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Why so many singers sound American – but British grime artists are bucking the trend

Grime artist Bugzy Malone. villunderlondon/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Most British pop and rock stars sing with an American accent. But UK grime artists are taking pride in their Britishness and staying true to their regional roots.

It doesn’t matter where in the UK a singer is from or how they sound when they speak, when the song begins the regional accent usually ends. In its place emerges a general American-type accent. Not precisely identifiable in terms of region but certainly more US than UK.

This common phenomenon is especially striking when we happen to know that, when speaking, the singer shows strong regional features. Think Adele, Cheryl Cole, Jamelia, Mick Jagger, Ozzy Osbourne, all of whom have distinctly regional accents but adopt an Americanised singing style.

Ozzy Osbourne - Crazy Train (Speak Of The Devil)

Why American?

So, why is this the case? Most likely it’s a combination of two main factors, one linguistic, one social. Linguistically, the very process of singing has an accent-neutralising effect. Accent differences are largely created through intonation, vowel quality and vowel length – all of which are affected when we sing. In singing, syllables are lengthened, air flow is increased, articulation is less precise. Thus we get a more generic, neutralised accent that happens to share features with American varieties of English.

Socially, there is an expectation (based on musical history) that popular music will be sung this way. It’s not that singers are consciously trying to sound “American”, rather they are adopting the default style for their genre. Linguist Andy Gibson noted a similar trend in New Zealand singers and suggested we should simply call it a “pop music accent”.

Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys. Alterna2/Flickr, CC BY

But this accent neutralisation isn’t inevitable, as the numerous exceptions over the years illustrate. Artists such as Madness, Ian Dury, Lily Allen (London), The Proclaimers, Biffy Clyro (Scotland) and Cerys Matthews (Wales) have all maintained aspects of their regional accents to varying degrees when singing. Linguistics professor Joan Beal explored the use of local accent and dialect features in the music of Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys, suggesting that it represents their authenticity and independence from the corporate machine.

“UK grime” seems to be continuing this tradition. Originating in early 2000s east London, grime is a uniquely British descendant of UK garage, bashment, drum and bass, jungle, and dancehall that has been spreading across the country. And while it does have its own genre-appropriate language in the form of Multicultural London English (MLE), there are distinct signs of regional variation.

As you move away from London, features of MLE appear in the speech of young people in other cities, suggesting that it has become the language of urban British youth. However, small regional differences exist and this is reflected in musical performance. Just as Arctic Monkeys and others took a stand against the accent-neutralising process of popular music, grime artists are resisting the London-centricity of their art.

Local and proud

Take Bugzy Malone. Born, raised and based in Manchester, Bugzy’s bars have a distinctive local flavour. Listen, for example, to the northern vowel in words such as “up”, “trust”, and “money”, and the tell-tale Manchester vowel sound at the end of “corner”.

Or Lady Leshurr, the unofficial Queen of Birmingham. In her Queen’s Speeches, she displays local accent features such as the second vowel sound in “upload” (saying it somewhere between Received Pronunciation (RP) “load” and “loud”).

Similarly, Astroid boys have a subtle yet unmistakable Welsh aspect to their delivery. Notice the typically Cardiff vowel in words like “early”, “burger” and “work”.

There are two likely reasons for this style of performance. First, rapping arguably has a lot more in common with speaking rather than singing, so the phonetic constraints are not as strong. However, it would still be possible to perform in an entirely “London” way, which early grime artists tended to do.

The second reason is to do with local identity. It’s no coincidence that grime artists rap about their lives and local areas. Bugzy takes pride in having “put Manny on the map”, Lady Leshurr references her Birmingham lingo, and Astroid boys were the subject of a recent BBC Radio documentary in which they said: “Yeah we are from Cardiff … our accent’s in the music, we rap about the streets we grew up on.”

Lady Leshurr at Sónar 2016. scannerFM/Flickr, CC BY

Interestingly, this reference in performance to the local area is also found among the singers mentioned earlier who maintained their regional accents and identities. Ian Dury, Madness, The Proclaimers and Arctic Monkeys would regularly situate their lyrics locally and could also be seen as having a spoken quality to their music.

So, is this a conscious decision made by grime artists? In a recent interview with Dazed and Confused magazine, Lady Leshurr said:

People used to diss my accent and I got insecure and stopped using it. But I just woke up one day and thought, “What are you doing Leesh? You’re from Birmingham, you shouldn’t have to hide your accent because of other people”.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University are now looking at how language and other resources are used by grime artists to construct young, urban, and regional identities. Grime is about staying true to who you are and where you come from, making Lady Leshurr the “realest gyal” and other grime artists relatable and engaging. Keeping it regional is their way of keeping it real.

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