Dappy Take Note: the N Word Isn't Yours to Reclaim When It Can't Be Used Against You
The Debrief: The real problem with the Dappys of the world reclaiming the n-word is this: who are they reclaiming it from?
Before this week my knowledge of ex-N-Dubz frontman Dappy was pretty patchy. I know that my old school friend Tasha has a teenage story about dancing with him in a club in Tooting, I recall his songs with Tinchy Stryder and (bizarrely) Brian May, and I remember avoiding his naked pictures when they were floating around twitter. Now, however, I know something else. Dappy, a 28-year-old rapper of Greek Cypriot origin, uses the N-word.
Reaction to Dappy’s line in his new freestyle Tarzan 3 ('I ain’t racist/I got black BMs… fuck it/shout out to all of my n*gg*s”) was immediate and, as far as I could tell, mostly scathing. While some musicians on the scene like Donae’o pledged their support, Black British rappers like Mikill Pane and Amplify Dot were vocal with their annoyance online. Dappy, meanwhile, was unapologetic, tweeting 'if the word N***a means black to you then your [sic] Racist. We took that word and made it our own.' Deleting his initial message, he later followed up with a less abrasive but equally unrepentant: 'my language is a reflection of where I am from, so whilst it is sad that I may have offended a few individuals, and I am genuinely sorry for that, I will never apologise for who I am.'
Where to begin? Well, Dappy is partly right – his language is in many ways a reflection of the inner city London, rap world that he grew up (and got famous) in. A posh uni might have smoothed out my accent but I grew up in South East London, and I remember the (now embarrassing) year or two when myself and the other black kids used the n-word as a catch-all term for one other. The socio-economic background of many non-black people, as well as their black friends, partners and even children can often give them, rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly) a sense of ownership over blackness and the slurs that come with it that is often difficult to lose.
Reclaiming words – who does, who is allowed to, is it even possible at all – is a minefield that I believe will never be truly cleared. The spectrum of oppressions that so many of us sit on is littered with hurtful words, slurs from the past and the present that will always have the potential to cause pain. Alongside these insults, however, is a sea of (often young) people, desperate to dull the sting by claiming these words for themselves, a pre-emptive strike against a world that both fears and derides marginalised identities.
While there are generally unacceptable racial slurs like the n-word and the p-word that the black and Asian kids of my youth used to throw around with abandon, we also have disabled activists referring to themselves as ‘cr*ps’ and gay men using ‘f*gg*t’. Battles between the trans community and drag queens regarding the latter’s use of the t-word are ongoing, sex workers condemn causal use of ‘whore’ while encouraging ‘whorephobia’ to describe the stigma of their work, and there are ever-louder voices calling themselves ‘fat’ in an attempt to shift the word’s status from slur to mere description.
‘Queer’ is perhaps the most successful case of a slur that is generally accepted to have been reclaimed. The modern, Western LGBT+ community has broadly embraced the inclusivity of the term and the wider world has followed suit. Why, then, did ‘queer’ infiltrate the mainstream while the n-word has not? My theory is it’s to do with status, power, and who used it first.
Race, gender and the perceptions of the two have always had an interlinked history, particularly in the United States. In the mid-1890s, the U.S. began to establish and classify parameters for what it meant for bodies to be black or white as well as gay or straight. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled black and white races were ‘separate but equal’ a handful of years after terms such as ‘homosexuality’ were first defined. While it’s important to remember there are many, many differences between the past impact of ‘queer’ versus the historical weight of slavery that the n-word is burdened with, even their attempted reclamation has similarities.
Both slurs began to gain traction in the 1980s and 90s, typically in inner city areas where queer and black communities were prominent. However while the middle class and white faces of the Gay Rights movement championed ‘queer’, young black rappers who were often associated with violence and crime were the ones using the n-word. ‘Queer’ soon became the preferred term by academics, and the word slowly but surely found itself with backing from the establishment, while the n-word continued to actively rail against it. Black people using the n-word with each other – particularly when they tell white people not to use it too – will always be a rejection of whiteness, a dismissal of the status quo. ‘Queer’, instead, has allowed the often fragmented LGBT+ community to come together under an umbrella of solidarity and support. For many black people, the n-word will never be able to do this. I also think there’s something to be said about the Black British relationship with the word – I’m not sure why, but I feel less inclined to use it than I think I would if I was American. While neither experience is ‘worse’ than the other, there’s an ocean of difference between Black Americans and Black Brits, and a part of me feels the word is slightly more theirs than mine when it comes to trying to reclaim it for myself.
But, back to Dappy. I’ve no doubt that he, surrounded by young black people using the n-word in a un-prejudiced, often affectionate way, feels a sense of reclamation over it. It is not a slur to him, not in this context, and I can even accept that he and other non-black people may feel a sense of empowerment when they use this word to stand with the black community they feel very much a part of. The real problem with the Dappys of the world reclaiming the n-word is this: who are they reclaiming it from? Sure they may feel empowered, but what by? I might sing along with the word or quote it in a poem but I try not to use it, however I refuse to tell other black people to do the same. Black people who can be affected by the word have a right to try and claim some ownership, and it is not up to one of us to tell another what they can or cannot feel empowered by. The sting of a black person insulting another with the word will never be like the sting of someone who isn’t black using it. Non-black people, regardless of the context, do not and cannot pick up a word to reclaim when it was always within their grasp.
In his poem Calling a Spade a Spade, poet Kayo Chingonyi refers to the n-word as a 'sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script/or pitched from a transit van’s, rolled-down, window”. I’ve been called the word only once, by a woman on the Southbank who quietly spat it at me in a way I will always remember. Black people are the ones who can be called the n-word. Black people feel the sting. Dappy, like everyone else who isn’t black, will never truly be able to understand it.
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