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.