Martinez: Rappers shouldn’t have to censor the N-word for non-black fans

Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor

Rapper Kendrick Lamar invited a teenage girl on stage Sunday to rap part of his popular song “m.A.A.d city” during his Hangout Festival set. The song contains the N-word (although it is not featured prominently), which the young white fan proceeded to sing during the hook.

After she said the word twice, Lamar interrupted her and said she had to “bleep one single word.” The fan apologized, saying, “I’m used to singing it like you wrote it.” She got another chance to rap the same lines, but still tripped up over the word’s absence, and left the stage soon after.

Many takes I read online seemed to agree — this was just another disappointing incident in a long line of non-black fans rapping or singing the word (accidentally, subconsciously or purposefully). But one article stood out to me in particular: An opinion column written by black author Jeremy Helligar for Variety boldly stated in the headline, “Rap Should Retire the N-Word for Good.”

The idea that rappers — and all members of the black community — should abstain from using variants of the N-word is not an uncommon sentiment in both black and non-black spaces. Many argue that the word is steeped in such deep history that it can never be truly reclaimed, while others assert art should be for all audiences, and no group should be restricted from any word. As Helligar puts it, “Is it really fair to have one set of rules for black fans and another for white fans?”

My answer is yes (and this applies to all non-black people, although Helligar solely uses a white-black dichotomy in his piece).

Helligar argues that because rappers like Lamar profit from white fans, people can’t “expect them to consume (his) music differently,” later adding, “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?”

Pretending that non-black Americans don’t understand the heavy weight of the word is ridiculous. Those who have grown up in this country know it’s taboo — whether people choose to ignore that fact is a different story. African Americans have reappropriated the N-word for all intents and purposes, but it’s no secret that the word is regularly used by non-black people, intentionally or otherwise. In the context of Lamar’s concert, the most common reason a non-black fan would sing or rap the word is if they haven’t consciously trained themselves to avoid it, and they say it all the time during songs anyway.

This is part of a larger pattern of chalking up the ignorance of the rules surrounding the N-word as someone else’s fault, expecting the marginalized to take the high road. As a society, we constantly excuse and remove blame from non-black (particularly white) citizens for saying the N-word for so many reasons: “I grew up around it.” “I can’t not sing it.” “If they can say it, why can’t I?”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it during a talk at Evanston Township High School last year, the N-word is about context, like many other words Americans consider vulgar. His wife uses the B-word with her friends, but Coates would never do the same — and he doesn’t have the desire to. Likewise, just because the N-word is used in certain contexts within the black community doesn’t mean this extends to everyone else. This logic applies to all kinds of oppressed groups across the United States.

White Americans live in a society in which everything from long-standing institutions to popular culture is geared toward their comfort and satisfaction. This may be where the indignance comes from — when people are raised to feel like they can say whatever they want, having a word “taken away” can feel unjust. However, it is not a huge concession for non-black fans to avoid a word that has such a deep and complicated history associated with it. As Coates said during his talk, this censure gives others a chance to experience being black: “Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do.”

Helligar ends his column by arguing the use of the N-word only detracts from a song’s message, further alienating white people. I do believe rap can be enjoyed by everyone, although there will be inherent differences in how songs are interpreted, based on how similar the listener’s experiences are to the artist’s. But it’s OK for art to have multiple layers that audiences can process in different ways. Not including the N-word in songs solely to pander to the non-black community would be yet another unnecessary societal limitation placed on black people for outside comfort.

I’m black, and I choose not to say it. Some of my black friends do, some don’t. Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice and background, although the arguments for removing it from everyone’s vocabularies will always persist. While I understand the reasoning behind both sides of the main debate, I cannot accept Helligar’s column that seems to blame black artists for white absent-mindedness and ignorance.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.