Kendrick Lamar, Black Language and What White Fans Don't Get About the 'N-Word'

Kendrick Lamar
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Kendrick Lamar performs at the 2016 Global Citizen Festival in Central Park on Sept. 24, 2016 in New York City. 

Over the past weekend (May 20), Kendrick Lamar invited a fan onstage during his headlining set at the Hangout Fest in Alabama -- and the incident that followed has ignited another conversation about hip-hop, its audience and the “N-word.”

When the fan -- identified only as “Delaney” -- took the stage to rap along to Kendrick’s famous 2012 track “m.A.A.d city,” things got awkward pretty quickly; the song prominently features the word repeatedly on the hook, and Delaney proceeded to rap the lyrics with no regard for the inflammatory word. Lamar wasn’t having it.

“You gotta bleep one single word, though,” Kendrick told her after stopping her amidst some boos from the crowd. She seemed to be thrown off by having to edit the offending term, and the hip-hop star soon ushered her off stage. The situation led to varying responses on social media and in some publications, with some saying Lamar’s reaction was perfectly understandable as others argued that it’s hypocritical for a rapper with that word in his songs to demanded that his white fans not recite his own lyrics.

An oft-repeated argument is that the “N-word” is offensive, no matter who uses it. “No one should be using that word” is a go-to response whenever this unending debate resurfaces, but it has always been a cop-out. It’s an attempt to duck the nuances of what that word means in Black art, and falsely assumes that there is no power in the way that Black people have used it to undercut its intent to dehumanize.

There doesn’t need to be any further explanation as to why white people can’t be comfortable saying the "N-word” in public. This isn’t about who “can” or “can’t” say the word; it’s about who can use it wantonly in public with no regard for repercussions. And the truth is; it’s a potent word even in the most colloquial sense. Black people don’t say the word indiscriminately -- try to toss it out at a family dinner or among elders and you learn quickly when its not appropriate to use. Everyone knows that coarse language isn’t always proper -- white people just don’t want to be told they can’t say it. And given what we’ve seen from white rap audiences, white fraternity houses and on school bus trips, white youth are regularly using the word when they aren’t worried about immediate consequences. All the more reason to not forfeit Black artists’ right to subvert the word however they choose.    

Mainstream Black art sits at an uncomfortable intersection of race, commerce and culture. So much Black art is consumed by non-Black people or disseminated by non-Black platforms; and once non-Black people find resonance in that art, they can oftentimes occupy it.  This is currently epitomized by contemporary hip-hop’s place as the dominant music of the youth. And it’s most glaring in the success of Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick has become the mainstream’s most touted rapper with music that is undeniably Black in focus. A generation ago, even mainstream acts like 2Pac and Ice Cube didn’t have the kind of industry clout Kendrick now enjoys. He takes center stage at the Grammys and performs in slave chains; he curates the soundtrack for a blockbuster Marvel movie with songs about Black struggle and identity. And he’s done this as an insider of American popular culture who moves like an outsider. That tricky balancing act is at the essence of who Kendrick Lamar is as an artist, and the incident with Delaney highlights how Black artists have to navigate being a voice of Black creativity while providing a good time for white audiences.  

Similar to Beyoncé performing an HBCU-themed set for a mostly non-Black crowd at Coachella asserts her culture into a space that often demands Black performers acquiesce to the “universality” of a multi-ethnic audience, Kendrick Lamar refusing to let a fan continue to rap the “N-word” doesn’t allow his fans to pretend to be colorblind just because they’re his fans. If you are going to claim to understand this music, this voice, then you will have to understand that there are lines which aren’t yours to cross. Even on a stage at a festival.

Black artists are expressing Black perspectives and experiences, and that expression often becomes entertainment for non-Black people to the detriment of those who are living that reality. As hip-hop has become mainstream music consumed by white audiences, rappers have to maintain the voice that remains the foundation for the genre’s cultural core. That means the "N-word" is still fully an empowering device as it remains a door through which white fans can’t enter -- it stands as a reminder that this is still our reality as Black folks and that matters. You can rap along, but respect that reality enough to know what word isn’t yours to own. It’s ours to subvert.

Contemporary Black art has fought to use the word as honestly and forcefully as the culture does. Elders may complain about the hip-hop generation’s flippancy with the “N-word,” but that approach is born of everything from Curtis Mayfield to Richard Pryor. The latter famously renounced his use of the word late in his career, but it was because of his personal conviction. He wasn’t yielding to anyone else’s finger-wagging. Black artists recognize the utility in that word, and the mainstream shouldn’t attempt to police that. Donald Glover’s Atlanta had to fight the FX network to keep it in the dialogue of his hit show. “I’m black, making a very black show, and they’re telling me I can’t use the 'N-word!'” he told The New Yorker in March. “Only in a world run by white people would that happen.”

The word’s ugliness can’t ever be erased by white use, inasmuch as it can be subverted by Black people. White people invented this word, and Black people culturally re-purposed it as a weapon to negate the power of white folks’ view of Blackness. It has been used to dehumanize and now it's sold as a signifier of cool. That’s not unlike so much of Black culture; we’ve often been given the worst shit and turned it into the flyest shit. But this can’t be co-opted. This can’t be neutered by universality. And that’s why it’s still necessary.

The commodification of Black cool hasn’t led to any significant shifts in the way that white America sees Black people. It’s only made it easier for audiences to wear that cool as a costume while remaining oblivious or indifferent to the oppression in which that coolness is forged. As the revolutionary politics of Black pop sit center stage, now more than ever, it's important that the voice of that art retain its core. It's important that we still rap, sing, dance and write like us; regardless of who is watching. And it's also important that we demand that voice remain ours. Rock & roll and jazz were irrevocably changed by others’ occupation of Black art. That’s not to say hip-hop hasn’t been, but the voice remains undeniably Black even as the genre has been hyper-commercialized. We relinquish that by demanding that Black artists censor themselves for the sake of white consumer’s discomfort.

So, no—let’s not continue to explain why white people “can’t” say this word. But don’t require Black people to bury it just because there’s “a double-standard.” There are some things that will never be for everyone. There’s a reason for that. And for the people most affected, there’s still power in that.