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The Issues with Linguistic Appropriation in Popular Music

When people think of cultural appropriation, they probably think of clueless white people wearing Native American headdresses or Black hairstyles like cornrows. A form of appropriation that is less often in the spotlight, however, is linguistic appropriation. In the United States, African-American English (AAE) is under constant threat of appropriation, while many white Americans don’t actually understand the intricacies and cultural significance of this dialect. White artists often perpetuate the issue. Musicians like Iggy Azalea, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande use a significant amount of AAE in their songs despite not having a cultural claim to it. As their work blurs the lines between different cultural dialects, it’s not surprising when non-Black listeners begin using AAE as their own, while failing to grasp its history. Language does change, especially when two different forms of a language are in close proximity. Even so, it’s important for media creators and consumers to consider if their changes in language use are overstepping a boundary.

A 2015 paper considers this boundary, concluding that Iggy Azalea’s use of AAE speech features qualifies as “figurative blackface.” Azalea is a white Australian rapper with no connection to the elements of hip-hop culture that she sings about, yet she tries to sound Black in her music. In lyrics such as “we too grown…,” she frequently leaves out the copula (the verb ‘to be’), a process that is common in AAE. However, Azalea almost never drops the copula in her speech offstage because that would not match her native dialect. In a 2014 interview, she uses standard Australian English grammar, saying, “This is my real voice” when the interviewer comments on her accent. Her efforts to identify with Blackness earned her fame and money and boosted her career in hip-hop, with her 2014 debut album topping the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Still, she can always avoid the stigma of AAE usage by returning to her white Australian dialect in everyday speech.

Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, who perform originally African-American genres like R&B, also use linguistic appropriation as a tool for success. Like Azalea, Bieber implements Black speech features in his lyrics, but not in the everyday speech he uses in interviews. These appropriated features include technical grammar like copula dropping while also extending to pronunciation, word choice, and themes that are common in hip-hop and R&B songs. In “Out of Town Girl,” Bieber doesn’t pronounce the final ‘r’ in “we gon’ hit the floor.” He also uses the AAE term “bag” to reference money in the line “got a new job, for a big bag” in the song “Red Eye.” These examples and many more work together to give Bieber an alternate Black persona, which is likely an attempt to seem more authentic when borrowing musical styles from hip-hop and collaborating with Black hip-hop artists. But at the end of the day, AAE is not Bieber’s own dialect, so his performances are actually inauthentic. Similarly, Grande uses AAE terms and culturally Black ideas in her lyrics. A 2021 paper points out Grande’s references to Black culture surrounding physical appearance. In the song “7 rings,” Grande sings that she “just bought” her hair, alluding to hair extensions or wigs, and the lyric “stacked up like my ass” echoes other references to Black women’s curves in Black media. Both of these lines are examples of Grande playing the part of a Black woman in order to produce a successful song.

Photo Credit: Newsweek

Of course, appropriation in the music industry goes beyond language. In fact, African-American music has been appropriated ever since jazz and blues entered the scene, with white agents financially exploiting Black artists and taking credit for Black innovations. These days, appropriation often takes on a visual form. Many people have criticized Ariana Grande for her use of fake tans and dark foundation to look more Black, or at least ethnically ambiguous. In a society where young girls of color might struggle to realize that their skin and facial features are beautiful, Grande is automatically upheld as a standard of beauty when she darkens her skin and alters her eye shape with makeup. Most importantly, she can remove this makeup whenever she wants in situations where appearing white would be most convenient for her. Justin Bieber has also donned elements of Black fashion, building his public image by wearing low-waisted, classically hip-hop pants onstage and even putting his hair in dreadlocks. These cultural borrowings are more than just following trends—Grande and Bieber use this kind of imagery, as well as AAE, to construct alternate personas that help them fit into hip-hop and R&B genres. However, such alternate personas go against the hip-hop value of authenticity, and the insensitivity of this appropriation is potentially demeaning to members of the Black community.

To be fair, examining linguistic appropriation is complicated. In Bieber’s case, he began his career as a minor and worked closely with a number of adult mentors, like Usher, a Black R&B artist. We don’t know how much say a young Bieber had over his song lyrics, and it’s possible a lot of his lyrics with AAE features were written by African-American artists just using their native dialect. Even if some lyrics were written by white songwriters engaging in appropriation, Bieber still may not have realized the implications of these linguistic choices at the time. Even so, the phenomenon of white performers using AAE throughout popular media is socially influential, regardless of the origin of the lyrics. A lot of white Gen-Z youth have picked up features of AAE in their casual speech, which is probably due in part to listening to music by artists like Bieber and Grande. If impressionable white teenagers hear white role models associating AAE with simply being cool and popular, the teens might not recognize the history behind certain terms, and they could start using Black speech features without even realizing it’s appropriation. This is problematic because African-American teens might be criticized for sounding ‘unprofessional’ by using their native dialect while white teens using the same dialect could increase their popularity by sounding ‘cool.’

Iggy Azalea, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande have clearly used linguistic appropriation in their performances while still taking advantage of their white privilege offstage. These artists and/or their producers likely understand the significance of these actions because constructing personas associated with Blackness is likely to increase their success in the hip-hop industry. Meanwhile, lots of white Americans are also using elements of AAE speech due to its increased prevalence in the media. As cultural distinctions become less obvious in anonymous spaces of the internet, there are definitely some words of Black origin that have become widespread in American speech, especially among youths, and this is not always a problem. As language changes, maybe ‘slay’ will become common across dialects, but a non-AAE speaker saying ‘periodt’ will always sound like appropriation to me. Linguistic appropriation represents insensitivity, whether intentional or not, towards members of a marginalized community. As audiences engage with media, they should carefully consider what cultural elements are okay to borrow, and artists themselves need to avoid insensitive uses of Black culture for their own personal gain.


Grace Stephenson is a sophomore in the College studying Linguistics with a minor in Biology. She would like to thank her research mentor, Abby Killam, for help on this piece.


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