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Can White Musicians Perform Songs Containing the N-Word Without Being Offensive or Racist?


I have a serious question for the Blend about race and race-relations that impacts me personally.

As a gay attorney living in DC, I typically write on legal issues affecting the LGBT community, but today I'm writing in my capacity as a professional musician to ask a question about race.  I am a white, gay professional singer who has recently branched out from classical and opera into cabaret and popular music.

In the process of finding out what kind of songs are suited to my “pop” voice, I have encountered many songs by African-Americans and Blacks that use the word “nigga”.  (My understanding is that the word “nigger” is exclusively the province of white racists and Dr. Laura.)  Some of these songs fall within the scope of my professional musical interests.  But nevertheless, because they contain a form of the n-word, I hesitate to perform these songs in public.

We all know how awkward it is when performers bowdlerize song lyrics to avoid swearing or offending their audience–especially when everyone in the room knows what the words of the song actually are.  As a matter of artistic expression, I believe that, if a song is worth singing, it's worth singing as it was originally written.  To my mind, to do otherwise would be tantamount to censoring the original artist.

So, what should I, as a privileged white male, do when deciding whether to perform really amazing songs written by African-Americans and Blacks that happen to contain racially-challenging language?

I do not wish to ignite a racial conflict on the Blend.  By asking this question in an open forum, I wish to demonstrate a desire for your input and a willingness to listen to your reasoned judgment on this issue.  I work hard in my personal and professional life to be sensitive to racial issues and to counterbalance my white privilege whenever possible.  I also wish to remain true to myself as an artist.  Typically, these two things are not in conflict, but it seems that, in this situation, they are.  I genuinely don't know how to resolve this issue, and I want to do the right thing socially and artistically.

Help?  I welcome your thoughts in the comments.


An example of a song that I would like to perform is embedded below.  It uses the word “nigga” twice with amazing rhythmic and lyrical effectiveness.

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