“Can’t switch up my code / Morale be too low” —JPEGMAFIA, “Puff Daddy”
To be Black in America is to hide in plain sight. Centuries worth of racism and oppression created pressure to conform to the norm; to shave or straighten hair, to speak “properly” so as to be welcomed by society.
This shedding of cultural skin, known as code-switching, is used as a survival tactic to navigate a racist world undetected, to keep the feathers of those who wish to destroy you comfortably unruffled. It’s a remnant from the early days of slavery when displaced Africans faced death simply for speaking in their native tongue. Learning to walk, talk, and act “properly," meaning as the whites did, was the difference between living to see another day and dying at the hands of an egregiously stacked deck.
Code-switching often manifests as a “white voice,” a chipper and approachable tone which can sound like nails on a chalkboard. This region-free neutrality is what Cassius Green—the protagonist in Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry To Bother You—relies on to climb the corporate ladder before he loses his identity in a sea of blood money and horse people. The film posits that not being yourself—a.k.a playing Uncle Tom—isn’t only shameful, it’s detrimental to your mental health.
In 2018, Kendrick Lamar became the first rap artist to ever win a Pulitzer for his fourth studio LP DAMN.. In doing so, he also became the first non-classical or jazz artist to take home the award. The Pulitzer Board described the album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
A major institution giving long-deserved validation to hip-hop as an art form could easily have served as motivation for Kendrick to unintentionally code-switch while accepting the award, but when Kendrick Lamar Duckworth took the stage in New York City last June, his twists bobbing at his neck as his proud smile beamed from coast to coast, he didn't miss a beat: “It’s a honor. Been writing my whole life, so to get this type of recognition is beautiful.”
Kendrick could’ve dressed up his speech with fancier language or deviated ever-so-slightly in vocal tone. Instead, he was himself: Kendrick Lamar, as hip-hop as they come. It’s one thing for a Black rapper to win an award as prestigious as a Pulitzer, and it's another to do so while presenting their Blackness in a “professional” setting without code-switching.
The approach Kendrick took during his award acceptance isn't a new phenomenon, but that doesn't mean it wasn't appreciated just the same. Recall when Juicy J, DJ Paul, and Frayser Boy of Three 6 Mafia broke the highbrow barrier in 2006 when they accepted the Oscar for Best Original Song for their work on “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” from Hustle & Flow, while rocking Cuban link chains and skull T-shirts instead of suits. Embracing their Tennessee drawl during their acceptance speech made the moment a true win for hip-hop.
The rejection of code-switching also brings to mind the ambitions of the late Nipsey Hussle, the Robin Hood of Crenshaw and Slauson, who sought to polish his block into the jewel he knew it could become. Nipsey used the profits from his TuneCore catalog and his groundbreaking #ProudToPay campaign—which offered physical copies of mixtapes to fans for hundreds or thousands of dollars—to bring opportunity to the doorstep of his Los Angeles neighborhood.
In 2018, Nipsey spent several million dollars to purchase the plaza which currently houses his The Marathon Clothing store. When news crews arrived to cover his decision to reinvest in the streets that raised him, Nipsey delivered a report on every store in the plaza with the same raspy Los Angeles lisp and slang found on tracks like “Last Time That I Checc’d” and “Status Symbol 3.”
“We playin’ the long game,” he said. “We don’t want the money to stop when we can’t work no more. We want it to outlive us, be generational.” Later, he shows off a tattoo inspired by his homeboy Fatts, while detailing the still under construction restaurant built in his honor.
Nipsey’s personal attachment to Fatts’ restaurant works in tandem with the message it implicitly sends to anyone who's listening: You can have tattoos and speak like you’re from the Rollin 60s, and still be successful like me.
As journalist Julia Beverly noted in an Instagram post, Nipsey could swig liquor and party with the best of them one hour, and co-host summits demonstrating advances in his store’s technology the next. It was a surprise to no one that Nipsey was scheduled to meet with Roc Nation and the LAPD to discuss ways of curbing gang violence a day after his murder. No matter the environment, Neighborhood Nip was always our liaison. His authenticity spoke volumes, literally.
Down in Atlanta, 2 Chainz and Killer Mike both flipped their doughboy past into successful business ventures, never once losing their original voices. From the stage to the talk show couch, to $1,000 ice cream tastings, 2 Chainz is a man unchanged. Mike, meanwhile, helped the Crips street gang make and market their own soda in an episode of his Netflix series Trigger Warning with Killer Mike, and both on and off the mic, he preaches financial literacy through blunt smoke.
Lil Nas X’s unique fusion of country and Atlanta trap on his viral single “Old Town Road” coaxed country legend Billy Ray Cyrus to not only hop on the song's remix but to also to call him a “shining light” that will change the world; this was all done without code-switching.
While staying true to one's self might appear to be the prevailing standard, that hasn't always the case when Hollywood comes calling. For example, when Common first emerged as a beat poet from the streets of Chicago in the early '90s under the name Common Sense, he delivered his truth in a smooth tenor; think Can I Borrow a Dollar? or Resurrection. A decade later, when calls for acting roles from movie studios and endorsement deals from tech companies like Microsoft starting rolling in, his tune changed, literally.
Common's voice still has tremendous power behind it in 2019, but the delivery feels different now. Common Sense isn't the one selling you the latest Microsoft tablet, nor is he the one headlining this year's Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island; he has ascended to another level. With that ascension came the dulling of his voice. Common's music has changed over time, as most things do, but as a result of code-switching, his message of equality has become milquetoast.
In 2019, retaining your identity in a public forum shouldn't be an uphill battle. When we tell Black kids to “be themselves,” we often take the broadness of that statement for granted. We’re told from an early age to “make a good impression” because our parents want to protect us from a world ready to desert us at the snap of a finger.
Respectability politics like these only exacerbate the problem by posing another question: How can one be him or herself in a world where our culture is more often than not valued over our bodies? Bullets and house zoning laws don't care what language we use. We face the same threat of death and discrimination no matter how we speak or present ourselves.
To have respected public figures, like the ones mentioned in this article, set an example is to help foster the confidence necessary to be oneself without shame. The days of hiding in plain sight are over.