Rap Music and the "N-Words" During the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

by Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

Note: I will use the term n-words, when referring to “nigga” and “nigger” collectively.

Since the moment Jay-Z launched the music-streaming service Tidal at the end of March, the rapper-turned-mogul has been on the defensive. I will not rehash all of the criticisms being leveled at Tidal, as they are well articulated here and here for starters; suffice it to say that if the company survives, Jay-Z will likely be doing damage control for a long time. I, on the other hand, am pretty excited about Tidal. While I haven’t actually purchased the app, the reception of its launch has provided me with plenty of food for thought as it relates to the business of music, the diminishing power of celebrities in society, and the politics of being black in corporate America. Tidal’s launch has even indirectly provided me with the angle I needed in order to finally finish this think-piece about rap and the n-words I have been struggling to write since last summer. Let me explain.

It all started on the evening of Saturday May, 16th. After responding to naysayers through a series of tweets in April, Jay-Z moved to more familiar terrain that night, lambasting his critics via a freestyle he delivered during a private concert for Tidal subscribers. As I perused the annotated verse on Rap Genius the next day, my eyes latched onto one line in particular:
I feel like YouTube is the biggest culprit
Them niggas pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get.
I paused, scratched my head, and looked over more bars.
Let them continue choking niggas
We gonna turn style, I ain't your token nigga
I compared the first set of bars to the second set a few times and began thinking aloud: Have rappers always used the word “nigga” as a stand-in for every kind of person (or in this case LLC) under the sun, or am I just more sensitive to it?

I have certainly been a part of conversations with friends wherein the term “nigga” is used to refer to anybody, including, to my amusement, the most lily-white professors at my alma mater. Despite the fact that I am a rapper, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a good enough knowledge of the genre’s history to justify my initial question. At the same time, because I am a rapper, and one who has used the term “nigga” in her music, I felt it important not to simply gloss over my reaction to Jigga’s latest verse, even if it may only have been the result of my growing sensitivity towards the word.

Recently, I have become quite obsessive as it relates to checking the meaning of my words – a somewhat paranoid response to the growing social media presence around my music career. While I am overjoyed about expanding my network of supporters, every new Facebook like, Twitter follower, and Bandcamp purchase also serves as a reminder that I have less agency over the interpretation and use of the words I have written and recorded.

In turn, this realization has forced me to think more deeply about what it is I’ve actually been saying, particularly in the context of nerdcore rap music – a hip hop subgenre to which my work has been closely tied and one in which the majority of both its fans and most of its well-known MCs are white men. Although there are some notable exceptions, it’s safe to say that any explicit dealings with race around topics as charged as the politics of the n-words have never really been addressed. I often wonder how my words are understood in this scene as they are so intimately connected to my blackness.

I’ve also begun thinking about the frequency with which I’ve seen audience members mouthing my words during performances. The first time I witnessed this phenomenon, I was caught so wholly off guard that I temporarily forgot my words. These days, however, my excitement is usually tempered by my recollection of a video clip I’d seen circulating this past April in which a Coachella concert camera flashes to a white audience member while he emphatically sings “nigga” along with The Weeknd (and presumably most of the audience) during Drake’s set. I now wonder whether that’s happened at any of my shows.

To be clear, I have no judgments about black rappers who use the word in their music nor do I feel a way about those who intentionally do not. Additionally, my growing ambivalence around using “nigga” is in no way connected to the comfort of nerdcore’s primary fanbase. Making my music palatable and “safe” for non-black people has never been my intent. If anything, my driving force has often been a desire to engender difficult conversations between people who have never thought about blackness in the context of their favorite fandoms. On my latest project – a concept EP devoted to the classic video game Metroid – I use the word “nigga” as a way of establishing voice, a reminder that my experience of the game, even in my role as a raconteur, has always been mediated through the eyes of a self-aware black person in a space not designed for her. Yet, as stories about state-sanctioned violence against black people have become a regular part of my media diet, I am increasingly wondering whether my desire to create dialogue comes at the expense of creating a safe space for the very people I am trying to prioritize.

Rap’s Embrace of “Nigga”

A quick read-through of the 1993 New York Times article entitled “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Nigger’ Fires Bitter Debate” reveals that much of the popular discussion about rap and the n-words has remained the same over the past 20 years. Although the author overlooks important nuances related to the spelling of “nigga” and “nigger” the points of contention are the same: some maintain that the n-words can never be separated from their violent history, while others believe that reappropriation of the word “nigger” by black people divorces the word from its white supremacist roots. Popular rappers like YC the Cynic and Kendrick Lamar have taken things even further by cleverly exchanging the word “niggas” with the homophone “negus,” a term that refers to royalty in Ethiopian Semitic languages. And while more seasoned popular rappers have not quite taken that leap, most, if not all remain unapologetic in their usage of it. As Common has noted, “[I]f I talk over those people’s head or I don’t use language that I would naturally speak in raps, they may not get the message.” To him, the meaning of the word can be found in the colloquial context in which it is expressed.

As it relates to hip hop, I had unquestioningly taken a big part of this context to mean the race of the person rapping. Black rappers could say “nigga” whereas nobody else could do so unproblematically. If it were deployed by white rappers in a verse, as in the case of one of Eminem’s earlier works, it was necessarily interpreted as an act of violence and racism. And yes, though Bay Area rapper and “white girl mob” member V-Nasty received support from a few black rappers in defense of her right to use “nigga” in 2011, it is safe to say that no white rapper with a long-lasting national career has ever maintained the use of the n-words as a part of their rap lexicon.

Even so, I can’t shake the feeling that we are only a few years, if not months, away from such a rapper successfully emerging on the national stage. KRS-One may not have been far off in 1993 when he predicted, “In another 5 to 10 years, you're going to see youth in elementary school spelling it out in their vocabulary tests…It's going to be that accepted by the society.” Recently Chet Hanks, the son of Tom Hanks, attempted to argue much the same thing via Instagram, adamantly defending his right to say “nigga.” And although “Chet Haze” (Hanks’ rap persona), is nowhere near being nationally successful, his arguments in defense of the n-word’s broad appeal have certainly been echoed by more well-known non-black artists. This past March Cambodian-Canadian rapper Honey Cocaine defended her right to use “nigga” to Vice, arguing, “Like, where I grew up, everyone I know, black, Asian, whatever, says nigga. I know it's controversial, but this is the world I grew up in.” Honey Cocaine’s use of the word as an Asian rapper is undoubtedly understood differently than it is with Chet Haze or V-Nasty, despite similarities in the rhetoric of their defense; still, at a moment when black and Asian activists are beginning to call out anti-blackness in Asian communities, it’s interesting to note how little has been said in this regard.

Photo: Builder Levy
Additionally over the past twelve months black rappers have made some alarming concessions as it relates to use of the n-words by their white “friends.” When video footage emerged in June 2014 of a much younger Justin Bieber singing “one less lonely nigger,” rappers like Young Money president Mack Maine and Common leapt to his defense, reasoning that he simply could not be a racist because he now “surrounds himself with black people.” In January of 2015, Jean Touitou, the founder of the menswear brand A.P.C. and close friend of Kanye West brandished the term “nigga” several times during a presentation of the company’s Fall collection, “Last Nigg@$ IN PARIS.” Touitou later “clarified” that he had received Kanye’s blessing although he eventually issued an apology only after jeopardizing A.P.C.’s relationship with their collaborator, Timberland. ‘Ye’s uncharacteristic silence throughout the ordeal spoke volumes.

A number of new school rappers seem to have an even less proprietary sense of the word. Schoolboy Q has encouraged white audience members to say “nigga” at his shows as a way of breaking bread. In an interview with Fader he clarified: “We’re not black, we’re not white, we’re not Asian. We’re just people here listening to music. You can say nigga in front of me, I don’t care.” Interestingly he added that white fans shouldn’t use the word outside of that context. Tyler the Creator contends that the word no longer has any meaning, a point perhaps best articulated through his portrayal of the rapper “Young Nigga” in his Adult Swim sketch comedy show Loiter Squad. In one scene, “Young Nigga” holds a press conference to relay the news that he will be removing the “offensive” part of his moniker after meeting with a young fan. He then of course proceeds to remove the “Young” part of his rap name and states that he will henceforth be going solely by “Nigga” – an announcement that is met with applause and excitement from the press.

To be fair, certain black entertainers have recently spoken up from the other side of the aisle, although much of their rhetoric is steeped in the problematic language of respectability. Media personality Charlamagne tha God, who once famously gave Justin Bieber an n-word “pass,” backtracked from his position shortly after Bieber-gate. In an interview with Vibe, Charlamagne stated, “I don’t care if it’s –er or –ga at the end—it’s a word with too much blood attached to it to ever be positive.”

Not long after that, hip hop pioneer Chuck D publicly blasted Hot 97’s Summer Jam music festival, citing the careless use of “nigga” as one of his major grievances: “If there was a festival and it was filled with anti-Semitic slurs... or racial slurs at anyone but black people, what do you think would happen?...Why does there have to be such a double standard?

Still, within the commercial rap world it would appear that these perspectives have largely been obscured by nihilist viewpoints like Tyler the Creator’s or the emergence of a certain kind of black respectability that has been branded the “new black” mentality. Although the mentality is actually quite old, this framing is based on a recent Pharrell interview with Oprah, in which he said, “The New Black dreams and realizes that it's not pigmentation: it's a mentality and it's either going to work for you or it's going to work against you. And you've got to pick the side you're going to be on.” In response to Pharrell, among others espousing the “new black” mentality, Stereo Williams of the Daily Beast writes, “The idea that black people’s reaction to racism—and not the racism itself—is what must be addressed is an effective distraction that de-centers the struggle of black people. It centers the comfort of white people, absolving white supremacy and indicting black rage as ‘the problem.’”

As it relates to the n-words, part of what makes the new black respectability so insidious is that it legitimizes the non-black use of both “nigger” and “nigga” by making black people’s complex relationship with these words the problem. It is certainly true that the issues with Justin Bieber and those with V-Nasty represent two different sets of concerns; while the former deals with the use of racially-charged language as a way of othering, the latter deals with the desire to strip language of its racial significance in order to destroy the notion that there even is an Other. However “new black” rappers utilize the same flawed logic to defend both instances, the argument being that if we blacks can say a word, we can’t then be mad when they do it too. And furthermore it doesn’t matter who you are and what you say, it’s who you take with you to the club currently that matters. This line of reasoning creates the dangerous space in which assumptions about intent, rather than historical or cultural context, are the only basis for interpreting the use of highly charged language.

"Mr. Nigga" and "New Slaves"

All of this comes at an interesting moment for the world of mainstream rap music. While the industry has virtually imploded, many black rappers are experiencing unprecedented levels of fame and entry into spaces never before afforded to them. Sixteen years after the release of Black on Both Sides, the brilliant debut album from Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), I am only now fully appreciating the importance of "Mr. Nigga," which deals precisely with this topic. On the track, he chronicles a series of racist micro and macro-aggressions faced by black artists, athletes, and businessmen as they attempt to move up in the world metaphorically as well as via elevators and airplanes. It is the track’s title, recited throughout the song by Yasiin Bey and collaborator Q-Tip, that most poignantly encapsulates white America’s schizophrenic relationship with the upwardly mobile black man – extending him the courtesy of a formal title like “Mr.” rather than “boy” – while calling attention to his status as an Other through the use of “nigga.”

Yet despite resonances of the song’s message in more contemporary rap songs, I see a distinct difference between the way that Yasiin Bey waxed philosophical about white responses to black affluence in ‘99, and the way that successful black rappers of today do so. Jay-Z’s Tidal freestyle offers one great example, but more widely known cases can be found by looking at the catalog of his creative foil, Kanye West. When Yasiin Bey adopts the second-person perspective in “Mr. Nigga,” his “you” is the up-and-coming black man in question. “Say they want you successful, but that ain't the case / You living large, your skin is dark, they flash a light in your face.” In stark contrast, the object of Kanye’s ire in songs like “New Slaves” are the affluent, presumably white individuals sometimes invoked by Yasiin Bey when he speaks of an abstract “they.” West does not speak in abstractions when he spits: “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I'll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth.”

Similar to the prominence of white bodies in new rap contexts (to say nothing of white consumption of rap music), this kind of lyrical engagement with white audiences is both reflective and constitutive of what I suspect may be a sea-change of sorts around what is understood to be a nigga these days. In the same verse that Kanye sardonically calls himself nigga (“Y'all throwin' contracts at me / You know that niggas can't read”) and later refers to the mostly brown bodies trapped in the prison industrial complex as such (“They tryna lock niggas up / They tryna make new slaves”), he also refers to the Hamptons property-owning CEOs as niggas (“Fuck you and your corporation / Y'all niggas can't control me”). According to Kanye, everybody is a nigga. I understand his point, but for me, the stakes are too high to be so indiscriminate when discrimination against black people is costing them their lives.

* * *

Rap music will continue to evolve and as it does, its purveyors must recognize that they are uniquely equipped to start critical discussions around race. Last year NYC rapper Homeboy Sandman broke the Internet after writing a Gawker article entitled, “Black People are Cowards.” In it he accused the LA Clippers (among others) of cowardice for their silence in regards to the racist remarks of former team owner Donald Sterling. While the title served its purpose as obvious click-bait, the piece sparked an important discussion about civil disobedience and the burden carried by those with the most to lose for fighting a problem they didn’t create. If the tastemakers don't create spaces for these conversations, who will?

As an MC, a PhD student, and the daughter of two Afrocentric academics I sense that I will never be able to reconcile my stance on the word “nigga.” One of my earliest memories remains being called a “stupid nigger” by a group of high school students on their way home from school as I sat on a nearby park bench. In contrast, “nigga” wasn’t a word I ever really heard while growing up (outside of hip hop music), but once I entered college I was surrounded by black people who often used the word casually. By my senior year, it had entered my lexicon quite organically.

Even so, when I first began rapping in 2009 I couldn’t bring myself to put “nigga” in my rhymes. As I began freestyling and working with more seasoned rappers, I began unconsciously peppering my verses with the word. Over time it became a way for me to insert my raw blackness into a scene where race is rarely discussed. I was even warned by some peers in the nerdcore community that my language was going to hinder me from getting important gigs. Given that several notable nerdcore artists deploy a litany of expletives while on stage, I suspected that “language” was a euphemism for “nigga” (which is even more infuriating because I have since learned about white artists in the nerd/geek music scene who casually use the n-words in conversation). I made a vow that I would never tone it down and I have since performed at some of nerdcore’s biggest venues – MAGFest, PAX East, and the official nerdcore stage at SXSW, among others.

While I am proud of myself for maintaining my artistic integrity, I now want to try prioritizing black voices in a different way with my next project. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but for now I cannot justify employing a word that has the potential to only harm black people despite more people claiming it as their own to use. Instead I will focus on creating an earnest and open space for my most marginalized listeners, whether they’re standing in the audience at a show or maybe one day checking me out on Tidal.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD candidate in Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. Articles she has written on hip hop have appeared in such notable online publications as For Harriet and Bitch. In addition to her research and teaching obligations, she has also been rapping and producing under the stage name Sammus since 2009. Follow her on Twitter @SammusMusic.

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