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Word! The Language Column
Rap Speaks to Us

Illustration: Female person with open mouth and jagged speech bubble, a microphone in her right hand, the right hand is raised
If rap had a dress code, it would be: We put on criticism and take off taboos | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Hip hop is now both a big business and a subculture, at once acclaimed and taboo. Our new columnist Taiga Trece looks at these contrasts and rap’s rebellious and creative potential.

By Taiga Trece

Music speaks. In what language? My world is all about rap, but how many languages does rap speak? Rap speaks street, as well as philosophy, poetry, humour and all the world languages, and tells stories of all kinds in countless slangs. 
But hardly any other genre gets such mixed press as rap music does. Hardly any other genre gets branded with so many clichés. And hardly any other subculture is so heavily censured – even though it was originally all about solidarity, respect and love. How bizarre that hip hop has been stigmatized since the get-go and yet in 2021 it accounted for 19.4 per cent of total sales in the German music industry. Which makes it the second biggest market in the industry, right after pop and rock music. And it’s still growing. In rap terms: rap is levelling up and has long since risen from the kerb to the skyline. 

Youth-speak: a bad role model?

Rap is youth-speak, the language of today’s youth, and since language defines a culture, we should take this output seriously. I think it’s funny when people say that the language of rap is unsuitable for teenagers, when in fact rap lyrics and teen slang go hand in hand, and cross-fertilize each other. “Youth wants to be given orders so it will have an opportunity to disobey,” wrote Sartre.
Despite all the media attention, rappers won’t keep mum. They make brazen use of free speech. They’re free to mouth off and, often as not, right in your face. Which can sometimes be mercilessly insulting, even hurtful. But rap gets to do that. MCs have a licence to spit and to diss each other – that goes with the territory. By the way, the German verb “dissen” has now made it into the Duden dictionary. People are always saying, “Rap is a bad role model!” But for whom?! If rap had a dress code, it would be: We put on criticism and take off taboos.
I can still remember the days when “foul” language was bleeped out on the radio or on MTV. But the public airways are more permissive with rap nowadays. Rap lyrics are stripped of their meaning when censored. Perfect grammar is often beside the point. Political correctness is for journalists. Rap is not about conforming, it’s about flexing, showing what you can do. The young don’t talk like grownups. Norms are overrated. Deutschrap is transgressive, radically hyperbolic, gets right to the heart of the matter and charmingly raises hell. It’s a hoodlum, from the street and for the street. If rap isn’t all that anymore... then where’s the rebellion?

Deutschrap is multilingual

Rap rides the zeitgeist with a bossy mindset, hip-hopping through language updates to the beat of youth. Hip hop is omnipresent, from the city blocks and the projects, from every other street, schoolyard and sideshow, to the playlists. “Putting up” with rap is old hat, it has since earned its right to remain. And yet wherever it goes, they keep checking its passport. Hip hop is a foreigner: loved, despised, ridiculed, admired and imitated. It wants citizenship… and then to become president. It’s not about origins, but secure status. Especially when it comes to dealing with folks who don't get this whole trend and diss the music.
In no other kind of music do different languages mix so naturally. Lines in foreign languages often share the space with German. Rap is the language of integration. And Deutschrap is multilingual. This country has so many mother tongues besides just German. Rap gives them a hearing and a voice in society.
I never cease to be amazed at the fused linguistics and I get off on newcomer rhyme combinations and wily repurposings that make me smile. It's the urban style of talking-the-talk that catches on, and whose candour makes it authentic. Rap forges its own language out of invention and felicitous finds. 
They say you learn a foreign language better through love, because being in love makes everything easier. Then fall in love! Through my love affair with hip hop I’ve learned some languages – four, to be exact. And with rap, that makes it five.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.