Preface By Trent Clark
When an artist puts out product, the overall goal is for it to be enjoyed by all (especially to stay gainfully employed as a working musician). But in the world of Hip Hop music, some content may be targeted to speak to a particular audience and anyone who has to overthink to absorb the material, could be considered an outsider or even worse: a poser.
This week, we’ve seen prime examples where White people were being accused of getting a little too comfortable when shrouded in a Hip Hop environment. Barry Bonds got distracted from his Miami Marlins gig to play PSA for his daughter’s PTA, after a video from her high school went viral with rich kids chanting A$AP Ferg’s popular cut, “Dump, Dump.” (“I fucked your bitch, nigga, I fucked your bitch, She suck my dick, nigga, she suck my dick” was the choral response.) Halfway across the world, Woody Allen apologist Blake Lively borrowed a choice quote from the unofficial Becky national anthem, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” which in turn, caused her to become the subject of social media think piece blurbs.
HipHopDX contributors Jason Bisnoff and Marcel Williams recently sat down together and had a candid discussion that gives a first hand account of their own personal experiences and how it aligns with their Hip Hop expertise to discuss on the matters even further.
Is It Actually Racist To Rap The Word “Nigga?”
Marcel Williams: Imagine being a black man in a society that has seemed hell bent on denying your very existence. You live in a country where Jim Crow, official laws making it illegal to be you, was just a mere 50 years ago. My mom is just 58 years of age for reference on just how short a time frame that is. The oppressors of your people created a word to describe you that would last for hundreds of years, eventually becoming the most offensive and vile word in the English language.
You as a people survive and adapt, though. You take that word, nigger, and you make it your own. For better or worse, “nigga” becomes a term of endearment for a lot of African Americans in a defiant, yet fitting, cultural appropriation of a term meant to hurt you.
Now imagine the descendants of those who made your very existence in America unbearable are fighting for their right to use a word their ancestors used to bring us harm. A cultural re-appropriation of sorts.
Brentwood School students mouthing off to A$AP Ferg’s raunchiest record.
Jason Bisnoff: First of all, yes, it is racist. Secondly, no, you shouldn’t rap it my fellow Caucasians. That being said this should also go for any culture that is not African American. As a New Yorker I have heard all different types of creeds and cultures who would have not been denigrated with the original “ER” form using the “A” at the end as if growing up around African Americans makes you one through osmosis.
When reading what that word can mean to Marcel, or anyone who has dealt with the marginalization of being African American, it illustrates the point that this word was taken back by an oppressed people and even celebrated in a culture like Hip Hop grown in those same communities. It is their exclusive right to use that word in any and all instances.
However, rap that uses the “N” word gratuitously or as a crutch is not a part of fixing the polarizing nature of this word. Too often weak rappers throw the word in without care even demeaning the power of it as a word that was taken back by the very people for whom it was once a punishment. We would all be better off within the culture if the reverence that a Kanye West or Biggie have for the word, using it for power not gratuitously. I would also be curious to know what Marcel thinks about a Puerto Rican rapper (Big Pun) having a song called “Ni**a Shit.”
MW: I’m actually glad you mentioned Big Pun and other minority races using the word. It’s a gray line not often discussed. The conversation seems to be primarily focused on that of white people and those of a more European descent using the word. For Puerto Ricans, a lot of them are of some African descent be it from the Libertos – heavily restricted, free Africans who traveled to Puerto Rico with the Spaniards who would invade Puerto Rico – or other means. You also have an assemblage of Middle Easterners who take solace in using the word as African-Americans would.
I personally take issue with anyone not of African American descent using any variation of “nigga.” I have Hispanic and Middle Eastern friends who use nigga as a term of endearment and it makes me uncomfortable a lot of times.
It’s not a word that anyone who isn’t black should feel comfortable saying or want to say.
JB: To be half African American understandably creates gray area but I agree with you that this whole issue would be better off with a black and white policy, because when it came to the birth of the word there was no gray area on who was subject to the evils of slavery and Jim Crow it was very literally Black and White, or in some ways black and anything but black.
Fat Joe once dared anyone to question his credentials over his n-word usage. It’s the god Crack, fully armed strapped!
Gray area in these types of matters often leads to slippery slopes. What I have seen traveling around New York City to different areas and therein different demographics is that the parameters for using this powerful word is simply that you grew up in an urban area that had a multicultural makeup and you chilled with black dudes who, when you first tried to say it, never said don’t do that. Similar to your example Marcel. When that gray is allowed to stand you get stuck with the results. I have a friend of legitimate African descent, his father is from Zimbabwe, and he has a similar skin tone to myself (I’m pretty damn white folks!). He would be looked at like he had six heads if he used the n-word in any context yet there are Hispanics and Middle eastern people who based on your experiences will throw the word out around friends and not even in a lyric, in conversation with original use versus adapting it from a piece of art.
Trees fall in the forest everyday, B. Is it wrong for a white person to rap the n-word in private?
MW: There’s definitely a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. A lot of times that line is defined by your experiences coming up as you touched on, Jason. However, as adults there is no excuse for not knowing when to universally draw that line. As a culture, we need to do a better job at distinguishing that line and maybe that comes with ridding ourselves of all variations of the word nigga. I’m not sure.
If you’re not black and you’re using the word then you need to know the ramifications of your decision. I’ll give you an example. In 2011 around the time I first moved to Los Angeles, I’m at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood with some friends. It’s their karaoke night but we’re just there for food and drinks. A white woman goes up to do Biggie’s “Juicy.” You know karaoke. You have the screen with the words right in front of you. She mumbles and stumbles through the entire song until that one line, where she emphatically belts, “And if you don’t know, now you know nigga!” The word nigga rolled off of her tongue so loudly, and so proud. The only thing louder than her saying the word was me yelling from the other side of the bar, “Are you fucking serious right now?” I jumped up out of my seat and began to approach the stage before realizing that I wasn’t in Detroit anymore. A couple more drinks and that could have been a terrible night for the two of us.
In a bar full of white people, in West Hollywood at that, I’m sure she thought she was in the clear to say that word. She wasn’t. I’m sure she didn’t know there were any black people present but that shouldn’t matter. Whether you’re in public or in the privacy of yourself and friends, white people should not feel entitled enough to use the word in any manner.
JB: I would be lying if I said the word isn’t used behind closed doors by people who shouldn’t use it and wouldn’t use it in public. I have heard it first hand. It is unlikely that will ever change as it is only scratching the surface of the despicable things people say in private.
Star rapper Mac Miller has been vocal about how white rappers should not use the n-word. He’s done pretty well for himself without it.
Forgive the optimism but perhaps there is a silver lining in this. We have discussed so much gray and confusion over what you accurately described as the most offensive and vile word in the English language. As we search for some much needed lines in the sand we may have fallen ass backwards onto one: If a white dude knows it’s okay to say at home but not in public, is there a part of him that understands it isn’t his word to use?
That may not make it okay but I do think it shows an awareness of the gravity of the word.
Hip Hop was made to influence and inspire so why is it we get defensive when someone like Blake Lively shows appreciation to culture. Does a big time celebrity automatically equate to culture appropriation?
JB: With the Blake Lively incident I believe it is appreciation being confused for appropriation. Unfortunately in the Azelia Banks and Donald Trump world we currently inhabit, it is much easier to bandwagon on extremism than have a pragmatic, original, middle of the road thought on polarizing matters.
The fact of the matter is that when Iggy Azalea changes her entire annunciation and voice to sell records in a sort of vocal blackface it is appropriation. When the chick from Gossip Girl quotes “Baby Got Back,” it is merely another example that Hip Hop has grown from counterculture and subculture to pop culture.
With that growth comes new fans from all types of backgrounds, ethnicities and geographies. “Baby Got Back” will be heard in karaoke bars this month as many times as “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It is a pop hit, closer in the zeitgeist to “Ice, Ice Baby” than anything by The Notorious B.I.G.
One can understand the apprehension of losing the artform, after all Big Mama Thornton sang “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley and most of you haven’t heard of her. That is one of many examples of the revisionist history around rock ‘n roll. But Hip Hop has come up in different times and I personally think it will always have roots in and be predominantly African American.
But, be careful what you wish for. Hip Hop has gone across the world, told countless stories, inspired nameless souls of all ages and made lot of folks tons of money. Doing all this comes with a price, Hip Hop has made it big time, if we are doing so respectfully we should all be able to appreciate it.
MW: I’m not going to hold you up, man. I saw the picture Blake Lively posted with the quote and I’d slide into her DM’s anytime. I think she discovered soul food and I’m not mad at her! For black people, there are times where we take things too serious and this was definitely one of those moments. Perhaps it’s the Lemonade we’ve been sipping on lately that has us thinking every white woman is “Becky with the Good Hair.” What Blake Lively said was certainly along the lines of appreciation.
Hip Hop has totally transformed from counterculture to pop culture. We have to realize that with our culture becoming so fantasized that we’re going to get outsiders flocking to what we do. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of growth in our culture we need for it to continue to grow. What is appropriation is exactly what you described with Iggy Azalea. I could not have said it better myself and as a black man saying to you, a white man, I greatly appreciate your ability to properly diagnose Iggy as vocal blackface.
DX readers, the floor is yours to discuss the issue/non-issue even further.