Whats everyones take on the N word being used in lyricsWhats everyones take on the N word being used in lyrics by Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Dead Kennedys, Elvis Costello, The Fall, John Lennon, Public Enemy etc? I know it’s all about context but who is getting to decide the context? Not trying to cause a meltdown here – just genuinely curious…

The BLM campaign has highlighted the deep rooted problems we have as a society. Getting rid of slave traders statues is an easy one – there is no middle ground there. The debate then moved to old TV shows and comedies like Fawlty Towers seeing one episode being taken down for the use of the N word.

But what if this was applied across all the arts? is the word so offensive that the songs by the above artists should be removed from their albums, streaming, youtube etc? or is it all about context? or if the singer is in character – if so is that not the same as Fawlty Towers being in character? can context be enough with such an offensive word? who decides the context?  where will this end? is it time to move on from the use of these kind of words whatever the context? or is art allowed to provoke no matter what it provokes?



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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. I think it’s about context. I have the Oliver’s Army track and I assume the “one more white n****r” is referring to killing in the name of war, or maybe reference to the troubles in Ireland. Language is forever changing and evolving. Part of me thinks “the are only words, they can’t really hurt”. If they are used in an abusive context absolutely wrong, but if not – what is the problem?

    • It’s called reappropriation, and ‘black people’ isn’t a common noun, moron, you don’t need to capitalize it.

  2. To me John it’s always about how the word is used, the same way the word ‘queer’ was taken and used by the LGBT community. Not a problem in the right context. Can you imagine a world of hip hop without the use of the word? Does that mean NWA would have to delete their entire catalogue?

  3. A tale of two songwriters: My friend Yola has an interesting take on this, in relation to another songwriter friend Gretchen Peters. Peters’ (who is white) in her song ‘Idlewild’ uses the n-word in a daring and provocative way which makes me extremely uncomfortable – which I’m 100% sure is her point. The word is used in the historical context of JFK and the civil rights movement. Yola (who is black) despite being a big fan of Gretchen Peters objects to the usage, saying the word isn’t hers to use. I don’t want to put too many words in Yola’s mouth on this, but I think in essence she’s saying that black people have the right to reclaim and (if they wish) re-purpose that word, white people do not.

    It reminds me of the way Dead Kennedys used the word in a similar usage in Holiday In Cambodia; it puts the word into the mouth of a narrator character rather than the singer themselves. I think you have to see white people using it in a completely different frame to black artists. NWA’s use is completely different in context to thoughtful singer-songwriters like Costello, Gretchen Peters, Nick Cave and all the others you listed.

    (For what it’s worth, as a songwriter, I would *never* use the word. Not only do I bow to Yola’s experience as a black Briton on this one, I don’t have Gretchen’s skill to even attempt it.)


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