A couple days ago, I came across the video of Kendrick Lamar inviting a young fan on stage during a performance in Alabama. Of course like any fan who gets called by his or her idol to perform a duet, the awstrucking experience can be downright humbling. Everything should have gone without a hitch, until the fan started singing the lyrics to Lamar’s M.A.A.D. City, which includes the N-word. If you have not seen or heard of the incident in question, you are probably asking yourself what’s the big deal with this scenario… Young fan gets to rap with a music star, end of story, right?
Well, this would be a good time to mention that the young fan was a white female teenager. I have no doubt that she loves Lamar’s music because she did drag herself to go to his concert. Do you know of any teenager would go to the concert of an artist that they hate? So, after the first two N-drops from the young lady, Kendrick stops the music and tells her indirectly how incredibly racist (or insensitive she sounds). It’s a short exchange where Kendrick tries to evaluate the lady’s mindset, and then asks her to censor herself when the slur comes up in the song. The girl clearly tries to show that she meant no disrespect and says to Lamar: “Oh, I'm sorry. Did I do it? I'm so sorry … I'm used to singing it like you wrote it.” Satisfied with her answer, Lamar cues up the music, and goes on with his duet with the young lady. Unfortunately, the second time around proved just as disastrous as the first, cause home girl just couldn’t help herself. She drops the N-word again.
And ladies and gentlemen, this is where the problem lies. One could argue that the word belongs to African Americans and only them have the right to use it. And one could easily make the point that the slur was consciously added to a popular song. At this point, all bets are off and everybody should be able to say it, in the context of the music of course. I am going to turn this into a two-pronged commentary, believe me there is plenty of blame to go around. One, for those who openly profit from using the word. And secondly, for those who joyfully use it because it’s a cool thing to do.
Once again we are at this intersection where the debate over who can and cannot use the N-word has reared its ugly head again. And of course, the rap industry is at the center of this debate. Kendrick may be a lot of things, Grammy award winner, Pulitzer recipient, multi-platinum artist, but naive is not one of them. He knows damn well all those white kids who buy his music, sing his songs openly, have said the N- word at some point. Shit, they were probably saying it in their cars, on their way to his concert. So who did Lamar write his songs for exactly? Are they exclusively for black people? I would respond with a resounding YES, if Kendrick wasn’t accepting the accolades from White America, and cashing a check from all those album sales. Let’s be clear, that money is coming from the black community, the white community, and all the communities in between.
In my humble opinion, it feels like the N-word has become a form of currency for black people. This is our form of reparations. Something we can barter with and profit from, while no other race, especially white, is allowed to use. I understand the idea of taking away the power of that word from those who used it to demean us, but the problem arises when that word is turned into a form of entertainment. Especially when it is connected to a nice beat, and some dope lyrics. The rap industry is a multi-billion dollar company pushing sex, violence and some serious profanity, where the N-word fits in very nicely and almost inconspicuously, until a non black person sings it openly. Then at that moment, people’s racist cards are going to get pulled and checked thoroughly. I liken this to watching violence on film and in video games. After being subjected to it so for so long, one could easily become desensitized to it. That’s exactly what happened to young Becky on stage. She heard the N-word so many times in her choice of music, that it never occurred to her that it’s just entertainment. No different than watching Tom Cruise beat up five guys, run from the police in a high speed chase and then blow up a building. It all looks great on screen, but nobody in their right mind would ever do it because there would be some real life consequences to these actions, especially if you are a young black male. The typical white mindset: “My favorite rapper or singer can say it, why shouldn’t I? I’m a good person. I have black friends. I love their music. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. Why shouldn’t I be allowed?” This is the perfectly example where the lines between real life and art are slowly blurring. Or maybe one could say that we have reached a point in society where things that were once considered taboo or obscene, are now viewed as mainstream and acceptable.
I remember in the early 2000’s, Will Smith issued a challenge to all the hot rappers of that period. He dared them not to use the N-word in their songs. His mindset was not only to stop the use of that ugly word, but to push them to come up with more inventive ways to spread a message. He wanted them to stop relying on violence and vulgarity to gain fame and fortune. Unfortunately, Smith’s words were seen as an attack of the Old School on the New School. The young man who sang “parents just don’t understand” had become the adult dishing out lectures. And when that happens, there is going to be push back. Mister Smith was met with anger. I remember clearly all the West coast rappers, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, called him a little bitch and even suggested that he was probably getting his ass beat by Jada on a regular. It’s so funny to see that almost a decade later, those same rappers who did not care about their image or offending people, are trying so desperately to appeal to a mass audience. Ice-T has been playing a cop on television for over a decade now. Ice cube is making family-friendly movies. Even Dr. Dre tried and fell to shut down a made for TV movie that showcased some of the missteps of his younger years. Maybe Will was on to something. Maybe he realized then that the use of that word, and past actions, would become problematic for some.
The situation between Kendrick and the young lady was more amusing than embarrassing, but it needs to be an eye-opener to all those young artists out there. You can’t preach wokeness and be a ”I Don’t Give a Fuck Rapper” at the same time. You are going to have to pick a side. Only a few can juggle this dichotomy, but they had to be lyrically inventive, and refuse to give in to their basic instincts.