Saturday, December 16, 2006

Controversy and Infamy

Opinion: The ‘N-word’

2006 probably won’t be remembered as a great year for mainstream hip hop music. Jay-Z showed his age with a distinctly below par comeback, Bubba Sparxx lost the plot in his efforts to become a pop star, and Snoop descended further into self-parody with puerile and offensive videos. To cap it all, Nas rode out the year with an LP which proclaimed Hip Hop is Dead.

Thank heavens for Missy Elliot. For me, the brilliant Respect M.E. compilation confirmed Missy’s pre-eminence among rappers – male and female - and underlined Timbaland’s status as one of the most innovative producers in popular music. It’s one of my top LPs of the year.

According to most fans and critics, the high point of 2006 was The Clipse Hell Hath No Fury release. Hailed as groundbreaking minimalist gangsta-rap, its amazing sound concocted by the Neptunes, much of the LP does make for an edgy, groovy listen. But when it comes down to it, it remains a celebration of coke-fueled gang culture which disses “faggots” in its ill rhymes while proclaiming, “The world’s my monopoly with your bitch on top of me”. Women and gays probably won’t be impressed. Containing its share of bigotry, misogyny and materialism, Hell Hath no Fury has few claims to consciousness raising.

Talking of raising awareness, the disgraceful racist diatribe by Seinfeld star Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards in a Los Angeles comedy club was a low point of 2006. One of America’s most popular white comic actors spewing racial invective at a largely black audience made for a sorry, dispiriting sight.

If there’s a silver lining to the cloud hanging over Richard’s head, it might be that he inadvertently reignited the debate over the use of the ‘N-word’ among the hip-hop community. Certainly it’s gotten me thinking about my own contentious relationship with rap music (I'm a fan) to the extent that I’ve now found myself blanching every time the ‘N-word’ comes up in a hip-hop track.

Back in ’88, Niggaz With Attitude blew my mind when they exploded out of Compton with Fuck tha’ Police. I was shocked, I admit, but the dramatic justification for the profanity seemed undeniable in the age of Rodney King. At that juncture - twenty years back, it should be emphasized - gangsta-rap was exciting and vital. When Public Enemy demanded we Fight the Power, the message had relevance and urgency. As African-American scholars like Mike Dyson and Todd Boyd placed the ‘N word’ in its historical context, the term, it was said, had been reappropriated by hip-hoppers as a term of empowerment. Parallels were drawn with homosexuals ‘taking back’ the words ‘gay’and ‘queer’. “It’s only a word”, rappers said, "but now it’s our word". The more it was used, they claimed, the more desensitized it became.

The degree of sensitivity is clearly heavily dependent on context. Among the African-American community, nigga is used freely, but when Latina actress Jennifer Lopez used the word on live radio, she was censured by blacks. This despite the fact that she had been in a long term relationship with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and therefore could plausibly claim some intimacy with black culture. If a double standard has arisen around use of the word, maybe it’s a double standard we’re going to have to get used to.

Black hip-hoppers claim they are making music which represents their community, yet their buying audience is predominantly white. Why then use a word that vilifies blacks to continue spreading the ignorance, a term which can divert listeners' attention from any intended message? The soul giants of the sixties and seventies, after all, raised consciousness without resorting to profanity and evident self-hatred.

It’s easy of course to point out the negative aspects of hip-hop because controversy and infamy generates more media exposure. Let's not forget that ‘conscious' acts like The Roots, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, Erykah Badu, Jedi Mind Tricks, Spearhead, Gnarls Barkley, Intellekt and Black Eyed Peas have all stressed affirmation in their music.

Nevertheless, it’s clear from hip-hop magazines and discussion groups that many in the black community are uncomfortable with artists indiscriminately bandying about the ‘N-word’. Its use, they claim, has become counterproductive. Black Commentator magazine calls for "a new trajectory within hip-hop modalities". Where’s the 'empowerment', they ask, when Jay-Z has a hit song titled, Jigga, My Nigga, and impressionable white kids are singing along? How can blacks continue to use the term yet take white racists to task for doing the same?

The 'N-word' debate is a complex, sensitive issue, and I admit, as a white man, I sometimes don’t feel entirely comfortable dealing with it. But I‘m a music fan, a hip-hop fan, a lover of culture. Hip-hop makes me think, it makes me dance, often it makes me laugh. As a consumer and admirer of this art I have a vested interest - I can’t separate myself from its controversies. Even if 2006 hasn’t been a great year for urban music, I'm hopeful that this discussion could represent a turning point for rap and - in terms of how it’s perceived by the masses - be seen as the moment when mainstream hip-hop got its (political) groove back.

What do readers think about this issue? Please post a comment.


Eric B. said...

As you’ve explained in your blog, this is a pretty contentious issue among the African-American community , of which I am a member, and you’re gonna find a lot of opinions divided on it. Jesse Jackson called for black celebrities to stop using the n-word last week, and comedian Paul Mooney, in response vowed never to use it again. But Damon Wayans used it 15 times in his set at the Laugh Factory, in the full knowledge that the club would ban him for three months.
Some blacks feel it’s ok for them to use it, but other cultures shouldn’t insult us by using it. All cultures have their taboo terms and we shouldn’t step over the line.
The Hip-hop artist Swordz agrees it's a double standard. He uses it, but he said black people have been taken back a few years each time it's used.
If the more it is used, the more people will feel it's acceptable, then that's a reason to my mind why it should never be used.
It's good that people are talking about it, though, such as your blog.

Anonymous said...

As for the "N word" I might be an outsider, basically I don't speak English and have been out of the culture. The "N word" is just a word I have to put into a list of words which are carefully avoided. I probably don't have the emotion to the same extent as you when I hear that word since I don't know the background as much as you. As for double standards, we have always had double or even triple standards for many words in our daily communication with people. Which standard I take depends on which level I have a relationship with him or her. And one strict rule to the outside is that we should humble OURSELVES and never depreciate OTHERS. In Jenniffer Lopez' case, if she were black, her use of the term might have been accepted by blacks. But unless she is included in the black category, I don't think she should use the word. When people deprecate themselves, they have reverse meaning that they shouldn't be that. Then it's taboo for OTHERS to utter the same offensive words.
I have been dancing hip-hop for about ten years and one of those who have been fascinated by what is cool about black music and dance.( but don't know lyrics) Many around me (Japanese people) don't care about the meaning of words. They just love the sound and beat.

Tara said...

Thank you for your interesting comments, I'm really enjoying your blog. I agree with one thing you suggest in your article, that gangsta-rap hasn't come far in twenty years. There are still too many acts rapping about niggaz, bitches and ho's and how terrible it is to live in the projects. There is a definite victim mentality at work here which many of us are mighty tired of. Luckily, as you say, there are the so-called 'conscious' hip hop acts like Roots who have something more uplifting to say in the genre. For the record, I am female teacher living in the beautiful Bay Area, northern California.

Anonymous said...

I'm an African-American male livin in Osaka, Japan. One of my Japanese friends told me about your blog. I am maybe a hiphopper too, and I have to say you've made some good points in your blog and its somethin I have been hearin a lot among both black and white friends. My black friends and I don't use the term nigga among ourselves, it sounds kind of cartoonish to me. I guess I can understand you feeling uncomfortable as a white man talking about this issue, but as you say the majority of hiphop cds are bought by whites, so you have as much a right as anyone. It's very important to say, as you have suggested, that their is plenty of 'conscious' rap still being put out.