Master of Cermonies) battles are one of the most visible and potentially humiliating venues for demonstrating one’s verbal skill. Competitors face each other in front of an audience. Each has a minute to “diss” his or her opponent against a backdrop of rhythms produced by a DJ. Each participant’s performance generally consists of “freestyle” or spontaneously generated rhymes designed to belittle some aspect of the opponent’s appearance, rhyming style or place of origin, and ritual insults directed at his or her mother, sister, or crew. Opponents show good will by embracing afterwards. Ultimately the audience decides who wins by applauding louder for one opponent than the other at the end of the battle. Using the framework of interactional sociolinguistics (Goffman 1974, 1981), I will analyze clips from a televised MC battle in which the winning contestant was a White teenager from the Midwest called “Eyedea.” I will show how Eyedea and his successive African American opponents, “R.K.” and “Shells”, participate in the co-construction of his Whiteness. Eyedea marks himself linguistically as White by overemphasizing his pronunciation of /r/ and by carefully avoiding Black ingroup forms of address like “nigga” (c.f. Smitherman 1994). R.K. and Shells construct Eyedea’s Whiteness largely in discursive ways – by pointing out his resemblance to White actors, and alluding to television shows with White cultural references. Socially constructed racial boundaries must be acknowledged in these types of performances because Whiteness (despite the visibility of White rappers like Eminem) is still marked against the backdrop of normative Blackness in hip-hop (Boyd 2002). In a counter-hegemonic reversal of Du Boisian double-consciousness hip-hop obliges White participants to see themselves through the eyes of Black people. Hip-hop effectively subverts dominant discourses of race and language requiring MC battle participants to acknowledge and ratify this covert hierarchy.

Quick links
A browser-friendly version of this article is not yet available. View PDF
Alim, Samy
forthcoming) Nation language in the African diaspora: Language use in contemporary African American expressive culture. In Arthur Spears (ed.) Black language – the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean: Education, History, Structure, and Use.
Beasty Boys
(2004) Right here right now. To the 5 boroughs LP 4 June2004.Google Scholar
Blaze-Battle World Championship, HBO
, New York City, November 2 2000.Google Scholar
Boyd, Todd
(2002) The new H.N.I.C. (Head Nigga in Charge): The death of civil rights and the reign of hip hop. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
Bucholtz, Mary
(1995) Frm mulatta to mestiza. In K. Hall and M. Bucholtz (eds.), Gender articulated: Language and the socially constructed self. New York: Routledge, pp.351-374.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Clark, John C
(2002) Maintaining class and ethnic borders in a North American high school. Proceedings of II Simposio Internacional Bilingüismo, pp. 1525-1536. www​.webs​.uvigo​.es​/ssl​/actas2002​/08​/01​.%20John%20T​.%Clark​.pdf
Cutler, Cecelia
(2002) Crossing over: White youth, hip-hop, and African American English. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Linguistics Department, New York University.Google Scholar
Du Bois, W.E.B
(1953) The souls of black folk. New York: Blue Heron.Google Scholar
Foytlin, Matt, Claire Nelson, Wali Rahman, and Jürgen Streeck
(1999) Casualties of lyrical combat. SALSA No. 6 Proceedings of the sixth annual symposium about language and society – Austin. Austin, TX: Department of Linguistics, The University of Texas.Google Scholar
Goffman, Erving
(1974) Frame analysis. New York: Harper & Row.  BoPGoogle Scholar
(1981) Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Hall, Kira
(1995) Lip service on the fantasy lines. In Gender articulated: Language and the socially constructed self. London: Routledge, pp. 183-216.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Irvine, Judith
(2004) Losing one’s footing: Stance in a colonial encounter. Sociolinguistics Symposium 15. Newcastle upon Tyne, April 1-4, 2004.Google Scholar
Labov, William
(1972) Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Kennedy, Randall
(2002) Nigger: The strange career of a troublesome word. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
(1995) Directed by Larry Clark. Excalibur Films.
Rickford, John, and John Russell Rickford
(2000) Spoken soul: The story of Black English. New York: John Wiley & Sons.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Smitherman, Geneva
(1994) Black talk: Words and prhases from the hood to the amen corner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
Spears, Arthur
(1998) Language use and so-called obscenity. In S. Mufwene, et al.. (eds.), African-American English. New York: Routledge, pp. 226-250.Google Scholar