“Dance with the Devil” and the N-word

I was browsing reddit, as I am typically found doing and came across a new song.

Fair warning: the song contains graphic lyrics and content that may not be for everyone.

Now, my usual way of enjoying a song is to listen to incessantly until I can no longer take it and then I discover a new song; rinse and repeat.

Anyhow, I find that I enjoy a wide breadth of music from classical to country to rap to rock to metal to pop to grunge and everything in between. Normally, my mood dictates which genre I’ll find myself in.

Rap in particular has always been an interesting genre for me. I have a clear propensity for predominantly Eminem’s variety of rap. That is to say, I enjoy rap that features two key elements: 1.) I can clearly understand the lyrics (the pronunciation) and 2.) The lyrics convey powerful and insightful verses that reflect society or the living conditions of the rap artist in question. Eminem fulfills those two key elements and is for me, the best rapper. There are others working now that are also good like him such as Nas or Lupe Fiasco.

However, I have to go back much further to find rap artists I like such as Easy E or the Beastie Boys (if I’m allowed to use “rap” and “hip hop” interchangeably).
This particular song by Immortal Technique, “Dance with the Devil” meets those two aforementioned elements. I can clearly understand the lyrics and the lyrics pack an undeniable potent punch.

Essentially, the song is a story about a guy named Billy, who, much like many of his peers, doesn’t have a father and his mother is working too many jobs to sustain the family to offer much nurturing. Therefore, he turns to a gang for “family” and to prove himself, he must steal, sell crack cocaine, fight and eventually, as the song progresses to the end, rape a woman to prove himself. As it turns out, that woman was his mother. After realizing this, he kills himself.

That short summation doesn’t even do this song justice, but it does allude to the graphic nature of the song and the tough subjects that it’s tackling. While on the surface given the rape angle at the end; it may seem like a story ultimately about the devolution of a man and gang life that leads to rape; the artist, Immortal Technique, discussed the real point of the song in an interview.

He said, “…with ‘Dance with the Devil’ it was a true story that I made myself more of a part of when I wrote the song, it became an urban legend and what’s sick is that people thought it was about rape and it was really about how we are killing ourselves and destroying the most valuable resource that the Latino/Black community has, our women.”

And this metaphor is clearly articulated in the song. At the beginning, the boy was “fascinated with material objects.” He valued the accumulation of those material gains and the respect acquired simultaneously over a relationship with his (for all intents and purposes) single mother.

Then there is this, “So now he had a choice between going back to his life. Or making money with made men, up in the cife.” (Cife is another name for “ghetto.”) If one digs deeper here, it’s abundantly obvious what is going on. From the beginning, we know Billy doesn’t have a father around, so what does he do? He supplements his fatherly figure with that of “made men” and people he thinks deserve his respect. Therefore, in order to gain theirs in kind, he feels the need to go ahead with this rape.

After discovering who he had just raped along with his gang, there is this about his mom working late, “Working hard for nothing, cause now what was he worth. He turned away from the woman that had once given him birth.”

When one thinks about it, there is a somewhat perverse action at play here. Many have absentee fathers and feel abandoned, so to try to gain affirmation of their own self-worth, they gravitate towards men in gangs, which in turn, mean they abandon the one person that was in their life: their mother. Granted, regardless of what mistakes she made, as the song does mention she was “on the pipe,” she still went sober and tried to provide for him.

A particular line I can’t shake from this song is, “There’s no diversity because we’re all burning in the melting pot.” Not only is that a vivid and striking image, but also reflective of the artist’s mentality. He says, “White, brown, yellow and black, color is not restricted. You have a self-destructive destiny when you’re inflicted.” And by inflicted, he means via selfish desires for wealth and material things at the negation of relationships, the women in the community and the like.

Certainly, if you’re like me, one of the first things you will notice about this song is the copious use of the N-word. How is one to take that? Is it applicable to the song or not necessary? What is the artist’s intention for using it, if there is one? In trying to discover this, I came across an interview Immortal Technique did where he talks at length about it.

Fair warning: there is explicit language in this video.

As he states in the video, he has two reasons for using the N-word. On one hand, it’s a way to form “camaraderie” with others, and on the other hand, it’s a way to “educate” others. To the latter point, he tells a story of when he was in prison and a white cellmate said the N-word and instead of using violence to squelch that, Immortal Technique thought better to “educate him” on the word.

His main point appears to be that you can’t force someone to say or not say it. The only thing you can do is educate the person on the history of the word and the struggle. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how his explanation informs his use of the word, but, nevertheless, there also seems to be a cultural thing where changing the word to have the “a” at the end instead of “er” is more acceptable and with it as “er” is still considered taboo.

Would I prefer a version with the N-word edited out? I can’t say that because then that changes the artist’s intent when writing and raping the song.

Ultimately, my point in bringing all of this up is: 1.) I think it’s a good song and 2.) As someone intrigued by language and its use, I think it’s important to have discussions about the use of the N-word regardless of who is using it.

2 thoughts

  1. I chose not to listen the the song, but was quite captivated by your intelligent, well-written analysis of it. It strikes me that the song is a graphic modern-day twist on the Oedipus tale. By having sex with his mother, the narrator essentially kills his father (or “maleness within”) and follow this by killing himself.

    It’s a sad reality that most listeners of rap probably won’t appreciate this on a metaphorical level, but arguably many consumers of the arts through the ages often don’t “get it”.

    Great review.


    1. Wow, I had never even considered the parallel to the Oedipus tale. That’s fascinating and has led me to another level of thinking. Fair point too about those not “getting it.”

      As always, I appreciate the response!


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