BUT THE QUESTION REMAINS…
Despite the historic election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the United States of America, the race card is still the hole card of choice. That Ralph Nader’s election night use of the slur “Uncle Tom” in a radio interview earned him several minutes of face-time hours later on Fox News is proof enough of this. Chris Rock summed up Americans’ hypocrisy surrounding race and language a month prior to the election on his HBO special Kill the Messenger, demanding sarcastically, “But the question remains, can white people say the word ‘nigger’?” Rock had an appropriately obscure response to the controversy, offered with a grin, “Answer: not really.”
In the late 1990s, Rock’s career was launched in part thanks to a routine on his HBO special Bring the Pain known as “What’s the Difference between Blacks and Niggers?” which traded on ideas embodied in an old line occasionally heard in black neighborhoods, “Quit acting like a nigger.” During the monologue, Rock shrewdly shifted the focus from his own words to “the media,” a frequent perpetrator of stereotypical images: “Some black people looking at me, ‘Man, why you got to say that? It ain’t us, it’s the media…Please cut the fucking shit. When I go to the money machine tonight, I ain’t looking over my back for the media. I’m looking for niggas! Shit, Ted Koppel ain’t never took shit from me…”
Cleverly exaggerating the day-to-day impact of media stereotypes on black lives, Rock earned big laughs from the overwhelmingly African American audience in the Washington DC auditorium. Like the mostly black crowd who enjoyed Rock’s act, few African American critics found any problem with his comedy at the time. But his ensuing popularity drew attention to a larger question, i.e., what are the effects when dialogue usually restricted to black communal spaces becomes big business for a global multiracial audience? This is the question at the core of the debate over who, if anyone, can say the n-word. The ensuing appearance of the word in the mouths of people of all races and popular songs and films by white artists has been the practical effect of the global domination of hip-hop culture. It’s also offered a resounding “Everyone!” in answer to the question: Who can say the n-word?
The comfort level that much of Generations X and Y have with the word has only fueled the debate, however. Since Michael Richards’s onstage meltdown when he spewed the word repeatedly at black hecklers in 2006, there has been an increasingly vocal backlash. Rather than targeting whites, who, prior to the rise of hip-hop, had been out of bounds using the term in polite society since the Jim Crow era, politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have ironically urged black entertainers to drop the word. Rappers like Jay-Z have written songs firing back at the backlash and even South Park has weighed in on the matter. In the summer of 2008, Nas released an entire album taking on the controversy. The veteran rapper originally planned to call the album Nigger until African American politicians in New York threatened to withdraw $84 million worth of city funding from Nas’s parent label Vivendi if they put out an album with such an incendiary title, forcing him to release it as Untitled.
Standing with politicians and conservative black critics like Shelby Steele and Stanley Crouch, Jabari Asim makes the case for the backlash in his 2007 book The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, arguing only properly historically-informed artists, journalists and scholars should use offensive terms like “nigger.” Asim is also the editor of the NAACP’s membership publication The Crisis, which helps explain his uneasy relationship with rap music. The NAACP has long promoted the doctrine of uplift, an ideology that views only positive role models like Sidney Poitier as helpful to the cause of equality. In 1972, this idea led Junius Griffin, a member of the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, to write an article for Variety that attacked the just-released Super Fly and other similar films as “blaxploitation.” The term was highly offensive to many black entertainers finding steady work in those genre films. But assimilation-minded African Americans were equally offended by the message they feared whites were receiving from the Superspade heroes of films like Shaft and Super Fly. Blaxploitation was tremendously influential on hip-hop, with rappers like Biggie Smalls and Foxy Brown taking stage names that referenced classic films of the era. The controversy about the n-word in rap is a replay of the debate about whether those 1970s black action films were appropriate. On “Black President,” the tribute to Barack Obama that concludes Nas’s Untitled, he references the tradition of middle-class blacks driven by the ideology of uplift with the lyric, “You know these colored folks and Negroes hate to see one of our own lead us.” The line is also a pointed reference to Jesse Jackson, who was caught by a Fox News microphone in the spring of 2008 saying he wanted to cut Obama’s “nuts off” for “telling niggers how to behave” during the Presidential campaign, precisely the kind of criticism Chris Rock never received for his “What’s the Difference?” routine.
While Asim doesn’t bring up Nas in The N-Word, he is an example of the kind of historically-informed artist who would likely earn a seal of approval from hip-hop’s critics to drop an occasional n-bomb. On Untitled’s opener “Queens Get the Money,” Nas spits an n-word riddled history lesson that references the slain Civil Rights-era teen Emmett Till (whom Asim dubs the prototypical “bad nigger”), Black Power icon Huey Newton, and the famed Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Zaire in 1974. Asim does mention Mos Def as a rapper whose song “Mr. Nigga” he deems appropriate, although this attitude is problematic as it suggests hip-hop is only acceptable if it has some higher educational value. It amounts to a double-standard which says white culture can have any Dumb and Dumber it wants but blacks aren’t allowed their Homeboys in Outer Space. On Untitled’s first single, “Hero,” Nas takes on this hypocritical attitude, asking why people never “try tellin’ Bob Dylan, Bruce and Billy Joel they can’t sing what’s in they soul.”
Despite the multicultural interest in the gangsta aesthetic, Nas’s concept album on the n-word hasn’t been flying off the shelves. This suggests either his hating of the younger generation expressed on his previous album, Hip Hop Is Dead, is coming back to bite him or perhaps fans agree there’s nothing wrong with the word and aren’t going to buy a record telling them what they already know. Most hip-hop fans understand that attempts to sanitize language are part of avoiding any real discussion of racism. Although becoming obsessed with counting and classifying every usage of the n-word can become just as much of a smoke screen which prevents substantive discussions of racial dynamics. In The N-Word, a book which pursues a “count-and-classify” strategy, Asim unintentionally reveals this limitation when discussing the outcry over the use of the term by Dennis Franz’s Detective Sipowicz in a 1996 NYPD Blue episode inspired by the airing of LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman’s racist rants during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The script for the episode was written by African American David Mills, whose comment about the flap Asim quotes but fails to recognize the significance of, “It’s really quite silly to spend so much energy on just the six letters…” Series creator Steven Bochco and Mills are both liberals who would’ve liked to score a ratings-winner which also initiated a conversation about racial divisions in America. Predictably, those “six letters” grabbed everyone’s attention instead. While the episode was praised by critics who support Quality TV, it failed aesthetically because Bochco’s do-gooder instincts were an inadequate fit with the character of Sipowicz, who was a flawed hero rather than a Fuhrman-style racist, making the whole affair seem exploitative.
Mills’s quote highlights the point that the use of racial slurs by public figures often says less about race than a desire to exploit people’s interest in taboos, which can be done artfully or mishandled. Like Chris Rock, the postmodern exploitation auteur Quentin Tarantino made an early impression partially thanks to his controversial n-word laden scripts for dark comedies like True Romance and Pulp Fiction. Tarantino defended himself against criticism from the likes of Spike Lee by saying he wanted to use the word until it no longer has any power, not acknowledging that his dialogue appeal to fans precisely because the term carries a stigmatized thrill. Not surprisingly, Asim compares Tarantino’s work unfavorably to the n-word heavy Bamboozled by Lee, though his argument boils down to pointing out that Lee’s film is a historically-rich illustration of how much psychological confusion has occurred in the wake of whites like Tarantino embracing hip-hop culture. In 2003’s Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy is more sensitive to the pitfalls of focusing on “just the six letters,” arguing that Lee and Tarantino have equal right to use the word as they are both talented artists capable of crafting entertaining commentaries on contemporary life. As Kennedy notes, maintaining that only African American directors can use certain language undercuts the argument that, given an equal chance, blacks are just as capable as whites, instead suggesting they need a handicap to compete.
The principal question that the n-word “eradicationists” are asking, as Kennedy dubs them, is, What sort of effect does the widespread use of the term have on race relations? Their answer is that it holds back the cause of equality. While eradicationists don’t believe the n-word can be wiped clean of its ugly history, Kennedy and others argue that a sense of black identity has been forged by African Americans taking back the word and flipping its meaning. Paradoxically, artists like Nas and Chris Rock demonstrate the truth in both arguments. More simplistically, whites often complain that it amounts to “reverse racism” if African Americans are allowed to use a word that they can’t. Chris Rock’s routine on the controversy in Kill the Messenger concludes with a response to this argument: “Last I checked, that was the only benefit to being black. You wanna trade places? You can say ‘nigger’ and I’ll raise interest rates!” It’s a clever line, although Barack Obama’s election represents an unprecedented shift in the balance of power that Rock is satirizing.
On November 4th, 2008, Jesse Jackson was among those watching Obama’s victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park with tears in his eyes, suggesting his bitter words during the campaign were a family squabble which Fox News gleefully made public. That same night, Ralph Nader’s comment on a Fox radio affiliate challenging Obama not to be an “Uncle Tom to the giant corporations” offered Fox News another chance they couldn’t pass up, interrupting their election coverage to interview him in order to sanctimoniously condemn his “racism.” “Now it’s celebrated, people are mad if they ain’t one,” Nas raps on Untitled’s centerpiece, “Y’all My Niggas,” acknowledging how many whites like Nader talking wigger aren’t racist, just biting black culture. Is it any less icky to hear and read hip-hop terms like “shout-out” and “peeps” being used by white journalists and politicians without a trace of irony than to hear words like “nigga” or “Uncle Tom” from the same well-meaning sources? It all boils down to being fragged by friendly fire. But as even Cartman from South Park can tell you, if you really want to find out how each instance of being ripped off by white culture feels, ask a n***a.