Not Your Father's N-Word

Eight months after its "burial," the American language's most dangerous epithet is more popular than ever in hip-hop

Last July, thousands of folks, including the (now-embattled) 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. This wasn't long after Michael Richards flew off at the mouth at a Los Angeles comedy club, Don Imus referred to members of the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hoes" 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's upcoming album, Nigger. Despite rumors that Def Jam Records was refusing to release it, label representatives insist that it will retain its title. Label head Antonio "L.A." Reid has publicly suggested the opposite, and the internal riff speaks volumes to the power that the n-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 [civil-rights activist] Medgar Evers was."

Khaled, Fat Joe and Nas shut out their critics.
Kyle Webster
Khaled, Fat Joe and Nas shut out their critics.

Nas's 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, when used by the right people, 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 nonblack hip-hop artists can use it. For example, there has been little outcry — outside of blogs and messageboards, 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. Hispanic Houston rappers use "nigga" without blinking, and 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 an n-bomb 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. A few years later, adding to the confusion, actor/comedian Damon Wayans tried to trademark Nigga for a line of clothing (he was turned down because the government does not allow trademarks of immoral or scandalous terms).

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, 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 drops even more n-bombs 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 Imus-gate last April, he promoted voluntary restrictions on the word as well as on bitch and ho. Speaking to Fox News's 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's 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, 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.' Reverend Al Sharpton says, 'Yo, what's up Fat Joe? You the realest nigga I know.'"

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