In talking with Malawian youths about language choice in rap music, the concept of “message” comes up again and again, emphasizing the perceived social function of the music and the importance of language as a vehicle for transmitting meaning effectively. Performers constantly refer to their efforts at conveying messages in their songs, and hip hop supporters often speak about finding and enjoying messages in the mainly American rap music they hear on radio or cassettes. Within the discursive field of rap music in Malawi — here rather summarily subdivided into musical performance and talk about music — English language figures prominently, but youths acknowledge that at times, Chichewa is more appropriate. This is not to say that there was universal agreement on such notions as “appropriate” or “effective,” but rather that differential perspectives on language use arise from the complex weave of contemporary Malawian social, economic, political, and cultural life as experienced by youths. It is in these differing perspectives that we can find the linguistic ideologies that underpin popular musical practices in general and those of Malawian rap in particular.
A brief description of the general linguistic topography of Malawi and the recent development of the country’s rap scenes, followed by several specific cases illustrating language use in musical practice will provide material for considering the nexus of popular music, language choice, and the social creation of identity for Malawian youths. Language use in Malawian rap musical practice spans the issues of choice between languages (generally English and Chichewa) and styles of speaking English. The former can entail more explicit explanations or rationalizations, whereas the latter encompasses a tacit dimension of language ideology. The two realms, however, constitute the discursive aspects of Malawian rap culture, and are not so easily separable in lived experience.
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It is at their intersection that youths formulate their places in the world and negotiate their social identities, and it is here as well that language ideologies come into play as components of these identities. Like their Tanzanian counterparts, Malawian youths draw on beliefs about language when either performing or talking about rap music. These beliefs stem from larger historical and social developments and connect rap musical practice to the issues and linguistic institutions that pervade contemporary Malawian life. The focus on “messages” and conveying or interpreting them through music exhibits the intersection of a global popular music (rap) with local youth concerns (HIV/AIDS, economic stability, etc.
In all of this, language “means” not only semantically but also socially, serving as a vehicle for conveying Malawian youths’ participation in a globalized musical culture that they enact daily as a localized phenomenon. The cases of rap music in Tanzania and Malawi provide illustrations of the complex intersection of larger historical shifts (political, social, economic), language ideologies, and popular music. The choice of language in both performing rap and talking about it in either country reveals the constant negotiations between individuals and larger groups, whether these are local or transnational, physical or conceptual. The situation is more complex than saying that the use of English in either Tanzanian or Malawian rap musical practice reflects a global influence and the use of Swahili or Chichewa a local influence, for in both countries more general linguistic histories serve as backdrops that anchor language usage continuously at the local level. That is, English is not indigenous but it has a strong local presence in both countries, mainly due to colonial forces that have been partially internalized; subsequently, although English carries “meaning” as a foreign phenomenon, the choice to use it or another local language in rap musical practice is not always couched in terms of “foreign” versus “indigenous” by performers or enthusiasts.
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Usage often entails more of a choice between two (or more) locally viable alternatives that carry different meaningful implications, depending on the language ideologies invoked by youths in either country. Obviously, it is extremely difficult to encompass all of the issues related to the hip-hop and how different visuals and audio materials shape up the given industry. However, in this paper I attempted to provide the reader with the detailed overview of various aspects of hip-hop and identify the trends actually determine the essence of this music phenomenon.