Signifyin’

Signifyin’ (vernacular) is a practice in African-American culture, involving a verbal strategy of indirection that exploits the gap between the denotative and figurative meanings of words. According to African-American literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., the practice derived from the Trickster archetype found in much African mythology, folklore, and religion: a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and societal norms. In practice, signifyin’ often takes the form of quoting from subcultural vernacular, while extending the meaning at the same time through a rhetorical figure.

The expression itself derives from the numerous tales about the Signifying Monkey, a folk trickster figure said to have originated during slavery in the United States. In most of these narratives, the Monkey manages to dupe the powerful Lion by signifying. Signifyin(g) directs attention to the connotative, context-bound significance of words, which is accessible only to those who share the unique cultural values of a given speech community.

The term Signifyin(g) itself currently carries a range of metaphorical and theoretical meanings in black cultural studies that stretch far beyond its literal scope of reference. In his highly influential book ‘The Signifying Monkey’ (1988), Gates expands the term to refer not merely to a specific vernacular strategy but also to a trope of double-voiced repetition and reversal that exemplifies the distinguishing property of Black discourse.

However, this subtle African-American device, if linguistically analyzed, becomes notoriously difficult to pin down, as Gates states: ‘Thinking about the black concept of Signifiyin(g) is a bit like stumbling unaware into a hall of mirrors: the sign itself appears to be doubled, at the very least, and (re)doubled upon ever closer examination. It is not the sign itself, however, which has multiplied. If orientation prevails over madness, we soon realize that only the signifier has been doubled and (re)doubled, a signifier in this instance that is silent, a ‘sound-image’ as Saussure defines the signifier, but a ‘sound-image’ sans the sound. The difficulty that we experience when thinking about the nature of the visual (re)doubling at work in a hall of mirrors is analogous to the difficulty we shall encounter in relating the black linguistic sign, ‘Signification,’ to the standard English sign, ‘signification.’ This level of conceptual difficulty stems from – indeed, seems, to have been intentionally inscribed within – the selection of the signifier, ‘signification.’ For the standard English word is a homonym of the Afro-American vernacular word. And, to compound the dizziness and giddiness that we must experience in the vertiginous movement between these two ‘identical’ signifiers, these two homonyms have everything to do with each other and, then again, absolutely nothing.’

Caponi (1999) ‘describes calls, cries, hollers, riffs, licks, overlapping antiphony’ as examples of signifying in hip hop music and other African-American music. She explains that signifying differs from simple repetition and from simple variation in that it uses material, ‘rhetorically or figuratively — through troping, in other words — by trifling with, teasing, or censuring it in some way. Signifyin(g) is also a way of demonstrating respect for, goading, or poking fun at a musical style, process, or practice through parody, pastische, implication, indirection, humor, tone- or word-play, the illusions of speech, or narration, and other troping mechanisms… Signifyin(g) shows, among other things, either reverence or irreverence toward previously stated musical statements and values.’

Schloss relates this to the ambiguity common to African musics including looping (as of a sample) for ‘it allows individuals to demonstrate intellectual power while simultaneously obscuring the nature and extent of their agency… It allows producers to use other people’s music to convey their own compositional ideas.’

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