The n-word is a racial firebomb.
It was generated from hate, and still used that way. It’s used in other ways too — it can mean a friend, an enemy, a lowlife. It means plenty of other things that a white person like me just doesn’t get.
Talking about the word here without writing it, and it’s still almost universally known. At this point in its evolution, many have hoped it would have faded, burned away. But it’s still in our daily lexicon. It’s still alive and spinning throughout our culture, diction and history.
The n-word is everywhere, and it doesn’t take much effort to find stories laced with it in daily headlines. Comedian Tim Allen recently told the Tampa Bay Times that he feels he should be able to use the ‘n-word’ in his standup, and that saying the “n-word” is actually worse than saying THE word. Allen, by the way, is white. Read a bit of that story here.
The Paula Deen fallout is not yet cold. She’s the popular Southern-schooled chef who admitted using the n-word in a court case. According to the transcript, when asked if she’s used the word, she said, “Yes, of course.” Many people took offense to that, and the media blowout led to the loss of her book deal and her show on the Food Network.
Last week, Oprah Winfrey used it to describe how she was racially discriminated against while shopping in Switzerland. “Nobody’s gonna come and call me the n-word to my face unless they are a thug on Facebook or Twitter,” she says in a video on CNN.
Examples cited here make it seem as if television and celebrity breeds the most shameful incidents. Or maybe it’s just that celebrity gets the most airplay by default.
But the use of the n-word in rap and hip-hop music continues its own evolution.
It’s a staple around the genres. It’s always been there, and especially gained ground when gangsta-rap icons N.W.A (N—az Wit Attitudes) hit the streets in the late ’80s with its blatant “f-you” to society, conformity and authority. The group used it as a badge of honor and as a way to identify who they were and how they felt about others who wronged them—usually the police. From the “Gangsta Gangsta” lyrics:
“Cause I’m the type of n—- that’s built to last/F– with me, I’ll put a foot in your ass.”
Years later, the word is still alive and beating.
Listen to the latest Kanye West song ‘New Slaves,’ and the n-word is peppered throughout. It’s used here on a more sophisticated plane, rather than at eye-level.
“You see it’s that broke n—-a racism/
That’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’/
And this rich n—-a racism/
That’s that ‘Come in please buy more”
It’s throughout a lot of my favorite artists — Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, Missy Elliot, Alicia Keys, The Roots.
A lot of hip hop and rap is in my collection. The wordplay and rhymes and beats are what keep me coming back to that genre. It’s not the n-word. Some would say “Why don’t you get the non R-rated version?” But buying a cleaned-up CD won’t make the word disappear or make the guilt vanish. It won’t take away the vice-grip the word still has on people, generations after its genesis.
This is music, and music is art. Art is not meant to be clean or polished. Art can be painful to look at or hear. But should it be used to degrade another person?
Yes, the word can be blurred out or replaced with something else in a song, the song loses a bit of something. But even when that happens, you still know what was said. The songwriter’s authenticity is missing.
Is there a difference between hearing it and saying it, or even just being exposed to it? A recent discussion I had put the subject in my face, as it should. I’m a white person hearing the n-word on CD, freely, yet I condone the word. I refuse to verbally say it because of the hatred it creates. Do I have the right to buy it and hear it and own it?
A tweet recently referenced Tribe Called Quest’s song “Sucka N—a’.” Said tweeter was psyched about getting to see the group perform the song. That doesn’t make him a racist.
The issue is so much bigger than any one of us. Yes it’s a monstrous topic for a blog entry, but that shouldn’t mean we can’t continue to discuss it from all angles. We can still try to parse out why people use it and discuss its role in any music, and in world culture and human society.