Lost in translation – for real y’all

2009-12-05 13:02

In the short time that we have been

meeting up every Sunday to engage in a myriad of topics, I have often received

the odd email from someone who has thoughts to share on the subject at hand. T


my surprise, the most responses – via email, facebook and twitter – have been in

response to my thoughts on the quality, or lack thereof, in the music world. I’m

not going to rehash some of what I said, but I was alarmed when, in certain

spaces, I was classified as a ‘hater’. I am, obviously, intrigued by words, how

they are wielded and what they mean. This classification, while a bit

irritating, did make me take a step back.

Hip-hop has been a part of my life for over two decades and in that

time, the language has evolved. Once we said ‘fresh’, ‘dope’ … now people talk

about ‘swag’. That is the beauty of language. We infuse it with our own

relevance and significance to create colloquialisms that speak to us and our

time. Growing up, there was a time when the crew I used to roll with, which was

about 15 deep, had a lingo understood solely by us. We could talk about you in

your presence without you even knowing.

Anyway, so somewhere down the line, someone in the US, which is

where the main hip-hop influence came from, decided we needed to ‘keep it real’.

The other side of language that is fascinating is its ambiguity. Make a

statement that is vague enough and it can be interpreted five ways by five

people. I used to say stuff that, if anyone expressed indignation at my opinion,

I could say they misinterpreted and I felt the way they felt – usually done for

the sake of political correctness or keeping the peace.

I never quite understood what “keepin’ it real” meant because it

was somehow associated with being “underground” which was clearly defined and

seemed to relate primarily to those rappers who hadn’t achieved acclaim beyond

their neighbourhoods.

Somewhere Busta Rhymes once said that – I may be paraphrasing –

“keeping it real sounded too much like keeping it hungry”. I believe that,

wherever possible, your art should feed you. There is nothing greater than being

able to live off what you are passionate about. As a poet, I have always

interpreted ‘real’ as ‘honesty’ and have always tried to reflect my truth. What

I feel. As long as I stay true to myself, I’m real. And I decide because no-one

else knows me like me, whether they like it or not.

Another phrase that amused me was ‘playa hater’. This was during

the period when the ‘pimp’ became another persona many rappers were taking on.

All of a sudden, if you did not like someone or something they were doing, you

were a playa hater. How often did I hear some South African talking about “don’t

hate the playa, hate the game”. Sounds catchy, but implies a sense of importance

that is very rarely accurate. The adequate response became “just because I hate

you doesn’t mean you are a playa”.

Can’t remember who said it – either Black

Thought from The Roots or Andre or Big Boi from Outkast – but I could be


It now seems that, in the recent past, this has just become

‘hater’, – what I was recently defined as because I felt Lil Wayne’s music would

not stand the test of time. Let me quickly say I reluctantly like some of his

songs. I just don’t see longevity in his or the music of many artists there


Now that is an opinion and a matter of taste, in the same way I don’t

like sun-dried tomato salad dressing, or jam with chunks of fruit in it, or

skinny jeans. When did it become illegal to have an opinion and express it

without immediately being bundled into some cult of those who aren’t allowed to

speak because their opinion flies in the face of others?

Words can be used to heal and to maul. They can be weapons of

destruction that mangle spirits or wands of magic that take the pain away. We

use them too flippantly, never really thinking about what they mean and what we

are saying. An opinion that does not reflect or justify yours is not to be

simply pushed aside with lazy words like ‘hater’ but rather acknowledged and

allowed the space to exist.

A lot of these things are subjective and cannot be deemed fact

which means that difference of opinion has the power to divide; in a very

unnecessary and foolish way. We can disagree without being divisive.

In the words of French author and philosopher Voltaire: “I do not

agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say


  • Write to Kojo on


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