Op-ed Is it okay for white people to sing along with the n-word?
Responses differ among musicians, but it always makes me uncomfortable
This summer, as Solange sauntered across the stage at WayHome to F.U.B.U., her mid-tempo ode to Black ownership, I couldn’t help but scowl. It wasn’t that I was disappointed in her performance. It was the sea of white fans singing “All my niggas in the whole wide world.”
Under any other circumstance, this would have been unacceptable. But it’s become a common scene at shows by Black artists, and, as a Black woman in the audience of those shows, it always puts me on edge.
In situations like these, instead of enjoying the music and escaping into the experience, I end up consumed by my discomfort and patrolling the crowd for white people singing the n-word.
The fact that everyone else seems to be enjoying the show just makes me feel worse. I feel alone in my uneasiness.
Rather than second-guessing myself I look to the Black artists onstage and wonder how they can be so unmoved by the legion of white fans shouting this polarizing pejorative back at them.
I met up with Toronto rapper Sean Leon to find out what it’s like from the other side of the stage.
“‘Nigga’ is such a powerful word,” he says over tea lattes at a Queen West café. “In a perfect world, the [white] fans would be respectful enough to not say it.”
But Leon’s stance is hardly the one taken by all artists. Chicago rapper G Herbo is more resigned. “I know for a fact that people be at my shows saying nigga. There’s no way around it,” he told Rap Radar. “[White] people don’t mean any harm when they’re doing that. Some of those people really embrace our culture.”
Schoolboy Q takes it one step further. At last year’s NXNE, the L.A. rapper actually encouraged fans to sing the nword along with him.
“I’m not telling you to go say ‘nigga’ after this, but this is a rap show,” he instructed the crowd. “I want y’all to participate.”
While these artists see concerts as a grey area where everyone’s free to say the n-word as long as it’s within a musical context, for a lot of people, myself included, it’s more black and white – either you can say it, or you can’t, regardless of the setting.
Leon agrees. “I’m uncomfortable with anybody who doesn’t look like me saying
the word,” he says. “There’s real pain that comes with it.”
Not that Leon is against using it, but he’s been thinking a lot about the power of the word in his music. He mentions his recent song Vintage, where the hook is the words “young nigga” repeated over and over. “If I got 10,000 white people singing that back to me, I might walk off the stage feeling different.”
In September, a house full of white sorority girls at the University of New Hampshire were filmed rapping the nword while singing along to the unedited cut of Gold Digger by Kanye West.
They quickly got dragged online, leading to a defense by conservative commentator Piers Morgan for the Daily Mail. “If rappers like Kanye West insist on using [the n-word]... then it is absolutely predictable and understandable that their fans will sing the songs just as they hear them, regardless of the colour of their skin,” he writes. “If you want someone to blame, then blame Kanye West.”
Suggesting that Black artists are responsible for the actions of their white listeners reeks of respectability politics. But unfortunately, this notion reigns.
So how can Black artists respond to white fans repeating the n-word? Does it even deserve a response?
Leon is conflicted. “Am I saying that at my shows there are no white people saying it? I doubt it. But if that’s the reason I stop saying it or putting it in my songs, I feel like that’s conceding to white people. That’s why it’s so difficult.”
As I gear up for my next concert, I’m still apprehensive about how to respond to fellow concertgoers who I feel are out of line.
I obviously have no jurisdiction over what anyone says, but my discomfort is valid.
With no easy answers, Jidenna sums up the situation. “You can say the n-word,” the singer said in an interview on Vlad TV in 2015. “Of course anyone can say anything. But you might get your ass whupped.” email@example.com | @sumikoaw
Sean Leon speaks at a panel on the Toronto rap scene at Hip Hop House Party on November 11 at BAND Gallery.