Last week a pre-fame video of The Weeknd in the studio surfaced online. In it he freestyles floaty vocals over different beats, goofs around, and at the end of the short clip, over a bhangra-inspired production, begins to ululate nonsense. It’s a pretty pitch-perfect, if garbled, impression of Punjabi music, and feels like something that could only come about in the hallways of certain Greater Toronto Area high schools.
A lot has been written about Toronto’s ethnic alchemy, and the successes of Drake and The Weeknd have spurred unique conversations about the cultural negotiations that can happen here between young people of different ethnic backgrounds. It’s how someone like Ramriddlz, “an Egyptian kid from outside Toronto [who] winds up singing dancehall songs,” can even exist. From the thick of this sociological brew comes Nav, a rapper-producer of Indian Punjabi descent. In late February — just over a year since his self-released tracks “Brown Boy” and “Ten Toes Down” went viral, 10 months after receiving the coveted Kylie co-sign, and about six months after featuring on Travis Scott’s Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight single “Biebs In The Trap” — Nav released a self-titled album on The Weeknd’s XO imprint. The record features a collaboration between the two, “Some Way,” that’s unfortunately not bhangra, but a glowing rap and R&B hybrid track that sounds like House Of Balloons-era Weeknd. In the coming months, Nav, who has opened for a couple of dates on Drake's European Boy Meets World Tour, will perform at Coachella and release a collaboration record with Metro Boomin.
These are super significant co-signs for a relatively unknown and unseasoned artist. But I’m certainly not the first or only person to notice that on “Biebs In The Trap,” as well as the songs “My Mind” and “TTD” from NAV, the musician very openly uses the word "nigga." NAV is a sparsely produced record of Auto-Tuned, self-obsessed musings. On it the rapper brands himself as “brown boy,” which in a Toronto context specifically refers to a person of South Asian descent. And he represents Rexdale, a working class borough that’s historically been home to a sizable Caribbean, African, and South Asian immigrant population. I know and grew up with people like Nav; in the absence of aspiration that reflected our own hybrid South Asian identities, we gravitated toward black culture and role models.
“I know and grew up with people like Nav; in the absence of aspiration that reflected our own hybrid South Asian identities, we gravitated toward black culture and role models.”
This isn’t the first time rap’s fielded an N- word controversy: one arguably tanked Kreayshawn’s career, Heems of Das Racist was confronted at a public lecture, and French Montana, DJ Khaled, and Fat Joe have all been called out at various points for their usage. Given the rapid expanding of our knowledge of race-based issues, the debate over who can and can't say the N-word feels like low hanging fruit in a bigger conversation about oppression: it’s simply way too easy to weaponize, observe, and penalize. (In an old interview Plies gets at the root of the contextual mess this conversation often yields: “On some G shit, I can never be straight with that, but if a nigga from where you from straight with it, that’s on y’all… [The word] don’t offend me, but if you put ‘fuck’ in front of that, or ‘pussy’ in front of that I got a problem.”) I’m definitively of the opinion that it’s not a word non-black people should use, particularly when, like in Nav’s music, it feels extraneous and a juvenile attempt to signify belonging that could be better expressed by someone whose livelihood trades in words. But I’m also definitively aware that if Nav is being financially, or at least socially, rewarded despite his vocabulary, people criticizing him for saying the N-word on Twitter probably won’t change shit.
So it then makes sense to think about how pop music has transmogrified to the point that a non-black artist, co-signed by one of the biggest black pop stars in the world, can openly use racial epithets in his work. Which is a strange contrast to how pop music today can so adeptly absorb and reflect the contemporary language of social justice. Within this context, it feels less like the management apparatus behind Nav somehow isn’t aware of a rhetorical shift and is committing an elaborate trolling instead. It’s still too early to refer to his career as a success, though lyrics like, “Now I pay nothin’ for my sneakers 'cos I’m Nav,” certainly indicate he’s on the up, but Nav’s positioning suggests some people would like to market a South Asian artist in the same way as his black peers. I don’t suspect all audiences are open to receiving a new artist as such, especially at a time when only extreme charisma can can help public figures succeed (and, sometimes, evade personal accountability).
Giving Nav's lyrics a pass is faulty because it ignores the massive problem of racism directed at black people by South Asians both in the diaspora, as well as in countries like India where African students are routinely assaulted. This is a distinct cultural legacy, something that carries through an overwhelming majority of South Asian households I know, established by colonization and perpetuated by American white supremacy. Using the N-word in his music is Nav’s way of suggesting proximity to an experience that ultimately isn’t equivalent. Typical for 2017, memes crudely but succinctly illustrate this divide by positioning Nav as a geek or corner store employee, nudging at the model minority myths attached to South Asians, as well as taking jabs at his masculinity.
“Pop music has transmogrified to the point that a non-black artist, co-signed by one of the biggest black pop stars in the world, can openly use racial epithets in his work.”
In her book Bhangra and the Asian Underground, San Francisco State University professor Falu Bakrania theorized that, in the U.K., “dominant notions of Asian and black men construct them relationally, wherein the Asian is seen as being effeminate and the black as hypermasculine. Although South Asian men have not been constructed unilaterally and transhistorically as effeminate, in urban youth culture in Britain black masculinity remains a prominent signifier of hipness.” In North America, where the white mainstream inhales any trace of black cool, I’d suggest that Nav isn’t immune from Bakrania’s analysis.
Late last year I spoke with Kindness for an episode of his RBMA radio show that was all about Desi music culture, where he posed these questions: “To what extent do South Asians align themselves with other minorities, specifically black artists? Do South Asians in Western music industries rely too much on a template of success based around black entrepreneurship and artistry? Or do some prefer to align with white music cultures?” I’m hard pressed to think of artists that don’t fit into the binary that Kindness presents — Nav included. Even M.I.A., who by late 2000s standards successfully synthesized global electronic sounds and connected migrant struggles , has come to public reckoning for not adequately articulating and acknowledging just how much of her music erases the black originators behind it. And the flip side of this is South Asian artists who perform pre-fabricated, simplified ideas of Desi culture — bindis, Bollywood, bhangra — specifically for mainstream Western consumption. The problem boils down to a lack of complexity for consumable South Asian identities in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.; we have no preset indicators for how to be saleable as ourselves in a Western market.
Working with no parameters, Nav’s cobbled together an image that feels stuck in a high school hallway. On NAV he sums this up with the patently ahistoric lyric, “First brown boy to get it poppin.’” Maybe taking a wider, perhaps cautionary, look at those who came before or continue to work as musicians might help him find self-determination. It's okay for Nav to try different things to figure out what his identity is, and could even make his music relevant in a unique way. I’ve been wanting to talk to Nav directly about this for months, though I suspect he'd struggle to define his perspective in a way that would satisfy the public, but he’s still not accepting press. A request to provide a comment around these issues for this story has not yet been returned. Maybe Nav hopes that something that feels as ordinary or forgivable to him as it is distressing to others will eventually just be forgotten — like most things on the internet.