Friday, 7 October 2011

Dropping the N-Bomb

In May 2011, Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on the Graham Norton show. In the midst of the interview, Norton touched on the fact that the actress was a fan of 90's hip hop, which was confirmed by Paltrow herself. Asked to prove it by demonstrating the lyrics, Gwyneth replied: 'There's one word I can't say' to which Graham replied, 'No, don't say that word'. Paltrow then preceded to rap the opening bars to 'Gangsta Gangsta' (not 'Straight Outta Compton' as listed on the video):

'Here's a little somethin' bout a nigga like me
never shoulda been let out the penititary
Ice Cube would like ta say
That I'm a crazy mutha fucka from around the way
Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out...'

The actress skipped over the 'nigga' in the first line, replacing it with a silence and a hand gesture. The point of this blog is to explore whether this was in fact the correct action, the motivations and influences behind her decision, and whether it will ever be acceptable for a white person to use the word 'nigga'.
Since Ice T first used the word nigga in 1991, the word has become prevalent in hip hop. There is a distinction between the older, racist epithet 'nigger', and the rap term 'nigga'. The meaning of the word varies  depending on context, used among other things to denote a friend, an enemy, a brother, a poor man, a black man, someone with undesirable qualities, someone who is 'real' etc. Despite the word being used on a vast number of hip hop songs, a white rapper has never acceptably been able to use the word, and the word has not broken through into acceptable everyday use in society, except selected black communities.
It is not just white MC's who feel they cannot use the word. In 2008, Nas planned to name his new album Nigger. This predictably caused uproar, and the label was eventually forced to censure his project. The album was finally released with no title. It is important to note that the planned title was 'Nigger' and not 'Nigga'. Albums such as 2Pac's Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z have been released without too much controversy, suggesting that the distinction between the racist and hip hop terms is still important. Nas suggested that his title was an attempt to reclaim the word: 

“We’re taking power from the word. You see how white boys ain’t mad at ‘cracker’ cause it don’t have the same sting as ‘nigger?’ I want ‘nigger’ to have less meaning than ‘cracker.”

This begs the question: If there is a clear distinction between 'Nigger' and 'Nigga', why can't a white person feel comfortable using the hip hop term in the appropriate context. Gwyneth Paltrow chose to not risk offending people by leaving out the word, but there is no reason why she should have done so. The word is clearly in the lyrics, and she was asked to recite them. Would Ice Cube have left out the word if he was asked to perform 'Gangsta Gangsta'? Why would it be acceptable for him to say it and not Paltrow?
As mentioned in an earlier post, Kreayshawn and her White Girl Mob have used the word in their songs, to uproar in  the hip hop world. Mistah F.A.B has come out in support, railing against the hypocritical double standards of some in the hip hop community: 

"We grew up in the same communities, same neighborhoods. It's not the same as how people once looked at it. You want to stand up for a cause like that? You'll let somebody from your own race disrespect you all day, then soon as someone from outside your want to turn into Malcolm X or Martin Luther King?"

I agree with him in this respect. You cannot use the word 'nigga' in everyday conversation, then react in horror when someone of a different race chooses to use the same word. There is no such thing as ownership of a word. Unfortunately, F.A.B then ruins his argument:

"Believe it or not, V-Nasty is mobbing harder than you niggas that's mad at her saying the word 'nigga.' V-Nasty is really mobbing. That's like little sis. She just got out of jail for a robbery, dog. That's public information, dog. She's not playing, dog. That's really what she do." 

The implication is that V Nasty, a white rapper, is allowed to use the word because she has 'street credibility'. This is wrong, and is further propagating the idea that the word is owned by some and denied to others. Does this mean that only those who have done a drive by in Compton are allowed to use 'nigga'?
What F.A.B is missing is the importance of context. Within the confines of a hip hop song the word is perfectly acceptable, similarly the recital of said song gives people of any race license to use the word. Everyday use is different. Either everybody is 'allowed' to use it, or no one is. This does not mean I am advocating that white people the world over decide to start screaming 'WHAT UP NIGGA?' in greeting to their friends, rather quite the opposite. If certain members of the black community think that it is fine for them to use the word but entirely unacceptable for a white person, then this is a backward double standard. If the sensitive status of the word is to be protected, it should only be used in clear and appropriate context i.e. when discussing/reciting/rapping along to hip hop music. If a white rapper is bold enough to use the word in their songs, with clear justification behind it, I also think this should be celebrated rather than provoking horror.

Yelawolf disagrees, suggesting that white people do not use 'nigga' in respect of black and hip hop culture. Though I agree that 'white boys' should not be using the term lightly, it is not entirely clear that the culture of hip hop has full respect for white culture. The word 'cracker' is abound in many rap songs, as well as many other derogatory terms for white people. Though the word are nowhere near as offensive or as culturally sensitive as 'nigger', respect works both ways. In addition, melanin challenged rappers such as Pitbull and Fat Joe are allowed to use 'nigga' freely without censure, as are all Latino rappers. 

In conclusion, then, I feel that Gwyneth Paltrow should have felt no compunction in using the word 'nigga' in the clear and appropriate context she found herself in. Furthermore, black/hip hop communities that find it permissible to sprinkle the word in everyday conversation, then claim 'ownership' when outsiders try to use it are being incredibly hypocritical. Either we all have access to the word or, as I would suggest, it should only be used within the boundaries of hip hop music.

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