Does the "N" Word Belong in Hip-Hop?
©1999 Link, The College Magazine
This article originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of Blaze
Davey D, publisher of Davey D's Hip-Hop Corner
I recently had a disturbing experience. First, I watched the wonderful PBS documentary Africans in America, which chronicles the horrors of slavery, and I came away proud that a lot of our ancestors didn't back down. They fought, they resisted and they showed amazing resilience--which allowed us as a people to survive. The show was profound and left me with a lot to think about. Afterward, I caught The Chris Rock Show. Jay-Z was performing "Hard Knock Life." He was surrounded by about a dozen beautiful young brothers and sisters. Jay-Z had the kids singing the hook to the song. Halfway through the first verse, I noticed that Jay-Z was not using profanity. So I started to give him props. I was happy Jay-Z showed some respect and didn't curse while the kids were around. He was responsible. Then it struck like a searing knife.
My admiration turned to anger when the infamous "N" word flew out of Jay-Z's mouth. Nigga this, nigga that. He paid tribute to his nigga Notorious B.I.G. He asked all his niggas to put their hands up. He gave big shoutouts to all his niggas. He dropped the word several more times in the song while the kids, who looked like they were about 10 or 11, sat on stage swaying to the beat. He's doing a clean version of the song while at the same time letting "nigga" fly left and right. The word that white and Asian kids feel comfortable using when referring to each other, and even to us. People feel it's their God-given right to use the word. If you don't believe me, check some of the responses people leave on my Web site's message board (www.daveyd.com). I recently posted a set of rules, including one that asked people to think twice before using the "N" word. I wrote that it's an offensive term to many people, including myself. It's the ultimate sign of disrespect to those who lost their lives and shed blood to liberate black folk. I understand that a lot of folks use the word as a term of endearment--but never in mixed racial company. And it is usually placed in a certain context and laced with political overtones.
You couldn't imagine the responses I got. People thought I was trippin'. I got letters from white kids who tried to explain that they only use the word when they rap. Others explained that because they're "down with hip-hop" it shouldn't pose a problem. Brothers said they use the word 'cause that's how they talk, the word just slips out. Others stood behind the excuse of free speech. Cool. I don't want to step on anyone's First Amendment rights. But why just limit it to nigga? Why not say 'What's up, my chink?' How about, 'Let me give a shoutout to all my white-trash honkies?' Where were the free-speech proponents when Michael Jackson was forced to recall a million or so albums and re-record a song minus the word "kike" because it's offensive to Jews? Where were the defenders of the First Amendment when Puffy deleted "stack chips like Hebrews" from his hit song "It's All About the Benjamins"? Everyone fell silent. No one was trying to defend constitutional rights then. But step to people about the word "nigga," and people act like you're pulling teeth.
Back to my nigga Jigga. He refrained from cursing but continually used the word "nigga" in front of all those kids. Maybe this generation of kids won't mind if some white kid walks up to them and says, "What's up, my nigga?" Maybe I'm just completely out of it. Perhaps I need to get off that Malcolm X stuff and just become a "True Nigga" from the streets. The strong black male image apparently isn't popular anymore, and it's obviously not of concern to many of us. The Jay-Zs of the world tell our kids that it's okay to be a nigga. Just don't curse when you say it.
Mos Def, Black Star rapper
Nigga. The word is at one moment a badge of honor, at the next, an albatross around our collective necks. It displays the schizophrenic nature of the black experience in America--inherent ingenuity that seems destined to drown in an abyss of self-hate.
Comedian/satirist/social critic Paul Mooney once remarked that he says "nigger 100 times every morning." He joked that it helps keep his teeth white. While I wouldn't go to that extreme, and in actuality, I am pretty much nigga ambivalent, I still don't think it poses a huge problem in our communities. I've spoken to elders in my family, as well as throughout the black community who assure me that the placement of the word "nigga" in our everyday vernacular dates back much further than hip-hop. And I'm sure most would agree that the crack and AIDS epidemics, dysfunctional families and the corrupt educational systems are a much bigger threat to the destruction of our race than the use of the word "nigga."
But all this is incidental. While I try to curb my use of the word in my professional vocabulary, I still find myself using it when I'm with my peers. I don't think this is problematic, nor do I find it contradictory. If you look at the historical use of the word and place it in the larger context of the collective experience of black America, you will see it makes perfect sense that this generation embraces the term as one of endearment. As the latest cultural phenomenon to appear on the continuum of black expression, hip-hop, like its predecessors, blues and jazz, has always been about taking established norms and parameters and stretching them beyond their known limits.
Using the word "nigga" as an identifier in the fraternity of hip-hop is no different. In fact, it is perfectly natural according to some definitions of hip-hop. If you define hip-hop as a survival mechanism, as a means of making something from nothing, then the act becomes compulsory. It's an act of empowerment. When we call each other "nigga," we take a word that has been historically used by whites to degrade and oppress us, a word that has so many negative connotations, and turn it into something beautiful, something we can call our own. I know it sounds cliche, but it truly becomes a "term of endearment." We're not using phrases and terminology that come from outsiders to define ourselves. We tell outsiders that this is ours; you're welcome to play the game, but don't forget, it's still our ball. And we have every right to do what we want with it anytime we choose. That's the intrinsic beauty of the word, this act of self-definition. This is well within the framework of hip-hop and certainly within the larger framework of the cultural expression of the African American. It is from this same sense of creativity that slaves made gourmet delicacies from parts of the pig that "Massa" considered inedible innards. It is from this spring of creativity that niggas in the Bronx formed the early stages of what we now know as Hip-Hop Culture. I'm really not in the habit of quoting N.W.A., but I think they put it best--I guess I'm just a nigga4life.
Subscriptions to Blaze are $11.95 for one year.
Please write to Blaze, PO Box 51513, Boulder, CO, 80323-1513.