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.” mu­sic@now­toronto.com | @sumikoaw

Sean Leon speaks at a panel on the Toronto rap scene at Hip Hop House Party on Novem­ber 11 at BAND Gallery.

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