A fascinating discussion: The use of the N-word in music

An interesting thing happened at a Kendrick Lamar show on Sunday.

As many artists do these days, Lamar invited a fan onstage to perform with him during his set at the Hangout Festival in Alabama. The fan in question was a white woman named Delaney and the song she was being invited to rap along with was “M.A.A.D. City,” which features 15 uses of the n-word.

The duet began with the woman rapping along with Lamar, dropping the n-bomb three times. Then the music stopped.

Delaney: “What’s up? Aren’t I cool enough for you?”


Lamar: “You got to bleep one single word.”

Delaney: “Did I do it? I’m so sorry … I’m used to singing it like you wrote it.”

The woman was clearly embarrassed. The music started up again and Delaney was allowed to finish the song, although she clearly refrained from using the n-word again.

Here’s the discussion: Should white people refrain from using the n-word in all circumstances, even when included as song lyrics? Was Delaney being insensitive? Should she have just known that her use of the n-word was verboten? Why would Lamar even invite a white fan onstage to do a track that could create problems? Was he looking to make an example of her?

It’s all very complicated.

This is from SFGate:

Critics have long debated whether it is appropriate for white people to sing or rap the n-word if it appears in song lyrics. Given the historical use of the word as a racial epithet, many people believe a white person should avoid saying the word in any context.

On a November tour stop for his book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” Atlantic columnist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates said he sees the word as a teaching moment for white people. 

“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you,” he writes. “You think you have a right to everything. … You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however — and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.”

He continued: “The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘n—–‘ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”

Others believe that the n-word has no place anywhere, including rap. From Variety:

In all the years I’ve been debating race and racism with white people, the most common response some have offered in their own defense hinges on black people’s use of the N-word.

“If they can say it, why can’t we?”

It’s a question Kendrick Lamar might be hearing a lot following an incident onstage May 20 at the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, who headlined the three-day fest along with The Chainsmokers and The Killers, invited a group of people from the crowd for a rap-along to his 2012 single “m.A.A.d. city.” Things were going great until one young fan, a white female who introduced herself as Delaney, got the lyrics a bit too right.

After she delivered the lines in which the N-word is repeated several times, Lamar became visibly angry, told the fan that a “bleep” was in order (suggesting that, really, she should have known better) and ultimately booted her from the stage,


I believe both sides have valid points. As I try to explain whenever white people challenge me on black use of the N-word, particularly in the rap and hip hop community, it’s all about context. It’s like the difference between a man using the B-word against a woman and another woman doing the same.

The legacy of racism in the United States revolves around the N-word and how many in the white community have historically used it as a verbal weapon against black Americans. It’s as bracing a reminder as cotton, chains and Confederacy memorabilia of what our ancestors endured for centuries.

George Carlin would be amused by this controversy.



Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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