What Kendrick Lamar reveals about bad language

Within the genre of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar is an undisputed titan. His hit album To Pimp a Butterfly touched on many themes of social inequity, police brutality, and professional ascendance. His wildly successful album DAMN continued that tradition, which positioned him as one of the most celebrated “conscious” artists of modern music.

To summarize his worldview, in an interview with the Guardian he says, “These are issues that if you come from that environment it’s inevitable to speak on. It’s already in your blood because I am Trayvon Martin, you know. I’m all of these kids.” His fundamental vision of America as a country mired in racist biases inspires much of the messaging in his music. “It’s murder on my street, your street, back streets / Wall Street, corporate offices . . . Donald Trump’s in office . . . But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?”

But because he’s a rapper, this means that his lyrics are frequently laced with the word forbidden to all who don’t share his complexion: nigga. Incidentally, Kendrick has scores of white fans. Occasionally, this means they’ll utter the forbidden word themselves--most likely, quoting him directly. Hypothetically, it’d be rather silly to hold them accountable for this; pretending that the people in question were acting with racism in their hearts. Ridiculous as that may be, it’s exactly the path Kendrick took when inviting a white fan onstage to recite the lyrics to his track Ma.A.d. City.

Ma.A.d. City features the word a total of fifteen times, most often punctuated with “My Nigga.” It brings to mind the Kanye West track “All Day”, which faced similar controversy for its chorus also being punctuated by a similar phrase: “All day, my nigga.” During Kanye’s live performance, it was repeatedly censored by ITV, which was rightly seen as a little silly. Even where the speaker is themselves a member of that group, controversy is sure to follow. 

Kendrick’s naive white fan recited his lyrics exactly as he wrote them. When she got to that part, Kendrick capitalized on the controversy the word inherently provokes. Apparently, he was overwhelmed by frustration that a fan of his would read the lyrics as he wrote them. In retaliation she was booed and berated by an irate audience in a hip-hop rendition of Orwell’s Two Minutes of Hate.

Mostly suspect is the integrity of Kendrick’s motivation behind embarrassing his fan in front of an audience like this. Being the rap icon with an entire arena of fawning fans, there’s no question as to whose favor the power balance is tipped in. There’s good reason to suspect that Kendrick knew full well there was a possibility that she wasn’t going to go silent the moment the most pronounced word in his track appeared. It doesn’t seem unfair to ask the question: did Kendrick set her up to prop himself up as a devoted activist for social justice?

His politics of injustice are well known and documented in his music. Maybe his offense was authentic, but then we must ask the question of whether or not it’s justified in the first place. We live in a popular culture that is either completely unable or unwilling to distinguish intent from speech itself. We don’t take into account context, motivation, or the nature of the speaker themselves when they say something controversial, and this fact is no better represented by the word nigga. 

An artist who understands the importance of context is Schoolboy Q, who encouraged fans to read his lyrics as they were intended to be heard.  “I’m not telling you to go say ‘nigga’ after this, but this is a rap show. I want y’all to participate.” At a concert, much of the enjoyment comes from sharing in the experience, and breaking down barriers. If there’s an unspoken wall put between well-meaning fans, it removes those benefits. Cultural exchange is a good thing, acknowledged as much by Schoolboy Q. In the same way, G Herbo states this explicitly: “I know for a fact that people be at my shows saying nigga. There’s no way around it. [White] people don’t mean any harm when they’re doing that. Some of those people really embrace our culture.”

Clearly, the reality of the word is much different now than it was decades ago. Much of the outrage surrounding it stems from its history of denigration and outright racism. But we also live in a time where it’s championed in nearly every successful rap track, a genre whose listeners are as diverse as the artists themselves. Thanks to music like Ma.A.d. City and All Day, the non-black kids who repeat it musically are repeating it with a tone of veneration, not vitriol or hatred. They likely haven’t seen it used with a hateful connotation outside of movies, it simply hasn’t been apart of our cultural experience. The partially intended outcome of this reinvention of the word is that its dated and its racist implications aren’t taken as seriously, so that it’s sapped of that incisive power.

The most frequent counter you’ll hear is that it is a word that belongs to black people, or “their” word, for the exact reason that they’ve taken the power back from it. But this line of reasoning is simply self-defeating. If it isn’t allowed to be redefined to mean something lighthearted, musical, and fun, it’s not as though racists aren’t going to use it: it’s charged with the meaning you want to take from it. When Kendrick and others treat their fans, who clearly value them for their creative talent and contributions, as racists, they blur the distinction between actual racists and those who obviously aren’t. It’s not productive, and though it gives you a sense of moral superiority and indignation, it doesn’t mend racial tensions--it inflames them. Music and shared cultural enjoyment should build inroads to a common cause and identity, but language policing like the kind Lamar and others promote breeds animosity and exclusion.

We shouldn’t strive to live in a society of gaslit induced-insanity, where we pretend words themselves define a person, or carry a one-dimensional meaning. As adults, we know full-well how important it is to suss out the nuances of language. Burning well-meaning people at the pyre of tolerance undermines your stated aims of equality. Then again, it’s equally important to separate someone’s stated aims and what their actions produce. And if Kendrick and his ideological allies are constantly seeking out reasons to be outraged, it could be that that’s what they want: the instant release of rage and a target it can be heaped on. Even better when that rage can be outsourced to a mindless mob of fans who pounce on command, and totally lack the ability to reason their way out of their primal instincts--especially when it’s distributed among all of them.

In the end, Kendrick’s play to publicly tar and feather a fan backfired in a society increasingly skeptical of language policing and manufactured injustice. While we should be mindful of the word’s history, and universally accept that it shouldn’t be used with hatred, we should realize that words and their meanings evolve--oftentimes, for the better.

Christian O'Brien