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NI**AS IN MUSIC: A Love Story

EDITOR’s NOTE: The use of the word nigga is the meat of this article, a subject that has often come up in conversation in my years as an entertainment journalist, and even more so in my daily sojourn as a Black woman who happens to be first generation American. We didn’t discuss or use the N-word in my house growing up; it wasn’t something that was applicable to “us”. But as I came to understand its ugly, historical significance (way before the onset of my teen years and my passion for Hip-Hop culture) and realized that I was just as “African-American” as everybody else was, I promised myself and the various elders I met along the way to never use the word, let alone in the presence of “company”. I traversed the various potholes and land mines the N-word offered as an NYC cool kid in the ’90s, without muttering it most times and slipping up every now and then. I learned that if you swapped out the “er” for any of these suffixes: “a”, “as”, “az” or “uz”, it was all good. So in college at Howard University, I slung my newly framed N-words like it was nobody’s business. In my early days as a writer, I learned to censor the word with asterisks. I even appeared on Lisa Evers’ Hot 97 radio program “Street Soliders” alongside my peers to discuss the topic. While I felt pretty committed to urging others not to use the word then and on-air, to be quite honest, I still struggle with it. Whether or not to say it, write it, type it, use it in conversation, in passing or when an interviewee feels comfortable enough to mention it. Throughout this site, you will see the various ways in which I have personally struggled with the word. And yet I still cringe when I hear others—non-Black, non-American and especially kids—utter it with a smile.

Perhaps turning 33 (the god year) last fall did something; perhaps it opened my eyes and solidified my verve to stand up and clarify for myself those things that do matter, because pretty soon I’ll have a little one of my own, who will have to navigate the same roads I did. Sure, the conversation is not new, but have we resolved it? And yes, I know, some of us are two-generations removed from the Civil Rights era, and we’ve taken the word and made it our own. (I can’t even begin to count how many songs and comedy shows that I genuinely love that feature the word…) But doesn’t history’s take on the N-word weigh more than contemporary culture’s acceptance and obsessive use of it? Why is that other groups rally behind movements when words that are specifically offensive to them are hurled in jest or otherwise, to them or to others? I just recently watched a commercial featuring various NBA players urging youngsters not to use the word “fag”, which of course, comes on the heels of Kobe Bryant being fined $100k in early 2011 for using the word “faggot”. So why can’t the same be done for “nigga” in all of its variations? Why are we in 2012, and this issue still isn’t settled? I think Trev Better does a great job at raising a few more issues about the subject (and then some, kudos!), while offering a great suggestion as to how we can finally tackle it. And if not by us, then who? -Aimstar

Words: Trev Better

In 1896, Ernest Hogan, one of the credited fathers of Ragtime music, peaked in popularity with his hit song, “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” He was the first African-American to star and produce his own show on Broadway. Before his death, he was haunted by a “coon song” title-wave from other artists that followed his auspicious lead. He publicly stated deep regret for using the C-word in his song.

In 1996, Method Man made a killer cameo on Tupac’s classic double album All Eyes On Me. He started his verse, “Fuck you losers, while you fake jacks we make maneuvers, like Hitler, sticking up Jews with German Rugers.” Though it was below the anti-semantic radar and primarily written as astute wordplay, the word “Jew” was omitted out of the commercial release on Interscope Records. This caught my attention and piqued my curiosity. Has the J-word been muted on all major label releases? Let’s just say that if you visit a gun-wounded rapper in a Jewish hospital on the any given Saturday, be prepared for the elevator to stop on every floor.

I’m reluctant to compare race with religion and I might be giving the answers to problems without showing my work, but like the word itself, in negative and positive, it’s a cry for attention. Here’s my personal take on the N-word in all its suffixes and clauses. The word is cursed, period. So I treat it like a curse word. I say it, probably every day, but try not to use it in public and definitely not around elders, even if they use it comfortably around me. If every Black person more or less did this, there would be less cringes on de-segregated transit. I call it my Rosa Parks rule because I probably wouldn’t say it if I was on the bus with her (or any unsung non-Black Freedom Rider).

My uncle Jimmy [Baldwin] once stated, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” That conscious rage can also become a burden of responsibility, hopefully without the accompaniment of the penal system. Though the entitlement of “White liberal frustration” may be brewing, let’s just make the proper connection right now because it should always be a reminder. Yes, it does all go back to slavery because you can’t undo 2000 seasons of genocide, family divide and psychological abuse overnight. The only reason America accelerated to a super power is because it invented “THE NIGGER”. Now it must live with that creation. Put it like this, I’m pretty sure that slave owners can be credited as the first to coin the phrase “my niggas”. In the process, we managed to keep our soul and make music the world loves. It’s merely just one of many “buy” products for which royalties are still owed. With nuff respect for all of our genres leading up till now, if there wasn’t Hip-Hop, every Black person would have to assimilate and conform to a certain set of rules, standards and time frames. Hip-Hop ain’t, I mean isn’t, as polished as the Motown sound, so it took the freight elevator. It’s a movement that can best be described by a line from Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, which was filmed at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Eddie ends his timeless act by referencing the public outcry following Marian Anderson being denied a performance in the same location: “Now a nigga’s on stage getting paid to grab his dick.” Sexual Chocolate! *drops mic*

Now there’s a slight problem with our mission accomplished and it comes with White Blacklash. The mainstream is somewhat perturbed by the “Monkeys with Money” show. This was powerfully displayed in CNN’s 2007 journalistic series, Art or Poison? That’s a strong title that makes the accusation of home invasion without the act of breaking and entering #newniggerrule. They are concerned because their children are no longer just being influenced by this music but are being molded into a culture dominated by our trendsetting tipping points. Trust when I say parents of all races are concerned. Unfortunately, capitalism is the venom that turns art poisonous. The difference again, is that this is nigger art. In addition to the implied criminal suspicion, we all have to work through this psychological notion that niggers are novelties. If we weren’t a novelty, Flavor of Love wouldn’t have been the highest-rated reality TV show and highest-selling reality DVD to date. The problem with the success of that show is that Flavor Flav belongs to us. Most people who watched the show didn’t know his history— our history— just like some watch Kim K not knowing who Ray J is. Flav helped break us out of a cell in an hour of chaos. I was entertained by the show, the same way I was when he told me 911 was a joke. But the joke became a set-up for buffoonery, and like Dave Chappelle’s paranoia, the laughter was discerning from different viewers. It’s an equal opportunity circus now and VH-1 doesn’t care. Ask Ice Cube, he’ll tell you “they’ll have a new nigga next year,” and they have. This is also what Chuck D means by “Anti-Nigger Machine”. Similar to ODB, all of our clans have members that appear to be clowns to outside eyes, who don’t recognize them as the witty, unpredictable talent and natural gain of comparable crews. Call it civil unrest. Oddly, the same way members of our Black Power movement took government jobs after COINTELPRO’s infiltration, Hip-Hop equivalents are dependent on these networks for self-preservation. I’m happy Flav was able to pay his backed up child support, but I’m not sure if his children are proud of how he did it. Then again, they might not give a fuck because “Niggas don’t give a fuck” is the motto of so many bastards of the game. Most niggas thought they’d be dead or in jail by 21, but many are not. In addition, giving birth to kids at a young age makes life expectancy lessons intergenerational. They’re forced to adjust from selfish survival mode to an unfamiliar stage of unselfish purpose, health concerns, estate planning and other versions of figuring out who moved the cheese while discovering life beyond city limits. What happens when you don’t have to take your gun everywhere you go? How can they have all this land and put 18 holes in it without a bullet? There’s a decrease of edge, an increase of exposure and so many strangers lost on familiar land. In the last words of Mr. Cheeks’ uncle, the late great Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m new here.”

“All us Blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we’re even.” Why does that Jay-Z lyric resonate so hard? Maybe because it’s more true than it is false. The music itself suffered because the success gave rappers illusions of grandeur. Mainstream accepted some rappers in a few social circles. Some are savvy and some have a hard time adjusting to skipping tax brackets after having less than zero. Then, the first book they read in its entirety is the 48 Laws of Power, while a jeweler and a Jewish lawyer become optimum symbols of success. The means justify the ends and the ends justify being the nigga that got them to where they are. Though the music touched the souls of many White folks, it trended as party music due to the beats and hooks. I’m a firm believer in Dave Chappelle’s empirical social experiment about the deep rooted response to percussions. It’s similar to dancing to Reggae or Reggaeton while not knowing the words to the verses; it’s a tribal bed for club-hopping, young Hollywood to live in Californication. In surround sound, it’s also a biological weapon that preys on your primal and carnal desires. Now you’re drunk and the word nigger is woven in every other bar, making it difficult for other races to refrain from muting. Comparable to buildings without a 13th floor, even if the word is not there, it’s still there. “Where my real niggas at?” The call and response at a show causes innate delays. Does that mean where are all the “fellas” or release your “inner nigga?” Ask MOP, or any other strictly street artist, what it’s like to see their audience turn White overnight. How do “they” relate so empathetically to what they don’t go through? Arguments regarding Jazz pose an extreme difference to the seduction of street life special effects, yet the patrons are often cut from the same cloth. Some suburbanites will buy an album twice to be their favorite rapper’s honorary nigga. Now the double standard turns tri-fold.

Before I bring it up to date with subject matters such as the White girl sub-level invasion Touré touched on, let me elaborate, historically, for a mass appeal perspective in a manner fans like Steve Nash and Willie Geist would appreciate (even Touré wisely skirted around the topic on MSNBC’s Morning Joe). Our Rubik’s cube color spectrum increases confusion with White hope of Black acceptance that misinterprets Hip-Hop affinity with Hip-Hop authenticity. Working both ways, many Blacks would mistake a White aficionado like Rick Rubin for a redneck. Artists such as The Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, House of Pain, Eminem—even Marky Mark!—were more or less bred in the culture when nobody had yet heard of the word “gentrification”. Most White fans of the music would often fail at “being Black” because they tried to duplicate what those White artists embodied. You’ll have to ask Em himself, but when he states, “You motherfuckers can never do it, like I can do it, don’t even try you’ll look stupid, do not pursue it,” I’m pretty sure he’s not talking to Black kids. Despite sources of his once documented use of the N-word, the evolved emcee was smart enough not to misuse it again. You can’t fake cognizance and respect for the art form when making candid reference to Professor X’s past influence:

“Now with this being the new trend, we don’t fit in, Crackers are out with Cactus albums, Blackness is in, African symbols and medallions [breath] represent Black power, and we didn’t know what it meant, me and my man Howard and Butta would go to the mall with them all over our necks, like we’re showing them off, not knowing at all, we was being laughed at, you ain’t even half-Black, you ain’t suppose to have that, homie let me grab that and that Flavor Flav clock, we gonna have to snatch that, all I remember is meeting back at, Manix’s basement, saying how we hate this, how racist, but dope the X-Clan tape is.”

That qualifying rhyme exemplifies the unconditional love Eminem has always had for the culture, making it easy for Dr. Dre to embrace him like a nigga with an attitude and for Elton John to give him a hug goodbye (yellow brick road). I give myself written permission to quote myself: “Marshall Mathers has the skills of Willie Pep and Eminem has the mass appeal of Rocky.”

This brings us to the affirmative action that comes with today’s neo-niggerati think tank — integration. I’ve known my fair share of V-Nasty’s who grew amongst us and say the N-word frequently and fluently. We got used to letting them in, one at a time, but now the audience that used to just make Black artists go platinum are producing their own versions of “America’s Nightmare”. Just like a Cabrini-Green Candyman myth, playing Big Pun’s “Nigga Shit,” C-Murder’s “Down 4 My Niggaz” and DMX’s “My Niggas” in that order, will turn anybody into Super Nigga equipped with a Teflon hoodie. I could have named thousands of other Super Nigga songs, which is sad and fun at the same time, especially whenever and whoever first started putting the word in R&B lyrics. Frustrated baby boomers who grew up with Soul music can’t even sing a contemporary song they like without shock value, while people like talk show host Ellen have to edit— her addiction to “Just Dance”, for example (she might be able to sugarcoat Nicki’s last name but it’s harder to explain the N-word). How much money are rappers losing in cover charges from Taylor Swift, Florence and all the karaoke machines out there? Advanced Canadian hybrid culture seems to accept it for what it is, like all of North America is the confederate South, making their border the real Mason Dixon line. #eh. All around the world people eagerly use the word to fit in. Somehow we made the word as American as McDonald’s apple pie – I’m lovin it? Many landlocked ghetto patriots don’t even know that radio in several countries are uncensored. There used to be arguments about the impossibility of the word not existing. Well the word “kafir” never existed in the US and the N-word wasn’t used in the Ole UK until the late ‘90s when we exported it (and crack-cocaine instructions), tariff-free.

Is this intellectual property no longer with its rightful owners? Huckleberry Finn is a clear pro-nigger argument in comparison to this millennium’s miasma. Yesterday it was Don Imus and more recently, it was Eva Hoeke (I wonder how her last name is pronounced). Yeah, Rihanna’s rant made the Jackie editor resign, but who is enabling these convoluted terms of endearment? Ms. Hoeke actually gave an explanation that any Black person may give in an isolated incident. She said it was “a joke” and was complimenting Rihanna with the preceding word “ultimate” because RiRi “has street cred, she has a ghetto ass and she has a golden voice.” Hmmm, that does kinda sound like Rap lyric trivia, not to mention a girl I wouldn’t mind meeting #imjustsayin. What if Jackie was a Gay publication? It may have been RiRi’s “ultimate” endorsement, a Gaga moment written off like a hairdresser bond, “work it bitch!” See, it gets confusing. Was the editor born that way? Just as my mispronunciation of Hoeke’s last name, is the N-word getting lost in translation? Did I just imply that the editor is a hoe in fun? Are perpetrators being punished or being given passes and permission slips? Is the Blacklash fueled by Whites who are tired of being a Human Stain novel in a post Civil Rights America? Isn’t Don Imus back on the radio? Who is going to be Ms. Hoeke’s next employer? Ironically, I had a Dutch friend who said that during Hip-Hop’s Golden Era, he couldn’t speak English well (out of the other five languages he knew) and couldn’t easily catch onto the multiple figurative meanings of broken English. One of the ways he distinguished East and West coast rappers was that East coast rappers rarely used the word in their rhymes #interesting. However, he was able to understand and articulate the evolving duality of a Black Male experience from Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album and got his take on the loaded context of the N-word from A Tribe Called Quest’s song “Sucka Nigga”. Now Rihanna’s reply was on the money, but the complexities of any Black Woman’s image through a global lens often becomes a kaleidoscope amongst the color blind. Time has reinterpreted The Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman” with Jay-Z and Foxy Brown’s ode to Black love. Now will all my niggas and all my bitches please sit back and enjoy this oldie but goodie from the Jungle Brothers entitled, “Black Woman.” Please note that there’s French in the song and I don’t know what is being said, but I’m pretty sure it ain’t “NiggaBitch!”

This brings us to the current phenomenon known as “Niggas in Paris”, where the word rears its head in a tri-fold double standard. Nas can’t name his album “Nigger”, but right now, at this very moment “Niggas in Paris” could be the theme music for some Anti-Algerian riot about to happen. The hate group might be playing “ball so hard” rugby with a nigga’s head! Jay and Ye’s alteration of the French flag on the single’s artwork is a shallow point of discussion that Frantz Fanon would have probably winced at during a tete-a-tete. One day Kanye’s telling an arena full of White people that they can say the word in his “Goldigger” chorus, and the next day it’s, just (breathe)— so many damn landmines on this planet rock. I also remember when Kanye would bring in the EPMD namesake song with the child-like anticipation of live audience appreciation. Due to the generation of those who attended the show, they showed no surge of throwback love like that he had given his idols when he watched the throne as a ticket holder. It does sometimes come down to whatever works and I’m not mad at him. We’ve all grown up to be young adults. It’s not even anybody’s fault anymore, and like Three 6 Mafia’s presence at the Oscars, “We ain’t even supposed to be here.” So fuck it, let’s celebrate. However, maybe Jay should be performing Mos Def’s version of “Takeover” for a moment of clarity rather than an encore of “Niggas in Paris” countless times. Did I just see a commercial for a show called Big Shrimpin? How long before I see a commercial for the reality show, Niggas in Paris? This analysis is not hate, it’s love and I’m not going to apologize for being awake while others are asleep. Furthermore, I’m not going to apologize for the education my parents gave me just because I love Hip-Hop. Think about that. You only have to read this once. You and your children hear your favorite songs, with the favorite word we love and hate, over and over and over again. This is so unfair to deal with, especially with everything else in the world, just like it’s unfair to pick on this song. Though I wonder why songs like “Chain Heavy” didn’t make it onto Kanye’s last solo album (I won’t go into my theory regarding him “going gorillas” and Caesar from Planet of the Apes ☹. I’m going to skip over commentary on “champagne wishes, 30 White bitches,” and boxer Jack Johnson and singer Robin Thicke’s choice words for Black love…. You can make your own correlation, I’m sure it will be provocative).

We all consume and spread our fair share of “sophisticated ignorance” with varied levels of tolerance. It’s highly likely that this article will be quoted out of context simply because it’s written in Moors code. When in Rack City Rome, tip drill like the Romans and swipe credit cards between butt-cheeks. No one wants to defend his (or her) actions based on race and society when he (or she) is getting a lap dance. At the same time, if Barbara Walters asked Rick Ross for his theory on how the pyramids were built, he might say that there were “no Caterpillars (the construction vehicle), it was just a lot of niggas.” That’s funny and valid like something I might hear in a barbershop or grassroots meeting. His answer would be just as acceptable to me as any explanation from a lettered scholar. We are, what the Harlem based organization Bro/Sis calls, “Intrinsic Kings and Queens”. Unfortunately, defending the status quo of Hip-Hop is similar to being the owner of a pit bull: I love my dog, but it might lockjaw on whomever, whenever it wants.

Probing our collective insides isn’t a pretty sight. As capitalists on common ground to make money, we’d rather buy new clothes than air our dirty laundry. The word is now embedded and embossed in all romance languages. It’s just another sad love song with a good beat. Maybe we should bring back playing slow jams at the end of a party #justathought. Hello, new world, let’s call a spade a spade. Ernest Hogan, Richard Pryor and future entertainers will continue to profit from the N-word and then declare it some kind of anathema. I certainly won’t be the last one with an appetite to deconstruct the word, but God, grant these words the inertia needed to counter any radio Program Director’s playlist. I must be out of my cotton-picking mind to make this proposition to you, reader. But I can’t put out half-a-million fires in hell by myself. This is the quiet storm call to action. Perhaps, instead of the “No-Homo pause”, we can pause for the cause of “No Nigga” in titles, choruses, skits and sketches for the year 2013.

Why for only one year, a year from now? I’m a realist more than an idealist. I’m still a dreamer, I just dream smarter. We can call the petition “The Hogan Campaign 2013”. That has a communal, historic and purpose-driven ring to it (I was going to call it “Nigga Please” but realized that would be a divisive joke). Let’s give artists some time to think, because ultimately, it’s their decision. This is NOT censorship, it’s atonement, a one-year moment of silence. While reflecting, if you can’t find time for the simple read of Tom Burrell’s Brainwashed. Then re-watch Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and the brilliance of Tropic Thunder under the guise of humor. Seek out the movies Idiocracy and Black Dynamite, and ask yourself why Hollywood studios were reluctant to promote these comedies. Pay attention to Tracy Morgan’s character on 30 Rock or just watch the increase of commercials where rapping is no longer reserved for Blacks (nor are we the targeted consumer). Rock’N’Roll traditionalists might be feeling violated as their classics get sampled, almost like rappers mugged it from them in the name of the old Black musicians they stole from. Eric B. & Rakim didn’t get inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but one of the aforementioned groups did. Then again what is Rock’N’Roll? Does the explanation of Bieber hysteria lie in his haircut, his music or his main source of manhood? The same question can be applied to Justin the first [Timberlake], however it has very little to do with them as individuals.

The word is like a brand name with different logos. Its origin has chameleon powers where “every nigga (Black, Hispanic, White and Other)” is entitled to use it as they please to maximize their own potential. The Notorious B.I.G. took “Party & Bullshit” from The Last Poets and used it exactly in the nihilistic way they forewarned. Yet, someone had to clear a sample and all the artists involved got paid. Both songs are embraced with supreme love and respect (one of Tupac’s favorite tracks), but like the N-word, the homonym of prophet changed in definition for profit and the despair that comes with it. The cause and effect are far too cryptic and complex for iPhone programmers to encode in any interpretation of the word. Will Siri have an opinion, because she/it will NEVER have an answer? If only it could be part of the stock index…. This is organic food for thought in case you are unaware of the amount of hormones we digest in fast food. Since we are ALL held hostage by the word, we ALL have the right to sign this petition for a momentary pause on using the word and reflecting upon whether or not we should ever use the N-word again. Take the weight of the word and harness the power as a change agent. What you do not say can be just as powerful as what you do say. Silence can be solidarity in a revolution, but I’d like to think the Public Enemy and Spike Lee collaboration lead to a higher volume of USPS Black Heritage Stamps. “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps!”

Whatever you do, don’t be like the ‘08 Obama campaign and wait for White people to support it first. Don’t wait for Oprah, Jay, Maya and Common to sign it as a settlement gesture. If you think this is out of the realms of possibility, stretch your Lennon-like imagination further. Pretend Coretta requested your presence on her deathbed and this campaign was her final request in honor of her and her husband. If that’s not inspirational enough, pretend you’re a professional athlete and the league will charge you every time you say it. Name changers like Ron Artest, Prince and Sean Combs should be leading this brigade. Call it an “In memoriam Heavy D‘ Don’t Curse’” campaign. Record executives can even ask Walmart to put a gold star sticker on packaging for better sales amongst traditional and modern families. For rappers who get writer’s block because the word goes so perfect with “bigger” and “trigger”, I recommend looping this brand new, heavy lyric from Masta Ace where he states, “According to the Jetsons, there’s no Blacks in the future!” Whoa. Somebody, anybody, everybody, scream!

To sign “The Hogan Campaign 2013” petition, which asks that all music artists, comedians and entertainers refrain from using N-word in any TITLE, CHORUS, SKIT or SKETCH for the year 2013—a one year moment of reflection and atonement for the history of the N-word— visit HERE.

Follow TrevBetter on Twitter, @TrevBetter

Image pictured above is of then married artist couple, rapper Nas and singer Kelis on the red carpet at the 2008 Grammy Awards.

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