Among the various things that we can’t evade including death and taxes, we all face this same question once or multiple times in our lives: How do you feel about the word “nigga?”
Is it safe or dangerous to say, mimic our favorite jokes, or repeat in quotes from others? Is there a stark contrast from the evolution of its root word “nigger?”
The answer to this question is one of the hardest to come by it puts us on the spot in this dogmatic fork in the road wondering which way to go straight without being judged.
During Kendrick Lamar’s stage performance at the Hangout Music Festival last weekend, a fan interaction moment came to a record needle-scratching halt. Kung-Fu Kenny decided to invite a white female onstage who recited the words to “m.A.A.d city” from his classic debut album — and she repeated the lyrics “nigga” a whopping three times.
Naturally, the floodgates were drowning in incessant boos.
This white female (identified as “Delaney”) viscerally looks like an interloper who enjoys rap music, but may not be immersed in other various elements of the culture. However, she fits the description of most festival ticket buyers — and Hip Hop record-buying audience since the 1980s at large — as a white suburbanite. Aside from her butcher job of the song altogether, let’s keep it a stack and ask additional questions regarding her pluralism of the n-word.
With her left-handed apology asking if she’s not “cool enough” to say the “n-word,” what did he and the crowd expect otherwise from her in a dream-like moment? If Kendrick handpicked a black person to enter the stage for their karaoke 15 minutes of fame, would he and the crowd have the same reactions to the three n-bombs recited? (Answer: of course not.)
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The NAACP once held a funeral for the n-word back in 2007. More than 10 years later, it appears the coffin was truly empty.
Like any other subculture, Hip Hop has always been about inclusion to those can speak the codified slanguage well and proven knowledge well enough to pass those barriers to entry. Yet, if the use of such an arbitrary term makes you or others cringe or question why you say it, then you shouldn’t use the word.
Esteemed author and Hip Hop luminary Ta-Nehisi Coates once illuminated the contextualization of the n-word to a white college student who asks him about Lil Uzi Verts’ profuse usage of the n-word in his lyrics, and how she should react upon listening to rap music that she enjoys.
Catch Up: Check out Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy here.
“Words don’t have meaning without context,” Coates says. “My wife refers to me as ‘honey.’ That’s accepted and okay between us. We’re walking down the street together, and if a strange woman referred to me as ‘honey,’ that wouldn’t be acceptable. The understanding is that I have some sort of relationship with my wife. Hopefully, I have no relationship with this strange woman.”
Coates went on to elaborate on intra-racial versus interracial cultural standards. “It’s the same thing with words within the African-American community or within any community. My wife with her girlfriends will use the word ‘bitch.’ I do not join in,” he explained.
Like all other forms of African-American arts and culture, Hip Hop has been appropriated, commercialized and uprooted into the mainstream lexicon with popular terms and phrases such as “my bad,” “that’s what’s up,” “it’s all good,” and “what’s good?” But when it comes to pronouns aligned with cultural subgroups or genders that we aren’t a part of, rap artists and anyone who considers themselves anchored in their respective subgroups can’t be alarmed when those prevalent terms come back to haunt them
Back in 1993, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip broke down the Hip Hop generation’s use of the n-word in the group’s song “Sucka Nigga.”
The n-word has been used among black people for generations before Hip Hop’s formative years in the 1970s, but it came from being conditioned by their white oppressors over hundreds of years. The same goes for the initiative of Amber Rose’s annual Slutwalk, or members of the LGBTQ community jokingly call each other “fag.” As people who had been stratified by law in society as second-rate citizens fight for equality, they have adapted to these derogatory terms by taking power in their stride by not allowing themselves to be hurt by hearing them. But when there are moments when those terms are used verbal weapons to debase people, we have to take it upon ourselves to not hold double standards against certain people who use those words and aren’t within our subgroups versus that don’t.
We are all products of our environment, and I’ve admittedly said the “n-word” when talking with black and non-black friends. But as I’ve have been called both the n-word with the “er” and “a” variations by other people of color during heated playground basketball game disputes, street squabbles and by white people as both in a hurtfully racist manner. That term of endearment immediately becomes a term of endangerment.
Use of the n-word perpetuates that double standard and takes a default position that vindicates jazz great Wynton Marsalis’ recent take on rap music’s social impact on African-American and pop culture. Granted, Marsalis still aligns himself with the vestiges of the Civil Rights Movement that fought for the justice of Black people against Jim Crow laws in the deep Dixie South where he was raised. But in this Trump America, where “otherness” got our nation’s president elected, we have to be open to the universal responses that people say once we have publicized our opinions and art like Kobe Bryant stated regarding Kanye West’s hot take on slavery in America.
Hip Hop is the most postmodernist artform of this past century that takes on anything negative, makes fun of it, and turns it into a positive for public consumption. As long as there is Hip Hop, there will be more fans like Delaney who say the n-word whether in private or in person.
R.I.P. to the P.
Similar to the late Sean Price’s “n-word participation test” at one of his concerts with an all-white crowd in the clip above, MCs need to be aware that they are most powerful arbiters of cool on the planet and have been for almost 30 years now.
Fans put stock in their words, so artist responsibility is inevitable. Some artists such as Travis Scott wholeheartedly encourage their white fans to say the n-word in his presence.
Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight — and the n-word.
But if we get mad that the n-word is egregiously used in our presence, we can’t act brand new and be upset like we don’t know the ramifications of our daily vernacular using that word.