"You're talking to the wrong white man, my friend. My people were the white man's nigger when yours were still painting their faces and chasing zebras."
Freshman year of college. One of my good friends was a white kid who loved Jay-Z like crazy. He knew every song, owned every album, and once built an academic thesis around a Jay-Z quote. So, one day we're sitting in his red Ford jamming The Blueprint for absolutely no reason other than we just wanted to sit in the parking lot and jam The Blueprint.
Like I said, this guy adored Jay-Z. Anyway, "Takeover" comes on and we're both rapping along. The Jay-Z vs. Nas beef is arguably the greatest battle in rap history. The genius of that beef was that both MCs started out with jabs and gradually progressed to haymakers. Jay teased Nas on the original version of "Takeover." Nas teased back on the "Stillmatic" freestyle. Then the body shots started pouring in.
Anyway, we're sitting in this guy's red truck outside the parking lot bumping "Takeover." Jay starts off shouting out his weed carriers: "Memphis Bleek, we runnin this rap shit/ B. Mac, we runnin this rap shit/ Freeway, we run this rap shit..." We're both rapping along to every word, heads bobbing. Once Jay is done saluting everyone who's allegedly running this rap shit, he dives into the first verse, starting with the usual chest-thumping:
"The takeover, the break's over, nigga."
I'm not sure how I heard it over those ear-splittingly loud speakers, but I somehow heard my boy drop the N-bomb. The record immediately came to a screeching halt in my mind. The look on my face was not a look of disappointment. I wasn't angry. In fact, I'm not even sure I cared.
The look was more like he had come to my house and peed on my carpet. It just didn't sound right, and my expression immediately communicated this. I can't even tell you why, but it just didn't feel right. Obviously, the racial slur has a painful history and still spells hatred for the African-American community today.
But that's not why it bothered me. I mean, this guy didn't even say "nigger," he said "nigga." I just remember feeling utterly disrespected, even though I had clearly said "nigga" a la Jay-Z on "Takeover." My boy saw the look on my face and promptly apologized for dropping the N-bomb. Then, I felt bad for feeling disrespected.
When it comes to the N-word, context is everything. But even that can be tricky. To some, it's a term of endearment. To others, it still conjures images of people dangling from ropes. The word will never be 100 percent acceptable, not even among black folk. Nas already tried that. Ehnn... didn't happen.
It's a complete no-no among white rappers, but that hasn't stopped a few from dropping it anyway. Here's a few white rappers who found themselves in hot water for dropping the N-bomb.
Kreayshawn/V-Nasty: Kreayshawn is a Screw-banging, weed-smoking white rapper from Oakland. She throws the N-word around on Twitter, but says she's never used it in a song. Her sister V-Nasty, on the other hand, loooooves the N-word. Kreayshawn recently explained that the reason V-Nasty feels comfortable using the word is because "she goes in and out of jail for armed robbery all the time."
Aside from the obvious implication that jail is a place where black people go, her statement also suggests that gaining the endorsement of one group of black people gives you what John Mayer would call a "nigger pass," because, you know, the black community is a monolithic group.
Young Black Teenagers: Young Black Teenagers were young and teenagers, but definitely not black. They formed in the early '90s and signed to S.O.U.L. Records, a label founded by Bomb Squad producer Hank Shocklee. No one understood why a group of Caucasians and one Puerto Rican called themselves black, especially at the height of hip-hop Afrocentrism.
One song in particular, "Daddy Called Me Nigga 'Cuz I Liked To Rhyme" had everyone looking at them sideways. "In the communities where I was raised," said YBT's Kamron back then, "whatever I did - how I lived, talked, and dressed - I was considered as being so-called black." As genuine as their intentions were, the group wasn't ready for the backlash that would eventually drive it into oblivion.
Ill Bill: Ill Bill is one of the best white MCs not named Eminem. He's also a perfect example of a white artist who gets away with the context excuse. Bill once made a song named "White Nigger" and it's exactly what you think it's about. "They called me 'white nigger' and every name in the book," Bill raps on the autobiographical track. Throughout the song, Bill details his struggles in his early days as a fledgling MC, while dropping jewels on race and stereotypes.
But even Bill kind of misses the mark here. He's confusing ignorance with racism. Being called "white nigger" isn't the same as being called "nigger." Bill can take off his hip-hop mask anytime he wants. A black rapper, on the other hand, can't take off his skin and hang it in the closet.
Eminem: There are those who contend that it's never ever acceptable for white folk to say the N-word at all. No, not even if your girlfriend leaves you for another man. In fact, in the book of excuses named for using the N-word, this one is as weak as it gets. Just ask Eminem, who had to apologize endlessly when Benzino released tapes of a young Marshall Mathers using the N-bomb. On one of the songs, he raps, "All the girls I like to bone have big butts/ No they don't, 'cause I don't like that nigger shit / I'm just here to make a bigger hit."
Another track finds Eminem referring to black women as money-hungry "dumb chicks." Eminem blamed his words on being young and immature and reacting foolishly to a breakup with an African-American girl. He apologized on "Yellow Brick Road." Sure, he also refers to his friend Proof as "my nig Proof" on a pre-Slim Shady LP song "Bitterphobia," but even Al Sharpton would've been okay with that one.
My opinion on the word "nigga" has evolved over the years. Things like "context" and "historical reference" have finagled their way into my reasoning on its usage. My philosophy on it is a slight variation of the "if you're only comfortable doing it in the privacy of your home, then don't do it at all" principle.
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If the N-word makes you or the people around you feel awkward, you're only going to ignite fury by uttering it, no matter how well-intended. This rule is even more important if you happen to be a rapper of the Caucasian persuasion.
When Rolling Stone asked Eminem why he never uses the N-word in his songs, he said: "It's just a word I don't feel comfortable with. It wouldn't sound right coming out of my mouth."