Encountering the 'N' word in music education settings
The seemingly widespread lack of awareness and training on the subject, both in and outside of the classroom, make this an issue in numerous everyday settings, and a particularly challenging one to approach in music learning environments. This comes despite the fact ‘N’ word is in such prolific use within mainstream music and popular culture. It can often seem like the elephant in the room but hopefully, the more we are able to talk, listen and share, the more our understanding and learning will grow.
OK, so lets’ deal with this!
A little background
Originally from the Spanish word ‘negro/a’ meaning ‘black’, the word became a derogatory racist insult used by white oppressors during the Slave Trade in the North Americas (16th-19th centuries).Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it was used to develop and strengthen a stereotype of Black people being ‘lazy, stupid, dirty and worthless’.
After a period of relative dormancy, the ‘N’ word was reborn in popular culture during recent years, being normalised by rappers such as Kanye West, 50 Cent and Jay-Z; comedians Chris Tucker and Chris Rock; and used prolifically in films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained, and by Denzel Washington's character in Training Day (2001).
In some peoples’ views, this newer-found mode of use has been a way to reclaim and re-appropriate the word, to help empower Black people after so many years of being misrepresented, caricatured and stereotyped. Despite its recent and seemingly more affirmative cultural identity, the ‘N’ word is still predominantly a word of disrespect. The power of its original use as a term of exclusion and prejudice still carries a great weight of purposeful cruelty, and it is arguably now the most offensive word in the English language, with many still considering it offensive even when not intended as a racial slur.
It’s relevance to young people and learners
Regardless of rappers and cultural influencers often claiming it as a symbol of "street authenticity", the ‘N’ word’s use most often remains derogatory (even in these contexts). For example, in denoting someone of disrespectable or lower (‘street’) class, or a person involved in illegal or socially unacceptable behaviour, such as ‘running drugs’ in housing projects or being violent towards women. ‘Street’ here becomes synonymous with ‘hip’, which carries a whole new weight and potential for discussion, debate and understanding.
The ’N’ word’s controversial status in edge-walking between culturally appropriate and risky behaviour or identities makes it clear how it’s use (whether in speech or in music) often holds such appeal for younger audiences, who themselves are testing social boundaries and attempting to define their identities. It’s important therefore, for interactions and discussions to be held sensitively and remain open, with room for exploration and without finite assumptions of ‘right or wrong’.
Using or referencing the word (practitioners)
The ‘N’ word permeates so much of the lyrical content in mainstream music today. This, along with the complicated and difficult history surrounding it, means it can be a massive challenge for people to know how to approach and acknowledge it’s use and power, to understand what is appropriate in what context, and to facilitate any kind of constructive discussion.
So how might you, as a music educator or facilitator go about discussing, or using music in your lesson that references the ‘N’ word? How could you safely negotiate any suitable type of exchange, for example within a multi-racial or multi-cultural setting? What can you do to open dialogue, understanding and awareness if a young person, or even colleague uses or references the word, without shutting down the conversation or causing more harm and upset?
As a practitioner it can be effective to facilitate a conversation about the subject. However, it’s important for non-Black practitioners to be mindful of the history and context of the word, to be sensitive in facilitating exchanges, and to remember that it is NOT appropriate for a non-Black practitioner to say or repeat the ’N’ word, in any context. This is because it’s use by a non-Black practitioner could likely be particularly triggering for others. Instead, refer to it as “the ‘N’ word”.
Black practitioners with shared ancestry and history should also be mindful of whether it is appropriate to use the word outright. From an ancestral point of view, there may be a right of use, though it is also necessary to consider appropriate use in terms of educational setting, and the context and suitability to the group you are working with.
You may want to request extra support from your colleagues and/or education establishment on the above subjects, or perhaps even find out about any relevant policies or protocols that may be in place to help support your practice. For example, certain groups, projects or organisations may decide it necessary to be able to use music containing the ‘N’ word without censorship, in order to connect better with the learning material and/or participants, and to allow for more open discussion, and different types of learning outcomes.
Using or referencing the word (students/participants)
You may come up against questions from students or participants such as ‘If black people use that word all the time, why can't I?’ or ‘If Jay-Z and 50 Cent are using it in their raps, why can’t I?’
The reasons stated in the above paragraphs also serve to explain that, whilst it may be enjoyable to listen and sing along to your favourite song without censorship, and that this may be fine in privacy, it has the risk of being offensive to others and is most likely not appropriate in more public and diverse contexts. This could be a great potential starting point for discussion on ‘What it means to be exclusive or inclusive’.
You may also like to discuss with your learners that rapper Eminem has said it's not okay for him to use the "N" word and perhaps suggest that: if you're tempted to say it, just ask yourself, "What Would Eminem Do?"
Music containing the word
Try to find clean versions of songs to use in the classroom (unless decided otherwise with your education establishment/project colleagues). If you are looking to use material containing the ‘N’ word for educational purposes, make sure you are well resourced to present and have discussions about this. Ideally, try to find support, information and/or feedback from other diverse practitioners.
Unless you have the relevant experience yourself, you should consider partnering with a practitioner of diverse background to co-deliver your lesson or project. This could not only support you as a practitioner, but also give an authentic and legitimate voice to your learning material that allows for even more effective outcomes and connections.
Useful links/references for the Tips and Guidance for educators section