Lecture: “Playing the Dozens: Signifyin'(g) in African-American Literature and Song.”
Lecturer: Josuee Hernandez
Teacher bio: http://peoplescolloquium.org/teacher-bios/
In his 2010 hit Gorgeous, Kanye West asks “Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?/ The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?”
In these two bars we see a wealth of linguistic connotation and, also, indirection: what does Kanye mean when he calls hip-hop a “euphemism?” Is his metaphorical connection of modern hip-hop to spirituals and slave chants of the Antebellum era strained, or does it serve its purpose in making the listener more aware of this genealogy?
Whatever the answer, we should consider that Kanye may not necessarily be serious with his query at all. He may just simply be signifyin’(g) on us.
This lecture will concern itself with the concept of “Signifyin’(g”), as best theorized by Henry Louis Gates, Jr in his work The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. In its simplest terms, to Signify means to say one thing, and mean another. In more complicated terms, it means to exploit the space between the denotative and connotative not only in language, but in social interactions between humans, and in intertextuality between the written works and music. We will attempt a broad overview of this concept from the inception of the United States to the modern era.
Naturally, due to the immense breadth of language, this lecture will be focused on the Anglophonic black vernacular of the United States (of which signifying concerns itself with), but even such a narrow scope contains such content as cannot be completely covered in a single evening; nevertheless, I hope you’ll join The People’s Colloquium to discuss this very interesting—and surprisingly very ubiquitous—idea.