SZA, The N-Word and How Malaysians Have Still A lot To Learn

by Katricia Lum

Every year, groups of young adults (or older) perform an almost ritualistic pilgrimage to a certain festival situated in the cool forest-y hills of Genting Highlands. Since 2013, Good Vibes Festival has invited a myriad of international artists to grace our shores. From Ellie Goulding (2014) to The 1975 (2016) to Kodaline (2017), the festival certainly creates an inviting environment to listeners of different genres.

Despite its occurrence for 5 years now, the year 2018 was the first time I attended Good Vibes. I’m citing my social anxiety as the reason of my absence though I’ll admit certain pangs of envy hit me every July or August as photos of mutual friends dressed to the nines overflowed my social media feed so when the announcement of the second lineup for this year’s festival was released, I knew I had to go.

Before this, I already made the decision not to go as none of the acts really piqued my interest. However, when Vince Staples and SZA were confirmed acts, I immediately bought tickets. It’s a rarity to see rap or R&B artists performing in Malaysia, so I knew this would probably be the one and only chance of seeing them.

The festival was as imagined, sweaty bodies shrouded by a dense cloud of cigarette smoke and other ahem, substances. Mud wasn’t an issue unlike last year, where everyone traded in their designer sneakers for a pair of wellies. I can say, the majority of the festival was spent shifting between each stage as each act completed their set within an hour – No matter how loudly the crowd shouted for an encore, the artist stuck to the schedule which could be a good or bad thing, depending on how much you liked the following artist.

Vince Staples’s performance was one of the best I’ve seen. His was filled with an exhilarating energy that made the crowd moved non-stop so to even pause for a second to snap a photo to reminisce later seemed pointless.

Next up was SZA whose performance I was hesitant about seeing how in late May, she had tweeted about her voice being “permanently injured” so obviously, I went into the performance with zero expectations. Her set took a little time to begin, I’m excusing it due to the fact that she wore a sari and we all know how complicated saris are to put on.

As she opened up with ‘Broken Clocks’, her voice definitely didn’t sound injured, permanent or not. Whoever her doctor was, I hope he/she was paid accordingly because she blew me away. Of course, the moment Travis Scott’s “I need, I need, I need…” blared through the speakers, the whole crowd screamed in unison – clearly ‘Love Galore’ being a favourite of everyone there. And as she got to the first verse, well let’s just say a huge chunk of the crowd had very liberal thoughts of the usage of the N word.

Now, being educated in a public school and a small town, at that, the racism against Africans which stemmed since the early 1600s was never spoken about, much less taught in schools. The only exposure I had to the N word were in songs and honestly, I never gave much thought to it while I (mortifyingly) sang along. It took the internet to educate me about slurs and the history behind it but even then, the word was casually tossed around by friends in schools.

The birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 certainly helped in educating most people outside America but unfortunately, the incident at Good Vibes seems to say otherwise. This seems to create many questions: was it ignorance or plain racism that so many people decided to sing along when SZA belted out the N-word? Or did those people assume it was “okay” to say it because it was in a song? Or were they still in the dark about this negative connotations that this particular word had? But these questions all had one thing in common: excusing again the plain ignorance of Malaysians who were clearly all aged 18 and over and definitely didn’t live under a rock to not know its racist undertones.

It seems that cultural appropriation isn’t a concept that most Malaysians are aware of, and maybe that’s the cause of the uninhibited use of slurs (that were not ours to begin with). We might be POCs as well but that doesn’t give us permission to use certain words. Being a Chinese, I would never want to use the K word when referring to an Indian and I’d hope a black person wouldn’t call me a chink as well. However, it is common for the minorities here to be made fun of their darker skin colour which seems to even emphasize the insensitivity we showed SZA.

Without stopping the show, she continued on without so much blinking an eye. However, to imagine all the hard work she put into her songs to enable her to travel to this part of the world and to just experience the same treatment that a majority of black people face back in the U.S. This incident was embarrassing, no doubt and I can only hope her tweet after the performance wasn’t related.

But maybe this reveals the fact we Malaysians still have a long way to go when it comes to race-related empathy. It is arguable that even in our own country, race is still a sensitive topic to broach but this doesn’t excuse usage of any kinds of slur, especially during a concert, racism intentional or not. It has never been a better time to equip awareness and knowledge of histories of certain slurs so we can avoid further future incidents.

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