Authors Name: 
Ronan O'Brien
Princeton University
Languages & Linguistics
Award winner

Opportunity Be Knockin’: Race and Invariant Be in Hip-Hop Language

This paper looks at the linguistic construction known as “invariant be” (sometimes “habitual be,” “distributive be,” or be2), one of the more prominent features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), as well as Hip-Hop Language (HHL). It explores the feature in the context of rap, through analysis of lyrics from selected rappers. Building off previous sociolinguistic studies on race and authenticity, usage by black and white rappers is compared, with awareness of rap as a form of performance and the genre’s demands on artists to demonstrate legitimacy. Frequency of use of invariant be is compared between the two groups; it is found that, based on the rappers sampled, black rappers appear to employ the construction at higher rates. With token analysis, the grammatical nature of invariant be in rap is also compared with previous descriptions that focused solely on spoken AAVE. While the usage in speech and rap is similar, there are subtle differences in syntactic and semantic context, which can be partially attributed to the nature of rap narratives and their cultural context.