I get these questions all the time: “Who’s your favourite rapper?”, “I bet you can freestyle!”, “How can you not love Tupac? You’re black!”
Hip-hop for some reason never really appealed to me when I was younger – I didn’t hate it, but I tended not to go out of my way to find it. After moving countries and entering adolescence, I began to consciously avoid listening to it; something that thankfully I’ve now gotten over.
For me, there hasn’t been really much of a reason for me to associate with rap and hip-hop culture in general, but most notably its music has been synonymous with the urban Black American experience. But that was the problem – I felt detached from the scenarios often narrated in the rhymes, lost in the graphic depictions of places and people. At the time, it didn’t fit into my personal idea of blackness.
Within the past decade or so, rap as a sub-genre of music has become gentrified beyond its inner-city roots, in that it is no longer solely tied to, though it frequently references, its base culture. This, however, brings with it its own problems.
t’s always awkward when no-one skips that line and everyone continues singing
Like any art piece, when you take rap out of the culture from which it came from, there is a loss of cultural context.
The original pioneers of hip hop infused much of their culture into their music; with their accents and cadence, they painted the world they saw and recorded the language they used.
Language which included the word ‘n***a’.
(Now of course, there is a distinction between ‘na’ and ‘n*r’, but for all intents and purposes we can assume them to be one and the same.)
The problem with the use of the n-word in hip-hop is that because it has been so widely used in the genre, there is an assumption that it is a marker of the genre; when it should in fact be viewed as indicative of the musicians themselves as people.
Consider the following scenario: you’re with friends, there’s music playing and Kanye’s Gold Digger comes on. Needless to say it’s always awkward when no-one skips that line and everyone continues singing.
I once tried to ignore the sting of the word, shrugging when asked “do you mind if I say the n-word?” Some people, drunk with ‘new found freedom’, altogether stopped using my name
When I finally began to warm to the themes and sounds of hip-hop, this proved to be a bit of a stumbling block – getting into it could easily become a commonality between myself and other non-black friends who may have taken this mutual ground as an excuse to go full steam ahead. What’s worse is when people try to justify it – the indignant, “it’s just a song!”, is often followed by accusatory, “not everything is offensive, you know.”
Some might (and have argued to me) that the diversification of hip-hop and rap means that the word has taken on a new meaning, no longer black-centred – just the other day a non-black friend of mine was tagged in a Facebook post with this caption:
Here is what I’m saying – music is so infused into our day-to-day life, we have to consider the fact that it can very easily go from our playlist to our lexicon; and not everyone is fine with the way this word is used.
I once tried to ignore the sting of the word, shrugging when asked “Do you mind if I say the n-word?” a few years ago: as far as I was concerned, it didn’t really feature much in my history, or my culture, so I was apathetic to it. That very quickly changed when some people, drunk with ‘new-found freedom’, altogether stopped using my name.
By all means, keep on jamming out to your favourite Kendrick song, just be aware that just ‘cos he gets to say n****a, don’t mean you do too
Despite coming from a background and a place where the ‘n-word’ essentially had no power, it was still relatively easy for me to learn to take offence at it. Now consider those people who’ve grown up in communities where they’ve historically been called n****s by people who don’t look like them, and understand why this would feel very uncomfortable. Let me be clear on how I feel, rap music has most certainly gone beyond the African-American/Black community to permeate and include some cultures and experiences. But that does not mean that the n-word is bound to rap music itself. The word is tied to the genre, it’s a derivative of the culture from which the music emerged from and out of which it’s predominantly produced.
By all means, keep jamming out to your favourite song; but the next time a Kendrick song comes on, be aware that just ‘cos he gets to say n****a, don’t mean you do too.