A brief, sordid history of why country music can’t use rap music’s “n-word.”
It’s been quite the trip from N.W.A.’s name to Morgan Wallen’s lips…but that trip’s over now.
Morgan Wallen’s choice last Sunday night to refer to one of his white friends as a “pussy ass n***a” was, to paraphrase the artist’s own words, “an inexcusable embarrassment.” In an unprecedented turn of events, Wallen has been “indefinitely suspended” by his label Big Loud Records. He’s had his videos scrubbed from CMT and songs immediately removed from radio playlists by Cumulus Media, Entercom, iHeartmedia, Pandora, and SiriusXM. It’s a spectacular backlash against the top-selling artist in all music at the moment.
The fallout from the event finds Wallen’s supporters on social media asking variations of the same question: “If black rappers can say the n-word, then why can’t a white country star?”
Related to the question of “why can Black people say the n-word, but White people can’t,” CNN’s Darryl Forges explained in a 2020 video. Foremost, it’s noted that the question's nuance deals with the person asking the question as to the problem itself.
Moreover, Black dislike of the use of the n-word is not a monolithic concept. Comedians like Chris Rock and a litany of rap artists are fond of the term. As well, in 2007, the NAACP attempted a metaphorical “burial” of the word. However, the social and historical contexts attached to the time and use of the n-word has consequences. Use the term in 1960, and it’s an aggressively oppressive term with the likelihood of physical unrest attached to its use. in 1990, use the word, and you could be a chart-topping Black musician. Say the n-word in 2020, and you’re either Morgan Wallen ham-handedly making an off-handed comment unaware of the risk of cancellation or a Black person attempting to reclaim the n-word as a colloquial modifier or appellation.
However, racism is a multi-generational plague for which America has yet to discover a cure. Thus, the n-word, in any use, is always attached to its root beginnings in the disenfranchisement of Black people from their civil rights. Therefore, sadly, when civil rights issues are more of a concern than ever before, in America, the use of the n-word is again characterized as being deeply contextualized with racist antagonism.
Amanda Marie Martinez, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate whose work specifically concerns itself with the history of race, capitalism, and popular culture, specifically as it intersects with country music, has an unequivocal response.
“It is never, ever acceptable for a white man to use that word,” Martinez says. “This sort of overt racism works hand in hand with the daily systemic racism in the country music industry that has denied access to black artists for a century now.”
“The question isn’t, ‘Why can’t a white person say the n-word?’ Rather, it’s, ‘What do white people feel they gain by being able to say the word?’” says singer Rissi Palmer, the host of Color Me Country, a weekly radio show on Apple Country that showcases people of color and marginalized country artists throughout the genre’s history.
In examining the issues surrounding why Wallen may have felt comfortable using the n-word, it’s useful to look at white people’s relationship to the word via hip-hop music and culture — and more specifically, how the genre’s regional styles attained ubiquitous pop-cultural relevancy. Namely, this conversation explodes, then evolves, the time a Compton sextet preached their gospel of street knowledge worldwide.
When N.W.A. burst onto the scene in 1987, non-New York rap was still a genre making the most of a limited independent distribution model. The benefit of the car trunk-to-hand operation is that it severely limited who would hear the word n***a employed in rhymes — mostly black people.
But as the music of N.W.A. and other rap artists became more accessible, white people around the country were exposed en masse to verboten language made cool. Miami’s 2 Live Crew rapped about “pussy.” San Francisco’s Too Short often used “biiiiitch.” Scarface, of Houston’s Geto Boys, rapped about how “four walls were starin’ at a ‘n***a,’” while he was “paranoid, sleeping with his finger on the trigger” in their breakout hit “My Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me.”
“Some black people took a word that had a very specific definition — it has been used to denigrate, degrade, and dehumanize us for hundreds of years — and decided to take it back to empower themselves. That’s their prerogative,” Palmer says of the “n-word” and how artists like N.W.A. used it. “White people are not able to change that meaning.”
But that didn’t stop white people from being attracted to the language, especially when Priority Records — a record company run by three white men — distributed N.W.A. albums and other regionalized rap to national retail chains. Commoditizing rap’s cool took an idea essential to black identity — their language — and made it a lynchpin for white-led commerce, which ultimately stripped the “n-word” of its reverse-engineered black power. Some white listeners even felt privileged enough to say it themselves.
This brings us back to Wallen. In 2003, when Wallen was a 10-year-old elementary school student in Sneedville, Tennessee, Atlanta-based Grand Hustle Records artist T.I. reached platinum status with Trap Muzik, his debut album for the label, distributed by Atlantic. By the time Wallen turned 18, half of Billboard’s Top 10 songs of the year had featured artists with regional rap roots from five different cities. For an East Tennessee native who speaks with a twang, that places him at the nexus of regional acts that sound like him: Memphis’ Three Six Mafia (and their member Juicy J), Atlanta stars Ludacris and Waka Flocka Flame, New Orleans’ Lil Wayne, and T.I. While yes, a slew of Southern rappers aren’t exact vocal analogs for Wallen, the vocal swing apparent throughout Wallen’s catalog makes such comparisons obvious.
Add to this Chicago-based Kanye West’s Ray Charles “I Got a Woman”-sampling 2005 single “Gold Digger,” which famously was likely the first time that many white rap and pop music listeners could — because of how the song’s hook was written (“‘cause she don’t mess with no broke n***ers”) — scream the n-word. Something unique emerges. Consistent with all of these emcees is their use of the term “n***a” and “n***er” as hooks, choruses, and lyrics in their best-selling and most anthemic hits.
But for as much as familiarity breeds contempt, it also develops comfort. Via Chicago’s drill, Atlanta’s next generations of trap, and the global impact of the streaming and the blogosphere, the last decade saw a slew of rappers who use the “n-word” rise to dominance in rap’s pop takeover. This has trickled down to a sound and style that has infiltrated country music.
Previous to 2020, country’s hip-hop history has been varied but less than stellar.
Acts like Kid Rock and his label/stablemate Uncle Kracker evolved into Limp Bizkit and Staind clones with the twang turned up to 11. 2001’s “Lonely Road of Faith” is an outlaw-country “Monster Ballad” that fit well into radio formats alongside fare from Warped Tour acts of the time. Listen to Uncle Kracker cover Dobie Gray’s soulful yet plaintive seaside classic “Drift Away” one year later, and hip-hop feels like it’s having a countrified demise.
However, enter Cowboy Troy. The gimmicky, cowboy hat-wearing emcee was affiliated with the early 2000s pop-country collective MuzikMafia. Alongside “Save A Horse, Ride a Cowboy”’s Big and Rich, “Redneck Woman’s” Gretchen Wilson, the Dallas-based emcee released 2005 “I Play Chicken with the Train.” The track’s lightweight pop “hick-hop” bars didn’t hold water with significant numbers of either country or pop listeners. It barely cracked Billboard’s Hot Country Charts’ Top 50.
Notable as well are 90s and early 2000s rap crossover heavyweights like LL Cool J and Nelly, who have found country having a pop-cultural cache that tends to lag a decade behind hip, mainstream standards to be beneficial. Comparatively, though, Nelly’s ability to maintain a near decade-long spot as a featured guest artist to add some flava-ful raps to their already hip-hop leaning productions. Most notably, his partnership with Florida Georgia Line for top-five Billboard Hot 100 chart crosser “Cruise” highlights the best of his lot.
Unfortunately, there have been missteps, too, that have limited greater appeal for hip-hop-to-country crossovers. Much like Nelly, in 2013, LL Cool J — arguably taking a wild stab in the dark for cross-cultural relevance, paired with West Virginia-born country star Brad Paisley for “Accidental Racist.” Lyrics like, “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains” didn’t spur racial reconciliation. Instead, it prompted critics like The Atlantic’s David Graham to note, “It’s…insane to compare jewelry to, you know, slave shackles.”
The desire to move country much closer to rap’s influence not directly involving the use of the “n-word” is intriguing. In contemplating that everything BUT the n-word had been appropriated by country, it leaves an obvious question of considering if white performers in country music — while sober — were hyper-aware of what could occur if they crossed the most dangerous of one-word lines. Unfortunately, one whiskey shot too many later, and what had emerged as a too-close for comfort relationship between white artists and Black styles was rendered grievously harmed.
Statistically, hip-hop culture’s best moments in country’s past twelve months belong to Morgan Wallen. His record-breaking double album Dangerous features the track “Wasted on You,” which shot to Number One on iTunes upon release despite not being an official single. Beyond its deployment of an acoustic guitar and Wallen’s mountain drawl, the trap ballad has little in common with George Jones, Randy Travis, or even fellow rap fans Florida Georgia Line. Instead, it falls more in line with T.I.’s hits like “Whatever You Like,” the Rihanna duet “Live Your Life,” and his Justin Timberlake collaboration “Dead and Gone.”
Because Wallen is not a technically gifted rapper, his attempt at crafting a soulful emcee style feels like a bizarre commingling of Kid Rock at his rap-rock height blended with late-era Elvis’ attempts at being a crooning, bloated loverman. On “Wasted on You,” that voice emerges as a cragged croak attempting smooth intentions. Given the nature of the material — it’s a broken-hearted ballad — the style works. It’s a limited-scope case of the wrong voice crawling its way into the right song. On the hook, the way that Wallen navigates the couplet “All of this time and all of this money / All of these sorrys I don’t owe you honey / All of these miles on this chevy and prayers in a pew / all them days I spent wasted on you” bears the unmistakable imprint of years of listening to pop-crossover trap.
However, when Morgan Wallen crossed the invisible line between rap music and Black culture by using the “n-word” last Sunday night, he finally took what was too far of a public step in what had largely been a possibly too narrowly divided space.
Regarding the first of what should be many reparational steps, Rissi Palmer offers a concise yet definitive proclamation.
“White people lost the privilege to use the n-word the moment that they enslaved and hung Black people. They don’t get to say it. They don’t get to say it for fun or with an ‘a’ or ‘er’ at the end. It’s simple. White people just can’t say it anymore.”
In one final listen to “Wasted on You,” the final verdict lies on Morgan Wallen’s career, as well as the perils of country music aping hip-hop swagger. Foremost, the song feels — like so many pop-country to rap-rock crossovers do — like an entertaining, yet still predictable, vain, and commercial attempt at creating an invisible, metaphorical bridge between different societal, cultural, and racial spaces. These are spaces that, if they were ever unified in real-time, would be riotously revolutionary.
Cannily using rap as an invisible bridge only works if the people crossing it — predominantly white people — are hearing songs that are monetizable as assets yet worthless to the ends of advancing the culture from which they were borne. Ultimately, this action creates weightless white souls engaging with hollow black music. To boldly extend the metaphor, this makes Morgan Wallen a white emperor in new clothes.
Related and quite sadly, in America, the disturbingly racist words white people — like “Emperor” Wallen — often use to both gentrify and celebrate this now often-hollowed, yet once-vaunted musical form impune the dignity of black people.
If for no other reason than not wanting to continue to endure the sheer embarrassment associated with perpetrating these acts, country music should no longer wish to weaponize empty white people with dangerous black words.