I can remember the first time I heard NAV. The Toronto rapper/singer burst onto the rap scene nearly two years ago boasting an impressive co-sign from the The Weeknd, crooning about drugs and obscene wealth over melodic trap beats. None of that mattered to me, though. What caught my attention was that NAV is Indian; a self-style “brown boy” I could relate to.
That’s why it was so confronting when I heard NAV say “n***a”. Most people with a basic understanding of hip-hop culture or even social norms know it’s unacceptable for a non-black person to say the n-word. Yet, NAV’s co-opting of the term is emblematic of a growing trend among young South Asian males. Friends and acquaintances proudly sing the n-word whilst listening to NAV’s music, and adopt it into their vernacular. This begs the question: why do ‘brown boys’ feel comfortable and even justified in using the n-word?
There is little-to-no positive representation of South Asians in the mainstream media. I can remember my excitement when Waleed Aly started hosting The Project. For the first time I felt positively accounted for in mainstream Australia. What little I saw of people like me on TV had came through stereotypical caricatures. Online comedian Neel Kolhatkar sums it up well when he asks “who did I have to look up to? Apu from the Simpsons? Raj from the Big Bang Theory?”
Falu Bakrania, author of Bhangra and the Asian Underground, says “dominant notions of Asian and black men construct themselves relationally, wherein the Asian is seen as being effeminate and the black as hypermasculine.”
For South Asians, hip-hop culture seemed like the antidote to our perceived effeminity. As an increasingly popular cultural marker, engaging with hip hop music allowed South Asian musicians to gain cachet in mainstream media. Using the ‘N-word’ suggests an imaginary relationship to the Black struggle or to the violent inner-city life borne out in hip-hop, supposedly demarcating one as cool and masculine as opposed to bookish and effeminate.
At the same time, hip-hop has almost transcended its Black roots to attain a certain appeal of universality. The themes of resistance and resilience prevalent in hip-hop have been adopted by various minority groups around the world. For young South Asian males, hiphop has become a means of expressing frustration at racism and xenophobia in the post-9/11 era. Politically conscious South Asian rappers like Heems of Das Racist are at the forefront of this pushback, rapping, “They’re staring at our turbans / They’re calling them rags / They’re calling them towels / They’re calling them diapers / They’re more like crowns / Let’s strike them like vipers”.
Many who use the ‘N-word’ recognise the word is steeped in a history of slavery, colonialism and white supremacy. But even those as politically conscious as Heems have attempted to justify their use of the word by affirming their personal affinity with the black experience, drawing parallels between post-9/11 racism and the fight for black rights.
But at the end of the day, ‘brown boys’ do not have to endure the overwhelming material and social disadvantages that are characteristic of being Black.
Ultimately, the issue is not that South Asians shouldn’t participate in hip-hop culture. It’s that we should do so respectfully. We should recognise we are guests in what is predominantly Black culture and we should respect that we will never have a claim to ownership of that culture. And a good first step towards respectful participation is to stop using the N-word.