In all the years I’ve been debating race and racism with white people, the most common response some have offered in their own defense hinges on black people’s use of the N-word.
“If they can say it, why can’t we?”
It’s a question Kendrick Lamar might be hearing a lot following an incident onstage May 20 at the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, who headlined the three-day fest along with The Chainsmokers and The Killers, invited a group of people from the crowd for a rap-along to his 2012 single “m.A.A.d. city.” Things were going great until one young fan, a white female who introduced herself as Delaney, got the lyrics a bit too right.
After she delivered the lines in which the N-word is repeated several times, Lamar became visibly angry, told the fan that a “bleep” was in order (suggesting that, really, she should have known better) and ultimately booted her from the stage.
“It’s over,” he said, ending her less than 15 minutes of fame. (Watch video captured from the audience below.)
Response has been mixed. Some have accused the young girl of being insensitive and foolishly failing to understand the potential ramifications of a white person using the N-word. Meanwhile, others have wondered why Lamar didn’t use a more lyrically neutral song for the rap-along while branding him a hypocrite for practicing what he preaches against.
I believe both sides have valid points. As I try to explain whenever white people challenge me on black use of the N-word, particularly in the rap and hip hop community, it’s all about context. It’s like the difference between a man using the B-word against a woman and another woman doing the same.
The legacy of racism in the United States revolves around the N-word and how many in the white community have historically used it as a verbal weapon against black Americans. It’s as bracing a reminder as cotton, chains and Confederacy memorabilia of what our ancestors endured for centuries.
Even today, for many of us, when a white person utters the N-word, it’s like the sound of a whip slapping the back of a slave. Because of its loaded history, it will never be OK for white people to use the N-word (not even if it’s Eminem, though he inexplicably seems to get a pass from the hip hop community), no matter what the circumstance.
In recent decades, some blacks have co-opted the word that some whites still use against them as an almost term of endearment for their fellow African-Americans, often modifying it to “nigga,” presumably to dilute it defeating effect. It’s a way of taking a weapon that kept African-Americans beaten down mentally for generations and embracing it, thus robbing it of its destructive power.
While I understand the psychology behind this, clearly it hasn’t worked. There’s no getting past the destructive power of the N-word, and Lamar’s reaction to Delaney and the round of boos she received underscore just how hurtful it remains today. But are blacks partly to blame for its continued dominance in the American vernacular?
The current widespread success of rappers like Lamar and J Cole, whose latest album KOD is peppered with the N-word, wouldn’t be possible without the support of white fans. And as any chart-watcher knows, the commercial viability of music depends on the ability of listeners to recreate the melody and mimic the lyrics.
If you are going to accept royalties from album sales and concert revenue from both black and white fans, you can’t legitimately expect them to consume your music differently. Would Lamar have reacted the same way to a black fan? Did he really think a starstruck teenage girl who probably has never been in front of such a massive crowd would instinctively know that she was supposed to censor herself when he doesn’t? Is it really fair to have one set of rules for black fans and another for white fans?
Teens are impressionable, whether they’re white or black. As rap and hip hop continue to gain in popularity, white kids have increasingly co-opted the style and mannerisms as well as the syntax and speech patterns of its stars, in a sort of mass cultural appropriation. Delaney even referred to Lamar onstage as “bro,” which I personally find just as cringe-worthy as her nailing his lyrics.
It’s time for rappers to rethink how they deliver their message. It wouldn’t lose any of its lyrical might if they dropped the N-word altogether. Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” would be just as potent with all of the N-words removed. What do they add to the song’s message anyway?
If anything, they detract from it. Whites who don’t necessarily relate to the messages that socially conscious rap delivers may get the impression that if Lamar is OK with spreading the N-word, if Cole is cool with it, then maybe racism isn’t as much of an issue as blacks say it is. Maybe the N-word is OK for everyone to use, after all.
As Delaney found out the humiliating way at Hangout, nothing could be further from the truth. The N-word is as harmful and hurtful as ever, and it won’t be going away anytime soon.
For that, the kings and queens of rap and hip hop must accept some of the blame. It’s not too late to turn things around, but if a change is gonna come, it might have to start with them.