Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,
Catch a nigger by the toe;
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo.
This is how I was introduced to the ‘N’ word. Looking back I can’t believe that as I child I ran around the playground innocently singing such a hateful term.
The ‘N’ word was derived from the Latin word “nigrum” and has further been derived from the Spanish and Portuguese word “negro”. Regardless of its derivative, the ‘N’ word is a derogatory and racially offensive term.
Or is it?
The late 80’s and early 90’s saw the emergence of hip hop that swept the world. A sub-genre that appealed to a lot of young people was gangsta’ rap. The genre was pioneered by rappers Schooly D and Ice T and was popularized in the later part of the 1980s by groups like NWA and Public Enemy. The attention that Ice-T and NWA attracted in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw gangsta rap become the most commercially lucrative sub-genre of hip hop.
Throughout my teenage years, the heavy lyrics and anti-establishment themes laden with profanity, sex, promiscuity, street gangs, drive-by shootings, vandalism, thievery, drug dealing, alcohol abuse, substance abuse and materialism appealed to the rebellious side of my personality. The music also appealed to a greater audience through awesome samples, catchy hooks and smooth rhythms. The heavy base drum also provided an in your face dirty base line.
It was cool. You wanted to be a gangster.
My favourite band at the time was NWA. It was difficult to negotiate my way around the band’s name because if people weren’t familiar with the group they would invariably ask,
“What does NWA stand for?”
Pause, check who is around, lean in close, cup my mouth and whisper quietly,
‘Niggas With Attitude’
This was my second introduction to the word but this time it was a lot more confusing. I wasn’t using the term hatefully, I wasn’t associating the term with any racial prejudice, I was just stating the name of a band that I revered and loved listening to. However, I still wasn’t comfortable saying the word in company, especially in front of anyone of African- American decent.
But get me in my 1980’s fast back Celica with ‘Fuck the Police’ blaring and the word flowed freely from my mouth as I tried to rap along with Ice Cube.
It wasn’t only gangsta rap that used the word frequently it was the hip hop genre. As the hip hop culture started to blow up all around the world, then so did frequency of the N word. I had never heard the N word used very much at all before the explosion of hip hop.
Immediately there was public outrage from all parts of the community as to the appropriateness of the word, outrage that still exists for some today. An explanation given by some artists is that there is a difference between a ‘Nigga’ and ‘Nigger’.
This explanation was given by Tupac in a documentary about his life:
“Niggers was the ones on the ropes, hanging off the thing; Niggas is the ones with gold ropes, hanging out at clubs”
Even though the word sounds similar I saw the distinction between the two and with this, through music and television I began to see the word being used in many different ways. One of the most prominent ways it was used was a slang term for homie, friend, buddy or here in Australia we would say mate.
Even through this clarification I still wasn’t comfortable using the word because I knew of its origins and I wouldn’t want anyone to misinterpret my use of the word as hate.
But then it got me thinking.
What about the generation that has grown up hearing the word ‘Nigga’ through pop songs and being sung by respected artists such as Jamie Fox, Kanye West and Jay Z? Their introduction to the word is through pop culture and isn’t hate based or meant to be racially offensive.
So is it a problem if the word is sung out loud?
Or is it only okay to be sung in private?
Or is it only okay after you purchase the album? Because surely you can’t make millions of dollars using the word but then sensor the listener from regurgitating them?
The confusion grows even greater when other derivatives of the word ‘Nigga’ are introduced into pop culture. An example comes to mind in regards to Snoop Dogg.
He coined the phrase,
‘For Shizzle my Nizzle’ or ‘for Sheezy my Neezy’.
Nizzle and Neezy are derivatives the word Nigga. So is it okay to say?
Society seems to have deemed it so because these words seem to escape the sensor even though it is evident from what word they derived.
So is the word still Taboo?
On a recent trip to the United States, I had two really interesting experiences.
The first was in Boston. I was at club with some friends. Throughout the night I had met many different people of race, colour and creed. I ended up chatting to a few blokes who were interested in Australia and had always wanted to visit. A few laughs were had but in the middle of this, one of my favourite 2 Live Crew songs came on, ‘Hoochie Mamma’. I know most of the lyrics so I started to sing along much to the delight of the group. I think an Aussie rapping badly to 2 Live Crew was a unique and funny experience. We all started to sing together. As I was singing along, I knew I was coming to the lyrics:
“But all the niggas in the hood say it’s all good.”
Most of the guys in the group were black, but there were also a few white guys.
As I sang along I noticed the white guys had pulled back and didn’t say the word.
I just went for it…
For a split second I thought this could be trouble. But nothing happened. The laughs at my poor rapping kept coming and I sang every lyric until the end of the song.
I had a great night and keep in touch with some of the guys via Facebook, but I see that moment as quite poignant. If I was to have pulled away and not sing the word I would have acknowledged the divide in the group in regards to race. I never saw it like that. To me it was a bunch of blokes just singing along badly to a funny song. I felt for the guys that pulled away because they only served to distance themselves from the situation.
But then again was I given a pass because I was Australian? I can’t answer that, I don’t know.
The other situation was in New York City. I was walking through city with a ‘Free Weezy’ t-shirt on. Lil Wayne, as he is also known, is a hip hop artist and was serving time for some criminal activity. The shirt was a comical play on others like it as they are usually reserved for people who have been politically or unfairly incarcerated.
As I was walking past a guy selling CD’s he saw my shirt. A massive smile came across his face. He approached me, gave me five and said,
‘Damn nigga that’s tight’
I am sure he wasn’t referring to the fit of the shirt, but the way I wear t-shirts you never know.
I shared a laugh with him and walked away.
I thought to myself, “Well that confirms it, it’s ok. The stigma is gone. The word has evolved and can be used in an endearing way”.
As quickly as that thought entered my mind, it was immediately replaced with the discomfort that came with the idea of freely using the word.
Lastly, I thought I would share a quote with you from a man that would have experienced this dilemma more frequently than most.
When Rolling Stone asked Eminem why he never uses the N-word in his songs, he said:
“It’s just a word I don’t feel comfortable with. It wouldn’t sound right coming out of my mouth.”
Will this discomfort in using the word remain in the next few generations? Only time will tell.