Last July, thousands of folks, including the mayor of Detroit and the governor of Michigan, gathered in Motown at the NAACP's annual convention for a symbolic funeral for the N-word. It was a response to the recurrence of the word's popping up in the mainstream media, such as when Michael Richards flew off at the mouth at a Los Angeles comedy club. Hip-hop potentate Russell Simmons had even gone on the record, calling on the recording and broadcasting industries to self-censor rap music's favorite racial epithet.
But eight months after its burial, the word is just as much a part of hip-hop as ever.
Exhibit A: Nas' upcoming album, Nigger. Despite rumors that Def Jam Records was refusing to release the disc, label representatives insist that it will come out and that it will retain its title. Label head Antonio "L.A." Reid has publicly suggested the opposite, and the internal rift speaks volumes to the power that the word still carries.
Nas, meanwhile, insists that the CD's name is not a publicity stunt, but rather his attempt at social justice. "You see how white boys ain't mad at 'cracker' 'cause it don't have the same [sting] as 'nigger'? I want 'nigger' to have less meaning [than] 'cracker,'" he told MTV News in October. "We're taking power [away] from the word. No disrespect to none of them who were part of the civil rights movement, but some of my niggas in the streets don't know who [civil rights activist] Medgar Evers was."
His statement effectively encapsulates the debate between generations. Many older black leaders believe the word retains its brutal, destructive charge, and they seek its elimination. The bulk of mainstream rappers, however, continue to contend that its meaning has evolved and that, when used by the right people, it actually promotes brotherhood and inclusiveness. As Ice-T once said: "If you are it, you can use it."
But increasingly there are indications that even some non-black hip-hop artists can use it. For example, there has been little public outcry—outside of blogs and messageboards, in any case—about the latest album from DJ Khaled, We the Best, which features the rapper of Palestinian descent dropping N-bombs galore, sometimes at the top of his lungs.
Rapper Fat Joe, a Puerto Rican and frequent employer of the word, points out that the legions of black artists on Khaled's album have no problem with it. This is surprising, considering that in 2001, Jennifer Lopez was heavily criticized for using the word in the remix of her song "I'm Real." A pair of New York DJs said they received thousands of complaints about the track and even organized a protest of one of her live performances. A few years later, adding to the confusion, actor/comedian Damon Wayans tried to trademark the name Nigga for a line of clothing (he was turned down because the government does not allow trademarks of immoral or scandalous terms).
Khaled, born in New Orleans to Palestinian parents, says he has never received any flak for using the word. But he's careful to put his usage into context.
"All my life, I got called a 'sand nigga,'" he says. "That's ignorant. But there's two different N-words. When I call you 'my nigga,' it's like: 'I appreciate you, my nigga, for giving me this interview.' I'm showing you love. It's part of hip-hop slang, and it's not negative at all. Now, if someone uses it the other way, now that's a different story. In hip-hop, we have our own language. It's like Jamaica's got patois."
Fat Joe seems to feel the same way.
"Every ghetto you go to, Latinos and blacks are the two people that are together," says Joe, a frequent Khaled collaborator who defiantly uses the word more than usual on his latest album, appropriately titled The Elephant in the Room. "We don't look at each other in any different way, like 'He's black; I'm Latino.' I look at us as one. Somebody made the N-word a term of endearment, and since I was a little kid, they've been saying, 'What's up, Fat Joe, my nigga?'"
Joe says society influences his music, but Russell Simmons contends it's the other way around. In the wake of Don Imus' reference to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" last April, he promoted voluntary restrictions on the word "nigger" as well as on the words "bitch" and "ho." Speaking to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, he said that "a lot of adult blacks feel [it] is a self-hating word" and that if the three slurs are taken out of mainstream music, "it will be helpful to bridging the gap between the activists who are so angry and the hip-hop community that is disconnected."
The Reverend Al Sharpton, meanwhile, insists that the title of Nas' album gives power to racists. "We're in an age where they are hanging nooses; they're locking our kids up in Jena and Florida," he told MTV News. "We do not need to be degrading ourselves. We get degraded enough. I think we need artists to lift us up, not lock us down."
To hear Fat Joe tell it, though, both Sharpton and Simmons are being hypocritical. He recounts private, less politically correct encounters with the two. "Russell Simmons says, 'Fat Joe, you my nigga.' Reverend Al Sharpton says, 'Yo, what's up, Fat Joe? You the realest nigga I know.'"
Most black rappers and promoters agree that white folks have no business using the word. With rare exceptions—New York loose cannon R.A. the Rugged Man, for example—most Caucasian rappers stay away from it. But white hip-hop critics often find they don't have any alternative, and they face criticism for quoting the word. In July 2006 on his XXL blog, hip-hop writer Kris Ex—who is black—took issue with Village Voice music critic Tom Breihan, who is white, as someone "who would never say the N-word, but seem[s] to go out of [his] way to quote rap lyrics that use it."
"I was pretty pissed off," Breihan says now. "But I reached out to him, and we talked a bit." For a while, Breihan began substituting the word "ninja" in its place. He quoted lyrics from a Lil Wayne mixtape, for example, as: "And a ninja drink like the late Fred Sanford/And a ninja smoke like there is no cancer."
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"I did that instead of using [asterisks or dashes] just because I thought this way was funnier, and it kind of defused the situation," Breihan says. "It draws absurdity to the situation. I'm a white dude writing about rap and, obviously, on a certain cultural level, very much out of my depth."
His readers didn't like it, however, and Breihan recently went back to using "nigga."
Kris Ex is no longer mad at Breihan but says he doesn't have much admiration for Russell Simmons. "I'm severely disappointed with him for jumping on this bandwagon," Ex says. "I think he should have a more nuanced position. Because it's not about the words people are using; it's about the intent behind those words."
Buckshot, a black rapper from the Boot Camp Clik who employs the word in his rhymes, agrees with Ex's sentiments. "Ban the word? No, because the more we entertain it in a negative way, the more it just becomes something to feed off of," he says. "My answer is to move on. We've got much bigger issues than that."