“A word is only harmful when used to intentionally offend someone,” wrote Jay Z in “Decoded” – a book that accumulated the lyrics of many of his most famous offerings, and the meanings behind them. “Words are only as powerful as the context you place them in.”
But does this apply to the use of words such as “n*gger?” One that for years has been used to denounce black people – in particular African American slaves? Many – shockingly perhaps – argue that yes, it does.
The prevalence of the use of the word in hip-hop music has arguably greatly increased over the years. And with the crossing over of hip hop culture into the mainstream, one in which the majority of its consumers are white, middle class kids who in attempting to sing or rap along will undoubtedly use the word their ancestors would have once used to castigate the proprietors of the music – the question of why and how and should it be so prevalent, is an increasingly important one.
KRS-One, an American rapper that prides himself on his brand of conscious rap supports Jay Z’s ideology that a word only means what you want it to. “You’re confusing ‘nigger’ with ‘nigga,’ he said at a recent debate in London which asked the question of whether hip hop, as a genre, enhances or degrades society. “Nigga in the dictionary comes from the word negus – which means King.”
But not all agree with his point of view. “The whole issue of the n word being a term of endearment is asinine,” argues journalist Chris Williams. “It is not a term of endearment. It is the continuation of a 500 year old racist ideology.”
Dean Atta – a London based poet who recently went viral with his poem ‘I am nobody’s nigger,’ – a piece inspired by the death of Stephen Lawrence – agrees. “I just think it’s regressive,” he argued. “Using that word I still think most white people will hear you and just think you’re stupid. Because you’re still referring to yourself in a derogatory way. And a lot of black people will hear you use it and think you’re stupid because you are disrespecting the pain and suffering that our ancestors have been through.”
Dean goes on to liken the word to “bitch,” or “faggot,” adding “if a woman wants to call herself a bitch, if a black man wants to call himself a nigger, if a gay person wants to call themselves a faggot, that is their choice… but I wouldn’t really think they understood the extent of the word.”
DJ Snips – a hip hop DJ who also hosts his own, supremely popular hip hop club night in London disagrees with Atta on this aspect of the word and its usage. “I think that essentially in anything if you try and demoralize somebody and are derogatory against them, eventually people take ownership of what you threw at them. For example if you call a fat person fat for so long, eventually she’ll come out and be like ‘ya fuck it I’m fat, I’m proud to be fat.’”
But the question of who is using the word and the intentions behind it is an issue that was raised time and time again. “I have white and Asian friends who grew up around black people – some of whom actually act blacker than me – so can we blame them for using it amongst their peers?” argued music journalist Joseph Patterson.
Fem Fel – an up and coming UK based rapper who often uses the word in his own music, argues the same: “If I was to meet another group of friends and be like these are all my niggers and that’s Tom… you can’t do that,” he explained, “… my niggers are my niggers in that kind of sense.” But how each individual’s intentions could possibly be assessed is a question that cannot be so easily dismissed. And if the doors are left open for the word to be used in every day language, where are the locks that can stop its progression into other realms?
This is particularly poignant in light of the case of Iggy Azalea – a white, female rapper and her use of the n word in “Hustle Gang.” “Obviously it’s not a problem for rappers to use the word,” argued Snips, “but to a certain extent you have to look at the industry and think well, what did you expect? If you’re going to use the word so freely and acceptably and then target a majority white audience to sell your music, you can’t really be that surprised when they retake that word and think it’s acceptable to use it.”
Snips went on to argue that when he was younger and listening to the likes of A Tribe Called Quest he would never even have thought of utilizing the word, “because the music itself educates you in a way that you knew the origin of certain words and why you couldn’t say them,” he explains. “Nowadays I don’t think the music educates people.”
In speculating on why the word is so inherent in todays hip hop music, Chris Williams suggests that for many rappers who grew up in some of the poorest urban communities in the United States, the word was being used “ad nauseum,” infiltrating itself into their natural vernacular, this then trickled down into younger generations of rappers who followed their lead.
“It’s just what we grew up listening to,” agrees Fem Fel, adding “we grew up listening to it when we were having good times, when we were in a club… and 50 Cent or whoever else is talking… it wasn’t used in a derogatory way.” The rapper justified its use in his own music, arguing: “I don’t know who it offends anymore… It doesn’t offend my peers, I don’t know how it could offend white people… so that’s why I use it.”
Chris Williams goes on to explain that understanding where most of these MCs grew up makes it easier to understand why they use the word… “I can see why it’s hard for them to break a bad habit,” he adds, “but it can and must be done.”
The lack of education that is a common facet of much of todays mainstream, commercial hip-hop is part of an issue that is arguably inherent in the society itself. “What people think as black, what they want to be like when they say they want to be like their black mates is being niggerish,” argued Akala – an English rapper, poet and journalist who is most known for his positive influence within hip hop music.
“They don’t associate it with anything positive,” he went on to add. “So when they want to be clever they don’t copy the little Nigerian kids who get straight A’s… when they say they want to be like black people they don’t want to be like Malcolm X… they want to be niggerish. And we have to be clear on that difference.”
This discrepancy between being black and being ‘niggerish’ is something that needs to be tackled from the root up. The fact that there even is a distinction between the two arguably makes it all the more important to reassess the use of the word in hip hop music, and the argument that its use is reclaiming a word which once had negative connotations. In particular as evidently, to many, it still does.
Having grown up in the Southern states of America, Chris Williams reveals that the word stirs up many negative emotions for him. “I’ve been called that word to my face on numerous occasions,” he explains, adding “feelings of anger, frustration and sadness come over me when I hear the word.”
Its use is argued to be all the more baffling by the fact that no other ethnicities that are known by derisory euphemisms have ever turned one of those colloquial terms into something that they refer to themselves by. “No people in history have spoken about their children like hip hop does,” argued Shaun Bailey – David Cameron’s advisor on youth and crime – at the recent hip hop on trial debate. This is a stance shared by Akala, who argues that black people talk about killing black people all the time, whereas if a white person were to do it, it would be considered shocking, wrong and immoral.
“White terrorism essentially makes people scared, it make them nervous,” he argued. “But black deaths are entertaining. Rap music shows that.” He went on to illustrate by explaining how while in the studio with young black boys they often write lyrics the likes of “nigga, nigga, nigga, I’m killin’ ‘em, I’m killin’ ‘em.“ He goes on to explain how he’ll often ask these kids what the word nigga means, and what its origins are, to both counts they’d reply with the same monosyllabic response – “dunno.”
To this respect, many argue education to be an important aspect in changing attitudes. In particular if the word really is to be reclaimed. But the extent to which not all believe in that stance is evident in the response Atta received for his poem. “In a day it was like 8,000 people had listened to it and now its come up to 40,000… I’ve been written about in the Guardian, the Huffington post and been featured on the radio, as well as contacted by the Stephen Lawrence trust.”
So if so many people feel so strongly about it, why is nothing being done? “The music industry in general is all about what sells,” explains Atta. “And if it keeps selling then they’ll keep saying it.”
To those that argue that the word has been reclaimed, Chris Williams says: “that’s a complete cop out and bullshit for those who aren’t strong enough to change the environment that perpetuates this nonsense… enough is enough. The madness must stop.”