I did not enjoy Young Thug’s set at Hopscotch.
That’s partly because he started obscenely late, wasting the time of more than 1,000 people during a music festival that packs every last minute with interesting programming. And it’s partly because I could tell three minutes into it that I had already seen this show before, and it was called Rich Homie Quan at N.C. Central’s Homecoming, probably the worst show I’ve ever witnessed.
But my biggest grievance with Young Thug’s performance wasn’t even about Young Thug. It was about almost everyone else, before he came on stage, when an undulating, multi-colored sea of hundreds of white people shouted—multiple times and with shocking clarity—“NIGGA!” in full-throated unison.
For me, it was the most jarring manifestation yet of a phenomenon that has boggled my mind for most of my adult life: the obsession of white people with the privilege of saying the N-word.
I go to a lot of rap shows, so I don’t exactly clutch my pearls when I hear a white person say it during a song at this point. It happens at almost every one, and it usually isn’t subtle. Rather than dance around it while rapping along, they do what most white people do when presented with potentially racist annoyance—plow through it like a Brink’s truck.
But Friday night, even I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the spectacle in Memorial Auditorium. As the DJ ginned up the crowd for Thug’s late arrival, he played a number of radio hits, most of them featuring gratuitous uses of the N-word. Among them was Waka Flocka’s “Hard In Da Paint,” which he would occasionally cut off so as to let the audience finish a line, creating cringe-worthy moments like:
DJ (voice of Waka Flocka, black person): “I go hard in the — (sound cuts out)”
Crowd (95 percent, white): “Motha-fuckin’- paint, NIGGA!”
The first time I heard it, I hoped I had imagined the volume. But the next time it came around, it was just as loud, just as clear. For those who’ve never seen a horde of white folks yelling a variation of “nigger” together, allow me to state the obvious: it’s very creepy.
Really, in any variation, the word should not be used by white people. Period.
Its historical context as a marker of white power and oppression has left it with more baggage than perhaps any other word in the English language. It has been shouted during beatings, lynchings, cross-burnings, and mutilations. It has been yelled during false accusations of black men raping white women, during searches for runaway slaves, and at slave auctions. Even today, the word is used by poor and prejudicial whites to retain some semblance of status in a world that is rapidly changing.
When considered in the context of that troubled history, the usage of the N-word by young whites for entertainment purposes begins to seem not just flippant and misguided, but latently racist. It points to a broader understanding that the word, like everything else, is ours to use if we want, to discard if we don’t.
That sense of entitlement—yes, white privilege—is a constant in the white American experience, and hip-hop listeners are no exception. “I’m paying to see your show. I buy your music,” many think, “but you’re going to make me self-censor words as I sing along? Hell no.” Like most of society’s biggest “infringements” on white people, the unwritten rules around the N-word are a mild inconvenience sometimes treated with the severity of a lifetime prison sentence.
Other fans are even more brazen, basing their N-word privileges not on support for the music or status as an ally but instead on colorblind equality: “If they can say it, why can’t I say it? We’re all the same. Don’t make this about race.”
This kind of tone-deaf appeal is literally one step below asking why there isn’t a White History Month. If we’re all equal, why is the median wealth of black families less than one-sixteenth that of white families? Black people account for just 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of its prisoners and 42 percent of inmates on death row. And in the not-so-distant past, white people could own black people. Still sound equal to you?
But convenient historical amnesia and supposed colorblindness aren’t the only reason for our false sense of entitlement to the N-word. There’s also the pervasive popularity of the word in everyday American life.
Once upon a time, rappers and their ilk were relegated to a lower rung of American entertainment known as “urban.” Artists who frequently used the N-word—the Drakes and J. Coles of yesterday—received the bulk of their attention in limited realms.
Now, such artists are the darlings of network television, the rights to their music leased for sports broadcasts and sleek corporate commercials, their lyrics looped endlessly on Top 40 radio. A white American no longer needs to be seeking out black culture or black people to be hearing the N-word (or the empty pocket where it’s been edited out) multiple times a day. To wit, last month, writer and activist Shaun King posted an exchange between a group of white students at an Orlando high school, in which the topic at hand wasn’t whether or not to say the N-word, but which version of it was most appropriate. It has gone mainstream.
In hip-hop, this new social norm, where white people are perfectly comfortable with casually using the N-word, has not gone unnoticed. The bizarre reality of black artists regularly having a crowd of white people joyously shout the N-word at them, particularly at large festivals like Hopscotch, is now so ingrained that rappers even write about it.
On the Macklemore song “Need to Know,” Chance The Rapper says, “I remember opening for Ben, wasn’t no liquor at the show/And now the white girls call me ‘nigga’ at my show.” Vince Staples, a rapper from Long Beach, California, who performed at Hopscotch this year, makes the point even more strongly on his song “Lift Me Up”: “All these white folks chanting when I ask em, ‘Where my niggas at?’/Goin’ crazy, got me goin’ crazy, I can’t get with that.”
Widespread use of the N-word, by people of all races, now seems to be the status quo. And like most bad things in the world, it persists not because of the vocal minority of people with deplorable convictions, but the majority who simply follow the crowd. In a pop culture landscape in which the N-word seems ever-present, and where a crowd of white people shouting it together is just another day at Coachella, what’s the harm, right?
Blackness and hip-hop are forever intertwined, but they are not the same thing. Through the new mixed mainstream of television, iTunes, Spotify, and Top 40 radio, everyone has been invited under the hip-hop umbrella—but that doesn’t mean that everyone is now a part of the black community. Being a part of one does not mean being a part of the other.
For all of American history, the N-word has been a brutal, inescapable title that has dogged black Americans from birth until death. It is not, however common it may now seem, an object of white fascination to be used whenever we want to turn up.