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The New Masters of Eloquence: Southernness, Senegal, and Transatlantic Hip-Hop Mobilities

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 7-25 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0001

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While mainstream American journalists describe the southern takeover of Billboard's urban and pop charts as a turn to manufactured, inflated, and inauthentic commercialism, the Dirty South's audience locates within its style the substance of the neighborhood dance floor, an unruly engagement with digital technology, and an international rallying call to radical self-imagination. Sister Coumbis, a member of the Senegalese music group GOTAL, photographed by Ali Colleen Neff.

I get it in 'til the sun rise,
Goin' 90 in a 65,
Windows rolled down screamin' out:
"Hey-ey-ey, I'm so paid."

—Akon, "I'm so Paid," 2008

With a heavy diamond stud anchoring each earlobe, hip-hop hustler Akon disembarks from his helicopter, spreads his arms to the sky, and sings about his solvency from the bow of a high-seas luxury yacht. For all its exuberance, the gesture is a stereotypical one for any Atlanta rapper. Here, the fantasy surrounding hip-hop's southern "Third Coast"—one represented by Akon's formidable pop presence—is crisscrossed by classic cars, fast motorcycles, and sprawling liners. With Akon and his peers at its helm, the last decade has witnessed the dominance of southern hip-hop in international commercial markets and neighborhood undergrounds alike. As Miami, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach center themselves in the global pop scene, this music travels in unlikely vehicles, including the body of this Senegalese-American singer, whose voice both represents the American South's most marketable presence in the global music industry and Africa's most audible presence in American hip-hop.

Commercial music television is so saturated with the trope of the southern rap star on a boat that comedian Andy Samberg's hip-hop video send-up of the genre—"I'm on a Boat!"—has come to define mainstream critical engagement with southern rap. Akon's smooth, blues-keyed cadence, though, is definitive for the body of the genre, which infuses the posture of coastal "gangsta" hip-hop styles with the cool sung tones of Deep-South gospel and a particular attention to scenic narratives and sharp wordplay. Even as these popular forms patch together a legacy of regional sounds and styles, they are contoured by growing African and diasporic communities that line the contemporary American South.

In the wake of economic collapse over the past decade, new communities of Senegalese flea-market traders (who often have special relationships with Chinese manufacturers), IT specialists, and taxi drivers have come to thicken the suburbs of Atlanta, Raleigh, Houston, Memphis, Virginia Beach, and Miami. They join a host of migrants from throughout a transnational Afrodiasporic circuit, which Black aesthetic theorist Paul Gilroy calls "the Black Atlantic." The new Global South incorporates populations of Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba; Africans from Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Uganda; Brazilians and East Coast African American families. These immigrants connect with established southern communities that are already textured by global genealogies and cross-cultural conversations.

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With Akon and his peers at its helm, the last decade has witnessed the dominance of southern hip-hop in international commercial markets and neighborhood undergrounds alike. Akon, performing in 2007, photographed by petercruise, courtesy of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Akon represents the latest chapter in both southern social life and southern music that upends the notion that southernness must wear its history on its sleeve—that it must cast itself in the frayed aesthetic of the handmade and moor its imagination in farm and country. Instead, Akon and his contemporaries, poised in the present tense, represent a nation they call the "Dirty South": a loose family of artists associated with the urban centers and creative communities of the American South and the Southern diaspora, who rose to popular prominence in the last decade on a wave of novel productions and dancehall hits. With its digitized production techniques and attention to high-end trend, the music is unapologetically super-modern; its "dirt" emerges in its bassy car sound systems and club speakers alike, the badness in its hustler's lyricism, and the depiction of Scarface-inflected imagery in its videos. The music is...

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