The Ubiquitous N-Word

“A place for everything and everything in its' place.” -Anonymous Mother-in-law



Live from the M.I.T. Bookstore.  Wonder which professor requested this one?


As a child of the 1980s, I clearly remember the advent of the “PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT” label. Originally created to arm parents with a weapon in the battle for the virgin ears, hearts, and minds of their children, the label basically morphed into something more akin to a fashion statement. Even if stores carried the “clean” version of an album, covers with the unmistakable black and white sticker drew kids like a magnet – “explicit content” just looked cooler and sounded more rebellious. While adults duped themselves into believing that they knew what music came into their homes, we kids knew what we really bought with our allowance. And now I wonder if the time is ripe for a “RACIAL ADVISORY” label to warn consumers that while a song might have a hot beat, if played in certain settings, one might catch a beat down.

A couple of weeks ago, after pulling an all-nighter to meet a writing deadline, I mustered just enough energy to drag myself across the Longfellow Bridge, over the Charles River and into Cambridge to go to work. On my way into the office I stopped for breakfast at Clover, one the infamous food trucks parked on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). Like many mornings before, I enjoyed the truck’s eclectic music collection while waiting for my iced coffee, yogurt parfait, and popover. But this morning was different. Instead of folksy bluegrass or a series of alternative rock instrumentals, hip-hop was in heavy rotation. And then I heard it: the n-word. And not just once mind you. Now, I am known for wearing my heart on my face and I noticed a Clover employee noticing my displeasure. As I picked up my order, I thought about the irony of the whole scene: an educated, black, female attorney buying breakfast from two white guys on a truck in a city with arguably the highest concentration of intellectual capital in the Northern Hemisphere, all while listening to the n-word playing over and over again in the background…

About a year earlier another “RACIAL ADVISORY” moment occurred while celebrating the holidays with family. Someone put on a mix CD and I was grooving right along with everyone else until I heard it again: the n-word. I thought to myself — in the words of the great philosopher DJ Smurf: “Hold up! Wait a Minute!” Something was wrong with this picture: my white relatives belting out lyrics to rap songs that include the n-word. And how I would I go about explaining this one to our children? Now I value freedom of expression, but not all music played for personal enjoyment in the privacy of ones’ home, car or earbuds is appropriate when conducting business or hosting large family gatherings. For example, I enjoy listening to “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy during my workouts (or when I am feeling particularly oppressed), but if I decided to go to work and start blasting it over my computer speakers like the reincarnation of Radio Raheem from “Do Da Right Thing,” that would be problematic:

Radio Raheem's boombox from billtron on Vimeo.


Christmas might be your favorite holiday, but even if you own a company, you probably do not play Christmas music there all year long (not even the Christmas Tree Store does that!). Playing music with the n-word in certain settings is like a gay men’s chorus singing “My Chick Bad,” a youth group performing “I Wanna Sex You Up” at the church talent show, or an ice cream truck playing “Money, Cash, Hoes.” Can we say “awkward?”

I did reach out to Ayr, the owner of Clover, who was extremely gracious. Here is a copy of my message...

"I’ve been a huge Clover Fan over the years. I really enjoy your concept, food, and music…until recently. While picking up breakfast this past week, I couldn’t help overhearing a song on the truck playlist that used the word “[BLEEP]“/”[BLEEP].”  As a black woman, and customer, it’s kind of awkward for me to have to hear “[BLEEP]” repeated over and over again in a song while waiting for my granola, yogurt, popover and iced coffee. I understand freedom of expression and I’m sure it was a black artist who wrote the song however, I question whether that song (or that version) needs to be included in the truck playlist. I’d feel the same way if it was a song that was deragatory toward another race, gender, etc. Just something to think about…"

...and Ayr’s response:
"Super sorry to hear this. We have a defined playlist but I haven't updated it in a while and the staff are getting really annoyed at me and playing some of their own stuff. Sorry, I'll track it down and make sure that doesn't happen again.
We’re embarrassed and sorry about your experience. I’ve delivered new music for the trucks to play and made sure all of the songs are clean. And I’ve ensured there is enough music to keep employees from getting tired of the playlist.

Deepest apologies,

Ayr Muir"