The documentary Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage recently dropped on HBO and select streaming platforms. It covers the disappointing second sequel (after ’94) to the 1969 Woodstock music festival, which took place 30 years after the original—exactly 22 years before the documentary’s premiere. Instead of the peace, love and rock ’n roll that marked the ’69 and ’94 fests, there was arson, rape and, as one of the interviewees puts it, music for “angry white fraternity college dudes.” It’s an entertaining doc, to be sure, but it sees the festival partly through a lens of modern black vs. white identity politics, one result of which was the historical revisionism applied to DMX’s legendary rap performance.
DMX, who died in April 2021 after a decades-long career that generated album sales of over 74 million, did a 40-minute set to an estimated 200,000 people, the majority of whom were white. The second song in his set was “My Niggas.” Invoking a call-and-response method that’s common with artists playing large concerts, DMX rapped a line and then pointed the mic at the crowd for the refrain, which happens to be the song’s title. Roughly 180,000 white people yelled it back. Since those are the lyrics, DMX called for the same two words over and over again and the crowd complied. He finished the song and started the next one, “It’s a War”—no more “niggas,” at least not from the crowd.
The documentary spends much time on this event with New York Times journalist Wesley Morris providing commentary. According to Morris, when DMX prompted the crowd, “niggas” came back with “twice the intensity.” He calls this response “chilling” and says that the white people in the audience were “hoping that he would do this song” because they were ready to say that word.
It’s impossible to look inside the minds of the audience members when DMX called for a response, but there was probably a mix of thoughts that, far from twice the intensity, created hesitancy (which could have been because many people didn’t know the lyrics). Then the hesitant thoughts ostensibly gave way to zero thoughts, as those who didn’t know the lyrics learned from those who did, and yelled them at the request of DMX and the behest of collective musical elation. Chilling indeed.
“This sort of thing wasn’t happening on a regular basis in 1999,” says Morris. “There weren’t a lot of occasions for black rappers to command a crowd exclusively almost of white people, where the black performer is essentially licensing the crowd to say the word with him—to perform a thing that they don’t believe.” While the part about a black rapper performing for an almost exclusively white crowd may be true, white rap fans have existed for as long as rap has existed and have been singing along in concert with vulgar rappers since the genre got gangsta. Morris contends that DMX caused audience members to disregard their ethics and explode with the racism that they had long harboured but weren’t allowed to express: “If you were to ask [the crowd] what they believe, if you got each one of these guys after the show and pulled each one of them aside and said, ‘Is it okay to say the n-word under any circumstances?,’ they would, to a person, say, ‘I mean the right answer is no, right?’”
In his essay “The N-word as slur vs. the N-word as a sequence of sounds,” linguist John McWhorter states that in the 1990s the word “nigger” could be referenced by white people in the company of black people in public settings. Additionally, he cites “endless casual sentences uttered by thoroughly enlightened, sensitive white people” containing that word up until 2010, with “no one batting an eye because the difference between use and reference [was] so blindingly obvious.” This is in regard to the hard-R word let alone its softer derivatives. I’ll go even further than McWhorter to say that white people rapping along with any version of that word by themselves or with friends was generally accepted until 2020. In that year of racial reckoning, which has continued into 2021, dozens of high profile figures have lost their jobs or reputations for mentioning “nigger,” in quotes, in private conversation or other formerly safe spaces of good faith discourse, giving rise to a standard of militarized self and peer speech policing.
Despite the documentary’s claim of white monopolization, you can see numerous black audience members during DMX’s set. “I’m wondering what is it like for the other black people in a moment like this?” Wesley Morris continues. “What are they thinking? If they went with friends who they didn’t think were n-word sayers under any circumstances, what were those friendships like? I mean what was the racial dynamic for the few non-white people who were there? And imagine being a non-white woman, what that experience was like for you.”
These black people paid a lot of money for a concert of mostly “white boy rock.” Music lovers, especially fans of a genre not typically associated with their race, tend not to gatekeep their favourite music, given that they’ve often been on the receiving end of racial gatekeeping. A black rock or country fan and a white rap fan will get questioned by white and black people alike about their authenticity or lack thereof. Music itself does not judge. Transgenre advocates understand this, which is why many think it’s wrong to racialize a universal artform. After Kendrick Lamar chastised a young white fan for rapping all the words of his song during a 2018 concert, hordes of people in the audience and on social media piled onto her. However, discerning fans, such as posters in the KendrickLamar subreddit, criticized the rapper, saying they “lost respect for his lame ass” and calling his act “entrapment.” One of the most celebrated music videos on YouTube was a white man’s acoustic cover of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shame on a Nigga,” which was posted by the official Wu-Tang Clan account and flooded with positive comments from black fans—until it was deleted several months ago, presumably under the same societal pressure that eliminated the use-mention distinction for slurs.
So what were black festival goers thinking when DMX sang “My Niggas” with them and many white people for 54 seconds in 1999? Again, no one can read minds, but the likelier answers are “this is fun,” “I like music,” “these drugs feel good,” “I’m thirsty,” or “I think I stepped in piss.”
Woodstock ’99 eventually devolved into chaos, which, as the documentary explains, was due to heat, price gouging, lack of security, and malfunctioning porta potties more than it was due to the identities of the performers and audience members. Still, the filmmakers connect this festival to white rage culture, which found a home in chat rooms and message boards in the new millennium.
Of Woodstock, Morris says, wisely, that “people are being selective about how they’re choosing to remember what happened to suit their own ends, and the way in which we choose to romanticize it has everything to do with who is telling stories.” Perhaps the official story was lacking an adequate racial lens, but a counternarrative that transforms a 22-year-old call-and-response from a rapper towards euphoric festival goers into a boiling point of racism that traumatized the black people in attendance is worse than whatever short-sighted narrative it was challenging.
There was a preponderance of young white men at Woodstock ’99, some of whose destructive behaviour was driven by angsty nu-metal artists and the culture that enabled their popularity, but DMX brought white and black fans together for what, viewed today by people who are tired of racial quibbling, is a refreshingly race-neutral celebration of music. That was the norm in 1999. Segregated lyrics were not.