By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
The N Word Ya Love to Hate
Eight months after its 'burial,' the explosive epithet is still rampant among rappers
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 word "nigger" and its variants. This wasn't long after Don Imus referred to members of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" and hip-hop potentate Russell Simmons called on the recording and broadcasting industries to self-censor rap music's favorite racial epithet.
But eight months after its burial, nigga—and its more offensive fraternal twin—are more a part of hip-hop than ever.
Exhibit A is Nas' upcoming album, Nigger (tentative release date: April 22). Despite rumors that Def Jam Records was refusing to release it, label representatives insist 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 insists 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 [activist] Medgar Evers was."
Nas' statement effectively encapsulates the debate between generations. Most older African-American leaders believe the word retains its brutal, destructive charge, and they seek its elimination. The bulk of mainstream rappers, however, contend that its meaning has evolved and can actually promote 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 outcry—outside of blogs and message boards, in any case—about the latest album from DJ Khaled, We the Best, which features Khaled 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 dropping the word in the remix of her song "I'm Real." A pair of New York DJs said they received thousands of complaints and organized a protest of one of her live performances.
Khaled, who was 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.' 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, that's a different story. In hip-hop, we have our own language. It's like how 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. "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 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 Simmons contends it's the other way around. In the wake of Imus-gate last April, he promoted voluntary restrictions on the word, as well as on "bitch" and "ho." The Reverend Al Sharpton, meanwhile, insists that the title of Nas' album gives power to racists. "We're in an age in which they are hanging nooses; they're locking our kids up in Jena and Florida," Sharpton 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 Joe tell it, however, both Sharpton and Simmons are being hypocritical, recounting private, less politically correct encounters with the two. "Russell Simmons says, 'Fat Joe, you my nigga.' The Reverend Al Sharpton says, 'Yo, what's up Fat Joe? You the realest nigga I know.'"
Buckshot, a black rapper from the Boot Camp Clik who employs the word in his rhymes, thinks it's time to get off the topic. "Ban the word? No, because the more we entertain it in a negative way, the more it just becomes something to feed off," he says. "My answer is to move on. We've got much bigger issues than that."