Rap Lyrics and White Racism

A Morning Joe discussion about a University of Oklahoma fraternity highlights the problem with equating hip-hop and bigotry.

Perhaps, like many people of many races, some language in some rap makes you uncomfortable. But perhaps you’d nevertheless be categorically more uncomfortable with a bus full of white fraternity men chanting in favor of segregation and the extralegal murder of black people for their race.

On Wednesday's segment of Morning Joe, though, the hosts seemed to conflate these two kinds of speech.* Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, along with the Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, discussed the controversy at the University of Oklahoma's chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which my colleague Terrance Ross explains here. Members of the fraternity—whose house has been closed, and two of whose members were expelled—were singing things like "There will never be a nigger in SAE! / You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me." But initially, instead of focusing on the fraternity brothers, Brzezinski, Scarborough, and Kristol focused on something different: rap music.

In particular, Brzezinski singled out Waka Flocka Flame, a goofball Atlanta MC who canceled a planned show at the school, saying he was "disgusted and disappointed" in SAE's actions. "He shouldn't be disgusted with them, he should be disgusted with himself," she said, noting that Flame uses the n-word in his own lyrics. Later in the show, she backed away from this argument, but her initial comments echoed an often-repeated idea: that black musicians using racial slurs in rap music are no different than white fraternity brothers chanting racial slurs as a community ritual.

There have been a few recent, disturbing cases where rappers were prosecuted on the basis of their rhymes, but in general, people understand that there's a distinction between what Waka Flocka Flame says in songs—artistic expression in service of creating a feel or mood—and discussions of lynching. If you need a refresher on what exactly lynching entails, you can look at some horrifying images here.

There is some nuance to add to the discussion, and Willie Geist tried—mostly without luck—to do so. "I'd love to never hear that word again ... but there is a distinction between a bunch of white kids chanting about hanging someone from a tree ... and this is a term that you hear in hip-hop that African American guys sometimes in certain contexts call each other," he said.

Geist raises two important points, one about the use of the slur in rap, and one about the use of the term in general. On the first, it's useful—as so often—to return to the social critic and thinker Chris Rock.

Can white people use the word, he asks? And his answer is, "not really." A good test case and possible exception is rap:

What are the rules when a Dr. Dre song comes on the radio or plays at a club? What is the procedure that goes into effect? 'Cause sometimes I'm with my white friends and a Dr. Dre song will come on, and there's a lot of "nigga"s in a Dr. Dre song. And they want to enjoy it, but they can't really enjoy it around me. They start taking out the "nigga"s, or mumbling the "nigga"s, and it's just a sad sight to see. I know when I'm not there, they lean into that shit. "He's not here! Turn it up!"

Rock's rule is that if you're white you can use the word, but only if it's in the song. (White folks: You may want to use greater discretion if you're not in fact a friend of Chris Rock's. Kristol suggested, in the course of the Morning Joe discussion, that the Oklahoma students were simply repeating what they'd heard, but the Rock Rule doesn't even come into play, since what they were heard chanting is not in fact a rap lyric.)

Geist raised a second and more important point, which is that the context in which the word is used, and the person who does the using, makes a serious difference in the power and connotation of a word. My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates used an analogy to explain it in 2013:

My father’s name is William Paul Coates. I, like my six brothers and sisters, have always addressed him as Dad. Strangers often call him Mr. Coates. His friends call him Paul. If a stranger or one of my father’s friends called him Dad, my father might have a conversation. When I was a child, relatives of my paternal grandmother would call my father Billy. Were I to ever call my father Billy, we would probably have a different conversation.

It's the context that matters, Coates wrote, leading him to conclude that "when [black NBA player] Matt Barnes used the word 'niggas' he was being inappropriate. When [white NFL players] Richie Incognito and Riley Cooper used 'nigger,' they were being violent and offensive."

Of course, the SAE case is even more cut and dried than that. This wasn't just about deciding when casual use of a term was unacceptable. It wasn't even just an awful use of the slur. This was about hanging black people.

It's important to make careful distinctions between different kinds of speech in conversations about race, particularly when the discussion is being held among three prominent, white media figures. It's distracting to take an obviously malicious instance of racism and compare it to a rap lyric.

It's a point that Brzezinski herself made on MSNBC, later in the afternoon. "There is no moral equivalency between any lyrics and what happened on that bus,” she said. “Lyrics have nothing to do with the actions that happened on the bus.”

And if there’s no moral equivalency, then prosecuting black culture and looking for racists in hip-hop is no way to reckon with white racism.

* This post has been updated to clarify Mika Brzezinski's comments about the racial slurs made by fraternity brothers at the University of Oklahoma.