December 4, 2018

Cardi B and "Sounding Uneducated"

I've written about accent prejudice before. Most stories about accent shame in the US that I've read come from one of three sources - African Americans feeling ashamed of speaking African American Vernacular English; white Southerners ashamed of speaking Southern American English; immigrants or people learning English as a second language who are ashamed of their foreign accent. But today while listening to "I Like It" on Spotify, I noticed that the little Genius annotation said that New Yorker, Cardi B, was embarrassed by what she sounded like. Hmm? I looked up the interview and here are the relevant quotes.

"And, you know," [Cardi] says anxiously, "I don't got the best English in the world, so sometimes I really got to ask somebody, 'Does this make sense? Would this make sense?' Because I will probably use the words…that they don't even supposed to go there."

[...] Cardi was raised bilingual in the Bronx. Her mother came to the United States from Trinidad as an adolescent; Cardi characterizes her English as "broken." Her father, from the Dominican Republic, speaks to his daughter exclusively in Spanish.

"Do you want to know something?" Cardi asks. "That's my biggest problem, that takes me a long time in the booth. I be trying to pronounce words properly and without an accent. Each and every song from my album, I most likely did it over five times, because I'm really insecure about my accent when it comes to music. In person, I don't care."

[Interviewer:] But people love that about you.

"No, like—it got to sound good. Like, for example: 'I'm turning you awhn,'" she says, hitting the word hard, the way a New Yawka who's walkin' heah might bang on the hood of a taxi while taking a bite out of a big apple. "I will say, 'turning you awhn,' not 'turning you on.' See, I give you an example. 'Turn Offset awhff.' There's that 'awhff.' Turn Offset off. Shit like that drives me insane."

She demonstrates a few other examples—"Get awhff me"—to illustrate the distance between her actual and her ideal. Listening to Cardi carefully practice the flat, wide vowels of a Coloradan weather woman is a little heartbreaking, in part because we're too late to stop her; she's already nailed them. Cardi knows people still want her to be the girl who turned them awhn, but to her, the thing that makes her sound different from her peers isn't charming—it's embarrassing. "It's a really bad pet peeve of mine," she says. "I can't help it."

Interesting example of being "afraid of talking wrong." She talks about growing up bilingual, how she feels more confident in Spanish than in English, and expresses shame at her New York accent. Particularly the "aw" diphthongization. I found this curious, because Cardi B may not sound like a typical New Yorker, but in her music I hear examples of the environment she grew up in - the light "l" favored by second-generation Spanish speakers, the use of "habitual be" from African-American Vernacular English, and the slightly rounded and non-rhotic "ar" vowel some New Yorkers use, so that her name almost sounds like "Cordi B". Her interviews and instagram and general persona appear to reveal someone who is unapologetic about who they are, where they came from, and what they had to do to get there. Yet she's saying that she doesn't like the way she says "awff"!

It's strange how a feature that some speakers grow up using can be a source of shame for them, yet other speakers will try to imitate that feature for some perceived credibility or even just fun. It's an example of the imbalance of power that comes in having a stigmatized accent. We don't hear a lot about stigma against having a New York accent, perhaps because the traditional New York accent is on the decline. But there was a study a few years back that showed that U.S. Americans considered the New York City accent to be one of the most unpleasant. Indeed, accents associated with the working class and racial minorities are ruthlessly mocked or considered "uneducated," such that aspiring social climbers end up removing any distinguishing features from their speech in the hopes of blending in. Cardi B is a millionaire making money in hip-hop, a genre that has historically celebrated the dialect used by working class African Americans. She is, by some accounts, the hottest artist of 2017 and 2018. She has no problem talking about how her work as a stripper lifted her out of poverty and she speaks openly about how her past in a gang, yet she admits that she re-records every song multiple times and is concerned about sounding "stupid."

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