there was one notable crowd event: during the house DJ's set that was spun before the performers came on, said DJ threw on "return of the crooklyn dodgers," a song that, like many others, contains multiple invocations of the n-word. like every other hip-hop show ever, the crowd was rapping along to its favorite songs, "return" being one of them. as chubb rock spit his verse, a white guy standing next to me used the n-word while rapping along, just like most everyone else there. a black guy and his two friends who were standing next to this white guy took offense, and the black man said to the white man "what did you just say?!" the white guy got all nervous and apologetic and said "look, i was rapping along to the song. i didn't mean to offend anyone and I am not looking for a problem."
the situation was defused fairly quickly (although the black guys kept joking about the white guy among themselves for the rest of the night), but it got me thinking: should non-blacks be using the n-word when reciting rap lyrics? it's a complicated question.
this reminded me of the furore and subsequent, highly illuminating discussion around the MLK n-word episode of US cartoon series the boondocks. martin luther king comes back from the dead and ends up referring to a particularly stereotypical group of underclass blacks as 'ignorant n*****s'. the following uneasy denials, affirmations and soul-searchings from a variety of black thinkers, with as great a variety of positions on the word and its use, only served to underscore how culturally axiomatic the n-word is, and how many isues of ownership, appropriation, difference and prejudice are unpacked when it comes into such public focus.
for me, the asterisks in the above quote probably serve to show my own views. like the guy from joey's gig anecdote, i'm a white man who loves hip hop - one of the many whom hip hop itself is often in such denial about - but unlike him i'd really be thinking twice about articulating the word in public. at home, on my own, my lips will make like q-tip's and i *will* rap along no matter the language - and who's there to complain? but ultimately, in terms of public space, it's not my word to use - and i'd be keen not to reduce the complexity of my reasoning on that, keen *not* to make it a 'simple question'. the white guy from the story felt hellish uncomfortable, no doubt. but so he should have. the fact that the next time he might not use it, that he might even think about the political and historical implications of him saying it, will do some justice to the contradictions of race, language and history that the word represents.
two more points. there's a different n-word where i live. in glasgow, scotland, the underclass is white - very white, we're talking about a city covered by a perpetual raincloud - and wear lots of sportswear and burberry. they hang out in similarly clad groups on street corners, wind people up, drink tonic wine, smoke hash. they are the uneducated, unrespectable working-class youth - the 'neds' - the n****** of scotland. people who are not neds love the word 'ned'. they use it to laugh at these kids, to despair at their pointless lives, to articulate their fear of them. they don't notice their energy, their style, the way they're reinventing the english language. they don't pay attention to the cultural and economic conditions which have created them.
oh, 'neds' don't refer to themselves as 'neds' - yet. see the parallel? in their honour, and in anticipation of the day they take the word for themselves, for me they are now n***.
final thing. where do women fit into this? no matter where you stand on either n-word - n***** or n** - you would probably stop short of using it to describe a woman. in glasgow, the clumsy term 'nedette' has emerged. i have also heard this suffix used on n*****. aside from that, black women are faced with the ever-predictable b-word or h-word... what kind of a choice is that? tell me ... but before you do, consider this. language has always excluded and silenced women more fundamentally, more comprehensively than any other grouping. whether your n-word is for a black person, white person or whatever colour, whatever class, think of the way the 'person' is assumed to be male and wonder, uncomfortably, like the white guy from the story, how many more silences and asterisks might have to creep into your discourse before you've thunk it through properly.