At the Intersection of Language and Culture: Rap and the N-Word (2024)

As the years go on, hip hop has become ever more omnipresent in the music industry. With the rapid proliferation of fans of the genre, the N-word has made its way back into the national spotlight. Yet there’s a growing disconnect as the decision to use certain words is influenced by the mainstream

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Author’s Note: By addressing this very sensitive topic, I by no means am telling you, the reader, what you can and cannot say. If you identify as black, you absolutely have the right to decide where you stand; if you aren’t, I only ask that you read the ideas presented and think about them.

As a white individual, along the way, I’ve been asked if I was the “right” person to tell this story. While a fair point to bring up, I believe my observations from a decade of growing up with the genre offers some insight into this topic. With that being said, out of respect for those who feel uncomfortable with the word — along with my personal beliefs against using it — I will refer to it throughout this piece strictly as the ‘N-word.’

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In October of 2017, A&O Productions, Northwestern University’s student-run programming board, tapped rapper Lil Uzi Vert to headline their biggest fall concert, A&O Blowout.

This decision to feature Lil Uzi was certainly nothing out of the ordinary. With R&B/hip hop having overtaken rock to become America’s most popular genre, rappers tend to be popular choices at concerts; the ascending rapper — most famous for his hit single “XO TOUR Llif3” — was a no-brainer.

However, for the first time ever, an email sent to patrons of an A&O concert included a message. The section, titled “Diversity and Inclusion Policy,” read:

“Lil Uzi Vert’s catalogue includes songs containing the N-word. If you are not black, A&O insists you omit this word from your vocabulary — both at our shows and in general. A&O shows are for all students, and when non-black (not just white) students say the N-word, they alienate our black peers.”

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At first glance, this statement might seem rather straightforward. However, the message A&O tried to send did not come out of a vacuum. There was precedent, as then-co-chair Louisa Wyatt told me, referencing an op-ed she wrote after a Rae Sremmurd concert hosted by A&O in April 2016.

“It’s like, ‘OK, Northwestern has a very selective memory. We’re just going to have to get in front of students’ faces at every opportunity,’” Wyatt, a black former Northwestern student who graduated in the spring, said. “Going into the next year, we thought, ‘What’s our policy going to be?’”

I wasn’t planning on going to Blowout, so I didn’t see the message — which was penned by Wyatt — when it first came out. I’m not a huge fan of Lil Uzi Vert, and besides, the newly-released Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t gonna just watch itself.

Eventually, though, as events are wont to proceed in the modern world, someone posted about A&O’s two meticulously-crafted sentences on social media. What followed was a clear glimpse into a supposedly open-and-shut case that has proven to be anything but.

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“Chillin’ with my n-words, say it like a white kid” — Childish Gambino, “Freaks and Geeks”

I first heard the N-word when I was eight. I’m not sure how exactly the word came up, though I do remember one thing: confused as to its meaning, I posed the question to my grandma.

Horrified at my utterance of the word, my grandma swept me into the living room to explain its history. She talked about how slave owners used the word in a derogatory fashion, treating their property as less than human, and how the word continued to linger for the years to come. Even as a young kid, the tone in which my grandma spoke made me comprehend the taboo stemming from the N-word; to this day, I have always made it a conscious point to never, ever say it. Yet even for something that seemed so simple, things only became more confusing.

Flash forward to when I was 11 and I heard Kanye West’s “Power” for the first time, after which I promptly rushed home and gleefully looked up the lyrics on my iPod Touch. I had listened to rap for quite some time by then, but that indistinguishable beat, that incredible third verse — everything about it was so enthralling. I decided that above anything else, I needed to commit the whole Genius page to memory.

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So I did. Some of the best bars of ‘Ye’s career sprawled across my middle school notebooks, though I kept running into a very specific problem. What was I supposed to do with that second verse, when the rapper dropped the N-word twice in quick succession?

As I listened to more and more hip hop, my appreciation for the genre became overshadowed by what was an obvious dilemma and all-too-relevant question. I’m a white kid from the suburbs. Am I supposed to listen to rap music?

Is this for me?

By the time I entered high school, I determined that no, it wasn’t, and I decided to subscribe to what I thought was the stereotypical white kid starter kit. This meant that on my playlist, I made sure to swap Nas and Weezy for Nirvana and Weezer.

Not everyone saw things in the same light I did. At some point during four of the most foundational years of my — and every — adolescent’s life, an imaginary switch flipped. I started hearing some of my peers use the N-word not only when quoting a song, but also purely in passing. Some of them were white.

Whether you looked at it from a socioeconomic, religious, or racial perspective, we grew up in a community with its fair share of diversity. But even mixed towns can be full of bigotry, as the terms “diversity” and “segregation” can often be one and the same. As a white guy, I now realize that there were many aspects of life in the suburbs that I probably didn’t notice. Plus, I never really discussed my thoughts on the subject with my peers because, let’s face it, it’s a difficult enough conversation to have with adults and even more difficult among a bunch of teenagers.

By the spring of my senior year, artists such as Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar seriously started to pique my interest in returning to the genre. Still, that question, the one that’s been lingering for a long time now, has remained all the more convoluted.

Is this for me?

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“So I’ma dedicate this song to Oprah / On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us” — Kendrick Lamar, “i (Album Version)”

In 2008, Dr. Neal Lester was tasked with creating a course that was typically for first-year students at Arizona State University. It was supposed to be a “sexy” class — his words — that would allow new students to connect with what they were learning. Since Lester is an English professor, he decided to teach on literature through the lens of culture. Thus, his class, “The N-word: An Anatomy Lesson,” was born.

Now, ten years later, Lester, who is black, says that “…the idea of the course itself has sort of evolved into something much bigger.” Small seminars of 12–15 students have given way to larger lectures and televised interviews, along with opportunities to publish in various journals. Through all of this, Lester says he has gained access to more people and information, allowing him to delve deeper into his research as time has gone on. And when you talk to him, he radiates verve and passion for the subject at hand.

I dove right into our conversation, asking: I’m sure you’ve come across that interview Jay-Z did with Oprah back in 2009. What do you think about it?

At the time, Oprah was an established billionaire in the media landscape, while Jay-Z was well on his way to a third comma. The duo’s discussion of such a sensitive topic — Oprah arguing against the usage of the N-word, Jay-Z arguing for its use as a “term of endearment” that had been “taken back” — sent shock waves through the music industry everywhere.

Naturally, Lester had researched the interview. He uses it every year in his course material. “…you can’t take the N-word back if you never owned it!” he exclaimed. “In fact, I’d make an argument that they [individuals who do use the N-word] are actually internalizing it…slaveholders thought about their slaves endearingly. People think of their pets endearingly. That in and of itself does not disrupt that argument, that the word is disparaging and you can’t take it back!”

Lester went on to describe Jay-Z’s argument as a logical fallacy, even going so far as to label it as “nonsensical.” He insists that the disagreement on the usage of the word is not due to a generational gap, but others feel differently.

“I know my elders, the people I know from my community who were active in the Civil Rights movement, people who were nearly lynched, have also said ‘That word means something that y’all don’t understand, and you taking that word and saying it’s endearment has negative impacts on the history they fought for,’” Mari Gashaw, a sophom*ore at Northwestern, told me. “But at the same time, it’s part of our language.

“I wish I didn’t say the word…I wish I lived in a world where saying that word in the way it’s used is nothing. I wish I didn’t have to go to someone and say, ‘Yo, that’s my [N-word].’ But…if I’m building a relationship with people, and I’m using African-American vernacular, not saying that word sometimes makes it difficult to communicate an idea.”

Gashaw decided to repost A&O’s policy word-for-word in the “Northwestern University Class of 2021” Facebook page, along with the message, “Just want to make sure you all read this before A&O Blowout tomorrow :) it was in the email.”

Comments followed, with opinions scattered on all parts of the free speech spectrum. There were not many people calling for A&O’s censorship to be pulled, and the few who did were met with a bevy of criticism.

Most of it was warranted, as one man called the policy “dumb” before allegedly writing hateful comments that have since been deleted. Nonetheless, several people talked to me off the record, expressing opinions on the email and subsequent Facebook post. None of them wanted to comment in opposition to A&O’s policy, though, because they believed it would bring further controversy upon themselves.

Yes, it would be nice to feign ignorance and pretend like everyone is on the same page, but the reality is that we’re not. In 2015, Washington Post contributor Michael Tesler wrote an op-ed titled, “Using the n-word is more common than you (or President Obama) may think.” Tesler mentions how he “asked a nationally representative sample of 1,000 participants in the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, or CCES, how often they had used the n-word over the past five years.” Notably, almost one-third of whites reported using the N-word at least “once or twice” during the time period in question.

After reading about the findings of Tesler’s study, I decided to post my own survey on Facebook, where about three-quarters of my friends are white. 183 people responded, with about 80 percent of those respondents falling between the ages of 16 to 20.

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While admittedly crude, my survey found that 32.8 percent of respondents think that anyone should be able to say the N-word when singing along to a song that features it. Similarly, 31.7 percent of respondents said that anyone can say the N-word out loud when it’s in the context of a specific lyric from a song, such as when quoting it in a discussion with a friend.

Therein lies my next question: should we be shocked by these figures?

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“Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys / This dark diction has become America’s addiction” — Malik Yusef, “Crack Music”

Somewhere in the middle of Lester and Gashaw lies Katheryn Russell-Brown, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at University of Florida Law School. “I feel like for some people, they are using it as a term of endearment,” said Russell-Brown, who is black. “I’m concerned about the political implications of using a word that was used to express hate, disparagement, disgust, and to use it now to other people who were subject to that historically.

“…it’s been adopted by non-African-Americans to use between each other and to use towards African-Americans, and I just don’t think it works. I get it on a personal level, but that too is part of how rap has crossed over. So in other words, it’s one thing if people are saying things in their own communities…personally, I understand they’re using it as a term of endearment, but you say you’ve taken the word and flipped it. Well, now it’s been taken from you and flipped!”

There are layers upon layers of nuances to this conversation, too many to adequately detail in one piece. Nevertheless, one thing is clear: among members of the African-American community, Lester said, the dialogue still rages on. No all-encompassing, universally agreed-upon set of rules exists.

“There are so many people that have different stances and opinions and interpretations,” Wyatt said. “One that pops to mind is the rapper Schoolboy Q, who actually encourages his non-black fans to use the N-word at his concerts.”

Inherently, decisions like Schoolboy Q’s directly oppose what rappers like Kendrick Lamar have done. On the former’s stance, Northwestern sophom*ore Kenny Allen said, “…[Non-black people] should understand that you have the complete moral compass to say, like, ‘Okay, I’m glad Schoolboy Q has given me his personal permission. But me saying the N-word is painful to many people in the black community that aren’t Schoolboy Q.’ And, like, Schoolboy Q’s an especially privileged black person that can’t speak on behalf of all of us.”

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I asked Lester why he thought rappers will use the N-word in their songs, to which he responded rather bluntly, “…it’s the same way that sexism sells!

“If in fact we valued women the way we claimed we do, women would be paid the same amount of money for doing the same amount of work, and we wouldn’t have these objectifying images of women selling hamburgers or women selling anything you don’t see men selling. I say the same thing with black people. If we valued them, then there wouldn’t be this commercial appeal for that rap!”

Lester went on to note how there are rappers who steer clear of the N-word, but they aren’t the ones moving records at a breakneck pace. When asked more specifically about the artist Common, Lester replied, “…he [Common] said that for a minute, then he continued to say it [the N-word] because at the end of the day, it’s what feeds the purse.”

It’s a bleak outlook on things, this idea that more people will tune into music when it’s “sexy” — Lester’s words, again. Nevertheless, there are clear, alternative reasons as to why and how hip hop artists connect with a mainstream audience. The amount of creative license available for artists in the genre provides some of the greatest innovation in the industry today. The technical side of things is something to be admired; even if I don’t personally care for artists like Future and Migos, their production and efforts in ushering in a new wave of rap goes to show how the genre is constantly reinventing itself. There’s a reason that we’ve been playing the same rock songs for decades: it’s because they never evolved.

Also, the straight-up genius of diction and wordplay by some rappers can be downright enthralling. At its core, rap is nothing more than spoken poetry with a little modern flare. Rhyme schemes and general flow aside, artists will often bounce around in telling nonlinear stories through their albums. They also might stop and make a reference to everything from their watches to Ernest Hemingway along the way. In turn, if the thesis of Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You — in which the “bad” the author refers to is all of popular media — is to be believed, rap is actually making us smarter.

Most importantly, though, rap has been an avenue for protest and empowerment since its inception. Before hip hop was the runaway, cultural touchstone for popular American music, artists like N.W.A. — a group who rapped because they saw no other way in which to enact change in their community — made “inherently political music.” More recently, Solange Knowles and others have released songs to inspire black people every day. About her song “F.U.B.U.,” Knowles has said, “I wanted to empower, and I looked to people who have done that in their own ways. I thought of F.U.B.U. the brand, meaning ‘For Us By Us,’ and what kind of power it had and how normalized it became to wear that kind of symbolism every day.”

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“I think it [the N-word] can be really unifying,” Allen told me. “…like in that Solange song, she has one line, ‘Don’t be mad that you can’t sing along.’ As a black person in America, you have so many limits at every turn…being able to say the N-word gives black people just one small bit of power.”

With all that being said, as rap has dominated the Billboard charts, its deeply significant roots to the culture that invented it becomes obfuscated to the masses. For example, Allen brought up Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” in which the artist raps: “Different colored chains, think my jeweler really sellin’ fruits / And they chokin’, man, know the crackers wish it was a noose.”

After dropping his new album Astroworld on Spotify, Scott has seen over 30 million listeners tune into his channel every month. Let me ask you this, though — how many of those listeners are taking a real hard look at Scott’s lyrics before turning on the song in a social setting? How many of them understand what he’s really trying to say there? And when new fans skip out on the history of the genre — and, thus, don’t think about the words they decide to use — well, that’s when things become truly dangerous.

Gashaw wasn’t the only one who ran into problems relating to Blowout 2017, either. Chase Reed, an opinion contributor for The Daily Northwestern, didn’t exactly mince words in writing about his experience with a group of hostile concertgoers.

Describing the incident, Reed said, “The fact that they were not only ignoring but actively spitting in the face of the warning made me mad…if you’re white, in my opinion, you should know the historical context [of the N-word] and not just use it as a free speech argument.”

Reed told me that the purpose of his piece was to highlight the issue and not necessarily steer the conversation, as what he encountered was an isolated incident among many. Nevertheless, since it published, he said he’s received no feedback, not even from the group he encountered at the concert.

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“So they just keep going, saying [N-word] in his face / There’s nothing he can do, he let it get away / It came to the point he couldn’t look ’em in the face / The mirror made him hurl, his reflection disgraceful” — Wale, “The Kramer”

To this day, I still remember all of the lyrics to “Power.” Play it out loud, and you might hear me belt out every verse, every single word.

Except one, that is.

See, around the time I turned 18, I decided to get back into rap. I had a lot of catching up to do, yet when I say I got back into rap, I mean I got back into rap hard. That meant countless nights lost on Genius, appreciating the full extent of our modern-day wordsmiths. And almost two years later, I find my playlist having fulfilled yet another complete transformation.

This time around, however, I made sure to read up on more than just the meaning behind each intricately-woven lyric. Included was Randall Kennedy’s fascinating book, “[N-word]: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” as well as the Jay-Z/Oprah interview and Kendrick’s “Negus” interpretation. If I was to appreciate a form of art, I thought to myself, I needed to understand the raw history that has confused our current cultural climate to the point of sheer divisiveness.

When I approached this story last October, the echo chambers of social media forced me to view that discord on a daily basis. It made writing the damn thing quite hard; even though I’ve thought about it every single day since I first put pen to paper, no one wants to be universally hated by both sides of the aisle. It’s a tough topic to talk about.

Recently, though, I saw someone share a video on Facebook that convinced me to start typing again.

Since last November, this video has gone viral — with good reason. That’s beloved journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates sharing his thoughts on the N-word with the trademark charisma that makes him so good at his job.

“I think for white people…I think the experience of being a hip hop fan and not being able to use the [N-word] is actually very, very insightful,” Coates explains around the 4:20 mark. “It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black.”

Interestingly enough, Coates delivered this passionate take while on tour, promoting his book at…Evanston Township High School, a school just 1.5 miles away from Northwestern’s campus. The woman who asked the original question that led to Coates’ long-winded answer was a Northwestern student; the event she describes to Coates is the exact one that led to the idea for this article. And the Facebook friend who shared this video wasn’t one of my fellow classmates at Northwestern — it was a friend from high school.

Which made me realize: as rap becomes ever more mainstream, this is something that needs to be talked about because it’s never truly irrelevant. It’s always lurking in the shadows, a conversation that no one wants to have but everyone has an opinion on.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to turn a blind eye and act like everyone’s on board with the same ideology. It’s also easy to channel what’s warned about in projects like Get Out — “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could!” — and Atlanta. Being beholden to 2010s white liberalism can be just as bad, especially when considering the groupthink commonly found on social media.

Nevertheless, the bottom line remains consistent. We can all enjoy the great things about rap, the creative license of this form of spoken poetry. The production of incredible beats, the lyrical wordplay, the pure entertainment value of the “rapper-verse.” This is why we tune in when Chance starts dropping tunes on SoundCloud. This is why (some of us) still put up with Kanye’s antics.

But as a consumer of this genre of music, you must at least understand the weight of the words you choose to use. You must understand the real problem of internalized racism, as explored in Wale’s “The Kramer,” the song quoted above. You must understand the discomfort your peers face every day.

Allen told me about the gaming channel he had when he was young. “So I was playing Xbox, like, 10 hours a day. Just because of the way I talk, everyone thought that I was white. And…it was just…like…every white person I met [online] said the N-word. I had to tell so many people you can’t say that, because they were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you were black!’ And that shouldn’t be the deciding factor.”

“Using the word isn’t criminal,” Lester concluded in our conversation. “Nobody is going to come over and handcuff you…you just have to understand the fact that if you use the word, it will likely have social consequences.”

Some will take this all with a grain of salt. I personally can’t do anything about that; people will always live their life the way they see fit. What I can do, however, is leave you with one last quote, courtesy of Gashaw.

“It’s not that hard — everyone wanna be black and say the N-word, but nobody really wanna be black, and that’s the thing that hurt.”

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Nathan Graber-Lipperman is a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism and entrepreneurship from Northwestern University. For more longform from NGL, sign up for his personal newsletter here, and check out more of his work with Unpulgg’d here.

At the Intersection of Language and Culture: Rap and the N-Word (2024)

FAQs

What is the cultural movement associated with rap? ›

hip-hop, cultural movement that attained widespread popularity in the 1980s and '90s and also the backing music for rap, the musical style incorporating rhythmic and/or rhyming speech that became the movement's most lasting and influential art form.

What cultural phenomenon revolves around graffiti breakdancing and rap? ›

Hip hop culture is characterized by the key elements of rapping, DJing and turntablism, and breakdancing; other elements include graffiti, beatboxing, street entrepreneurship, hip hop language, and hip hop fashion.

What is rap culture called? ›

Four foundational elements characterize hip hop culture. The original four main pillars of hip hop include DJing/turntablism, MCing/rapping, B-boying/breaking, and visual/graffiti art. These forms of expression have also developed into further subcultures with lasting legacies.

How has rap influenced language? ›

New words are formed, regular ones are given new meanings, and the normal grammar structures are modified. Much of this lingo is derived from the African American vernacular English, which is logical when you consider that hip-hop was invented in African American neighborhoods.

How has rap influenced society? ›

Hip-hop music culture is a product of African American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino inner-city communities plagued by poverty, the proliferation of drugs, and gang violence in the 1960s and early 1970s. By providing the youth with a sense of identity and belonging, Hip-Hop's strong influence fosters a sense of unity.

Why is hip hop important to black culture? ›

What started off as an outlet for Black Americans to unapologetically showcase who they are while working with what they had ended up breaking barriers and became something that is now celebrated across the globe.

What is the connection between hip-hop and graffiti? ›

Graffiti is considered one of the four elements of hip hop, along with emceeing (rapping), DJing, and b-boying (breakdancing). Graffiti, like the other three elements, is an artform, a means of cultural expression. Like the other forms of hip hip, it also expresses resistance.

What culture influenced breakdancing? ›

Breakdancing, also called b-boying, b-girling or breaking, is a style of street dance developed by African Americans in The Bronx, New York City, United States.

Which of the following cultural and pop culture traditions does rap draw from? ›

Precursors to modern rap music include the West African griot tradition, certain vocal styles of blues and jazz, an African-American insult game called playing the dozens (see Battle rap and Diss), and 1960s African-American poetry.

Is rap a cultural thing? ›

Hip hop, in other words, is a way of living—a culture. The elements of hip hop came together in the Bronx borough of New York City. It was the early 1970s and times were tougher than usual for the poorer parts of urban America.

Who started rap culture? ›

DJ Kool Herc, of Jamaican background, is recognized as one of the earliest hip hop DJs and artists. Some credit him with officially originating hip hop music through his 1973 "Back to School Jam".

What is rap language called? ›

The language used in rap can be classified under a broader term, the Hip Hop Nation Language (HHNL). Hip. Hop Nation Language can be defined as a language which has its origins in the African American Language and. it is one of the many different varieties used by African Americans.

What ethnicity listens to rap the most? ›

Harris) ABSTRACT This study explores why young, White, suburban adults are consumers and fans of hip- hop music, considering it is a Black cultural art form that is specific to African-Americans. While the hip-hop music industry is predominately Black, studies consistently show that over 70% of its consumers are White.

How does rap music affect the brain? ›

Evidence from this study indicates that music may have some effect on emotion, depending on the genre. It is probable that the rap group rated themselves as more aggressive due aggressive lyrics, which activated similar areas in the brain that govern emotional and lingual processes (Besson, Chobert, and Marie, 2011).

Why is rap culture so popular? ›

“One of the reasons hip-hop spread around the world is because those are universal themes that touch everybody, in good ways sometimes and also in negative ways. These questions of identity and immigration and those challenges are seen in many places,” Durand said.

What is rap music associated with? ›

Rap and hip-hop came into being at a time when African-American communities in New York City and elsewhere were being neglected by municipal governments and falling into poverty. Rap music gave a voice and an empowering sense of identity to young people who felt like no one was listening to them.

What is the dance associated with rap? ›

Hip-hop dance is a fusion dance genre with influences from older street dance styles created in the 1970s. These include uprock, breaking, and the funk styles. Breaking was created in The Bronx, New York in the early 1970s.

What is the cultural context of hip hop dance? ›

It has deep historical and social roots in African American culture, having emerged in Black communities living in 1970s New York. While frequently referred to as a singular dance style, Hip Hop dance is part of a whole culture of Hip Hop, that includes Deejaying, Graffiti, Emceeing, and Breaking.

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