Shoes Docta & Harlem Niggaz

Shoes+HarlemThese shop signboards were photographed in 2009 in Greater Serrekunda, The Gambia, a former British colony in West Africa. They display forms of English that defy taxonomising into a strictly local variety of English. What we are dealing with here, is not the global spread of English or a Gambian variety of English, but local language practices that are globally intertextual.

The “Shoes Docta” and “HARLEM NIGGAZ” signs are spelled in ways that deliberately violate orthographic norms and make use of non-standard features. In the former, we have the respelling of the ending –or in doctor as –a, suggesting this Shoes Docta is a particularly ‘cool’, non-conforming one. In the latter we have the same replacement of –er by –a as well as a respelling of the plural marking –s by –z, appropriating the word nigger from a racist slur to a marker of positive self-identification. Both are instances of ‘eye-dialect’, a type of non-standard spelling that is above all visible, although suggesting a particular non-standard pronunciation as well. These spellings make creative use of (ortho)graphic resources without regard for the centre’s norms. Violating these norms invokes identities that precisely seek to distinguish themselves from the centre – the Shoes Docta and Harlem Niggaz plumber align themselves not with the Queen’s English but with the subversive subculture of African American gangsta rap. Not metropolitan London or Manhattan but, the less central Harlem, NY or Jamaica, are the centres that these signs orient themselves to.

Global connections with North American gangsta rap are creatively imagined in both form and content. Intertextuality with hip-hop or Hollywood-mediated images of street gangsters and pan-Africanist denotations are applied as ingredients in a playful subversive appropriation of the public space. There is nothing local about these literacies; at the same time, everything is local about it. It is English as local language (cf. Christina Higgins’ book English as a Local Language).

© Kasper Juffermans