Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hip-Hop and the N-Word

For the past year and half, I've been making an effort to listen to hip-hop because I felt I needed to be able to talk about it intelligently in my African American Voices class. I spent a day on it in the class this past year, and am planning to do at least one, maybe two days this fall. I think it has been an important, even a necessary addition to my curriculum.

Some of this music I have come to like quite a bit—particularly the work of Kanye West and, to a lesser extent, that of Jay-Z. But my consumption of hip-hop has generally had to take place in private. I don't feel comfortable listening to it in my home in front of my kids—and even my wife will look askance at me at times when she hears some of the language that West, Jay-Z, and others use. In particular, the word
nigger concerns me—I don't want my kids hearing it, and I feel uncomfortable when I'm listening to the music (even a song that I consider deeply moving and beautiful, like this one) that uses that word within others' earshot (my family, my friends, my students in a non-academic context).

This situation has struck me as curious in the past—that hip-hop artists would intentionally make their music resistant to being played in certain circumstances. Reading Randall Kennedy's 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word this evening, however, I came across an analysis that made a lot of sense to me:

Roping off cultural turf is another aim of some blacks who continue to use nigger in spite of its stigmatized status. Certain forms of black cultural expression have become commercially valuable, and black cultural entrepreneurs fear that these forms will be exploited by white performers who will adopt them and, tapping white-skin privilege, obtain compensation far outstripping that paid to black performers. This is, of course, a realistic fear in light of the long history of white entertainers' becoming rich and famous by marketing in whiteface cultural innovations authored by their underappreciated black counterparts. A counterstrategy is to seed black cultural expression with gestures that are widely viewed as being off-limits to whites. Saying "nigger" is one such gesture. Even whites who immerse themselves in black hip-hop culture typically refrain from openly and unabashedly saying "nigger" like their black heroes or colleagues, for fear that it might be perceived as a sign of disrespect rather than one of solidarity.

Kennedy's argument makes me see that the word nigger essentially inoculates some hip-hop music against being made commonplace. You'll probably never hear Kanye's "Family Business" playing over the sound system in a grocery store, on a commercial for some life insurance company—or at a family party in my white middle-class home, either. And that's part of the point. This music may retain its aura, its edge, its attraction because it can't be turned into sonic wallpaper, covered ad nauseum by white artists.


Nick Calcaterra said...

What material did you start with? We are fortunate to have lived in the early generations of rap music because we can analyze rap as it has progressed in this relatively short time period.
While there may be some current artists who use the term with motives you have described, I wouldn't quantify them as significant given my experiences. I feel that if you were to listen to the genesis of rap, you would see that the entire point of rap was to express in an art form unique and representative of African American youth. Like folk music, it plainly reflects the life of the artists for their audience with similar experiences.
Of course, a great part of this is the use of common slang, jargon etc.
The n word was used because that's what was communicated in real life. The best movies use as much swearing and slang as anyone does in reality. One could make the same argument for rap music, especially given the emergence of gangster rap in response to the crack epidemic of the 80's.

framiko said...

Nick, thanks for the comment. I've listened to a pretty wide range of stuff—Gil Scott-Heron (not rap, per se, but certainly an important ancestor), Sugar Hill Gang, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Biggie, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jay-Z, Kanye, etc.

In my class, I use an essay by James McBridge called "Hip-Hop Planet" that sets forth a narrative about the origins and development of the form. You are correct in your characterization of rap's origins and purpose.

I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of hip-hop, but I do think that Kennedy's idea is an intriguing one, and it leads me to propose a theory.

Listening to the earlier stuff—"Rapper's Delight," "Mama Said Knock You Out," for example—I don't find that the n-word appears with much frequency. It seems to come into hip-hop with a vengeance when we get to artists like Dr. Dre, Biggie, and Tupac—and their successors.

It does seem plausible to me that part of the reason for this is that, in the mid-80s, rap was starting to become a bit of a joke. I remember that local weatherman Bob Richards did a "funky weather rap" to promote Channel 5. And there was this clip from Cheers when Sam Malone does a rap during his time as a sports newsman. And you had the Beastie Boys, a white group gaining lots of fame as rappers.

Hip-hop music and culture were being co-opted, burlesqued, and mocked by whites. Perhaps it was in reaction to this process that hip-hop artists began to, as Kennedy puts it, "seed" their work with gestures that are viewed as off-limits to whites.

To a certain extent, it has worked, hasn't it? Sure, there was Eminem, and hip-hop elements have infiltrated popular music and culture and been used by white artists. But the most popular hip-hop artists are still black artists like Jay-Z and Kanye, whose works are filled with uses of the n-word.

aintstudyingyou said...

Just catching up on your blog, and enjoying the conversation, as always. My only fear -- and this is something I've expressed before in other venues -- is that to say that music merely "reflects" a community's reality is to occlude three crucial things: 1) the nonlinguistic aspects of music's appeal (like the beat!), 2) the creativity and imagination of artists (who use nostalgia and premonition as much as reportage) and 3) the potential of music (or any other art) to affect and not just mirror life. Could it not be said that hip-hop (or Tyler Perry movies, for that matter) fulfill African-Americans' desires, in addition to reflecting what they already know?

I think these are especially important considerations in relation to black art, which (whatever it's aspirations) is too often taken as only sociological.

framiko said...

A good point, aintstudyingyou. Your point makes me again think that what seems to me a noticeable swerve toward peppering raps with the n-word was and is not mere verisimilitude but more a deliberate choice on the part of rappers with the purpose of making the "authentic" hip-hop voice something that only blacks can inhabit—a way of ensuring that "We runnin' this rap shit" (to quote Jay-Z's "Takeover").

Something similar occurred with funk music—"funky" originally being a negative term meaning stinky, but later used in a positive sense to describe black music, as Amiri Baraka notes in Blues People:

"In the same way the 'New Negroes' of the twenties began, though quite defensively, to canonize the attributes of their 'Negro-ness,' so the 'soul brother' means to recast the social order in his own image. White is then not 'right,' as the old blues had it, but a liability, since the culture of white precludes the possession of the Negro 'soul.' Even the adjective funky, which once meant to many Negroes merely a stink (usually associated with sex), was used to qualify the music as meaningful.... The social implication, then, was that even the old stereotype of a distinctive Negro smell that white America subscribed to could be turned against white America. For this smell now, real or not, was made a valuable characteristic of 'Negro-ness.'"

The use of the n-word in rap is somewhat different, though—a new tactic for a new era, an era in which racism may still exist and society may still be structured to disadvantage blacks, but in which overt displays of racism and the use of racial slurs by non-blacks are strongly stigmatized.

By using the n-word in their songs, black artists thus find in the vagaries of American racial politics a strategy to protect their work against co-optation and to inflect hip-hop as a distinctly black art, one more resistant to white practitioners, perhaps, than blues, jazz, or funk ending up being.

aintstudyingyou said...

"By using the n-word in their songs, black artists thus find in the vagaries of American racial politics a strategy to protect their work against co-optation and to inflect hip-hop as a distinctly black art." -- Beautifully put. Never read it better, honestly. Couldn't agree more that this has been an effect.

But I'm not certain this was the initial intention, any more than it was Richard Pryor's or Dave Chappelle's, to cite two other inveterate n-word users. Which is not to say these are idiot savants without intention, just to say that the impact on white people may not have been first on their minds. (And Hallelujah for that). What of enjoying themselves? Flirting with language taboo to other black people? It seems that an approach to this for an Af-Am lit class would be well served by thinking of what this does for black performers and audiences and not just *to* white listeners and imitators. And, in that, you could get past one of the limitations of the great Blues People. Happy 4th, framiko!

framiko said...

Likewise! Glad to have you back as a reader.