Patois and grime: language and identity

RTKAL performing at Creative Multilingualism Conference
Noah Birksted-Breen

As part of my postdoc at Oxford, I was involved in organising ‘Languages in the Creative Economy’ for Strand 4 of Creative Multilingualism, in collaboration with Professor Rajinder Dudrah and Dr. Daniel Tyler-Mctighe, which took place at the Birmingham Rep Theatre on 30 November 2018. Here, I want to reflect on a provocation by the grime artist RTKAL.

During an afternoon panel, titled Renegotiating the sites of multilingual performance: in and beyond theatres, Birmingham’s grime artist RTKAL reflected on his identity and the role of multilingualism in his life. As a black British man with Caribbean heritage growing up in the UK, RTKAL felt himself to be in an ‘isolated space’ where he was ‘too Caribbean to be British but too British to be Caribbean’. Even so, language could fill that gap – and specifically patois, a non-standard variation of English which is often used by black British communities.

Growing up he was told ‘not to use patois in the house’ but he would use it with friends at school. He recalled his grandmother using patois, an inter-generational connection with his Caribbean – and West African – heritage, when she used words which sounds a bit like Eh-eh, cwela or aeh.  RTKAL pointed out that he wouldn’t even know how to write many of these words down because it’s about ‘the word having a sound and the sound having a power. The language is irrelevant to that word, it’s the intention behind that word that determines [its meaning]’. RTKAL was able to engage further with this subcultural language through grime and other urban music since these genres allowed him to ‘improvise language’ which would evoke his multi-layered identity.

RTKAL’s intervention led me to reflect on the significance of subcultural registers of English. As a theatre-maker, I was struck immediately by the idea that if these words cannot be written down, then they will inevitably be omitted from theatres. Productions of contemporary plays are normally based on a written playtext. It would not be a big leap to wonder whether British theatre’s privileging of text is at least partly designed to exclude ‘alternative’ or subcultural voices. At the very least, it is a compelling reason to advocate for unconventional ways of creating theatre, such as ‘devising’ where dialogue is created by the performers (and is potentially never written down), as well as cross-arts collaborations, for example bringing grime into theatre.

In fact, there is an increasing interest by theatres in grime – the Royal Court recently produced Poet in Da Corner by Debris Stevenson in 2018, which included grime performers rapping live on stage. It is also the motivation behind the project I’m involved in for Creative Multilingualism, Oxygen – where Stanza Divan and Lady Sanity are adapting a Russian play into hiphop drama. But these projects are just the tip of the iceberg. Theatres would do well to bring in new collaborators from underrepresented communities and look for new modes of cross-art collaborations. That way, more UK stages would get to hear subcultural variations of English, i.e. those which can narrate parts of the British “story” too rarely heard in mainstream theatre venues.

Noah Birksted-Breen is a Post-doctoral Researcher on our 4th research strand: Languages in the Creative Economy and Artistic Director of Sputnik Theatre Company.

Image source: RTKAL performing at the Creative Multilingualism Conference in 2017, photo by John Cairns.

Where next?

Find out more about Languages in the Creative Economy project: Slanguages

Finding poetry in a new language

On Equality, Inequality and Unequality…