WMU News

African-American speech focus of annual festival

February 10, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- The rhythm of African American speech whether in ebonics, rap music or television commercials will be explored in an annual festival at Western Michigan University as part of Black History Month.

"Exposition III: Musical and Visual Manifestations of Black Talk through Television Programs" will be presented Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20- 21. The event will run from 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. each night in Room 3512 of Knauss Hall. It is free and open to the public.

Presented by WMU's Black Americana Studies Program, the festival will include lectures by three leading experts in African American language, music and film, who will discuss topics that range from how television uses the rhythms of black language to sell merchandise to the difference between ebonics and hip hop rap. The popular Michigan band, Peace 2000, also will perform a blend of rhythm and blues, jazz and pop, while highlighting another aspect of black speech -- monologues. This technique was made famous by soul singers Isaac Hayes and Barry White in the 1970s.

According to Dr. Benjamin C. Wilson, professor of black Americana studies and coordinator of the annual event, the rhythm and music of African American speech is evident throughout African American life, from the ditties spun by boxer Muhammad Ali to the double-Dutch jump rope songs of children in an inner city school yard.

"When most African Americans talk, it sounds like they're singing," Wilson says. "Music is very much a part of the African cultural experience and that's transferred to our daily dialogue, whether it's through ebonics or the rhythms of speech patterns associated with dance music."

On Friday evening, the program will feature Dr. Geneva Smitherman, a linguist and distinguished professor of English from Michigan State University. Smitherman will present "A Comparison of Ebonics and Hip Hop Rap." She is a leading authority on black English and has served as a chief expert witness, researcher and consultant in a number of cases involving literacy, the language of black America and the linkage between socio-linguistics and institutional policy.

Wilson says ebonics is quite different from rap, since ebonics dates back to the 1600s and represents an Africanized version of English. However, he says rap is connected to ebonics, and artists like Queen Latifah, Sister Souljah, TLC and Tupac Shakur are examples of 20th century urban poets taking it to a hip, new extreme.

"Nothing in America is new," Wilson explains. "It might be an adaptation of that which appeared before, but it's not new. Rap music got its start from work songs, toasts, bebop singers, disco, you name it. It evolved into the 20th century poetic stuff called rap."

On Saturday, the program will include presentations by Dr. Gloria Gibson, associate professor of Afro-American studies and film at Indiana University, and Dr. Horace Boyer, an Afro-ethnomusicologist from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Gibson will discuss "Technological Orality and Oral Technology in Hip Hop as Presented in Television Sitcoms," while Boyer will present a lecture titled "The Transformation of the Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Millie Jackson Monologue to Gangsta Rap."

Following the lectures, the Lansing-based Peace 2000 Band will perform.

For more information, persons should contact the Black Americana Studies Program at (616) 387-2665.

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