Mumbling, Shouting, and Singing: Listening to the (Non)Human Voice in Trap
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Since the 1990s, trap has increasingly influenced mainstream popular music. The Southern-American genre is notorious for its “trap-beat” as well as a vocal style that is often derogatorily referred to as mumble-rap or mushmouth rap. This vocal style is characterized by the murmured lyrical delivery causing a high level of unintelligibility. Different from mainstream post-race hip hop—which Justin Burton classifies as clearly pronounced, politically engaged hip hop performed by artists such as Kendrick Lamar—trap lyricism rarely involves anything other than money, promiscuity, and excessive lifestyles. Moreover, typical trap music uses a fair amount of expressive exclamations and ad libs, for instance, the “choppa” sound: brrrah!, where the rattling r’s imitate the sound of an automatic firearm, adding to a violent and noisy sound experience for a mainstream audience that has become used to post-race hip hop (Burton 2017). The perceived sonic blackness (Eidsheim 2011) in trap, which is the perceived black body in sound, urges questions about the way in which the voice can be rendered less-than-human, or even nonhuman. The sonic palette of trap deliberately invites a listening experience of blackness by making use of the sonic color line, which refers to sounds that are racialized by the listening ear in the historic context of segregation, slavery, and othering (Stoever 2016). The racialization of sound is rooted into socially constructed ideas about the use of the voice, which has traditionally divided vowels and consonants, sounds and noises, as well as language and gibberish into the hierarchical binary of human and nonhuman (Connor 2014, Weheliye 2002). This binary has traditionally rendered people who deviate from the white patriarchal norm as less-than-human in an intersectional way. The perceived sonic blackness in trap is thus a perception of trap’s sounds as noisy, aggressive, and threatening, which are notions that are rooted in stereotypes about a specific blackness related to the American South. I argue that trap’s centralization of the voice, and subsequently the (black) body creates a listening experience of that body that is both threatening and direct. This leads me to argue that trap voices create a grotesque version of the black body that is connected to the stereotypical associations about the black, hypersexual, male identity, and a parody of that. Ultimately I argue that trap vocals transgress the human/nonhuman binary, and in doing so offer a specifically southern perspective to black posthumanism.