Please Discuss: Nas and Kelis’ “political statement” at the Grammys

I found this originally on Young Black and Fabulous and felt compelled to blog about it. Largely because it addresses the word “nigger.” Nas told CNN at the event that this is the name of his upcoming album which he wanted to promote. He said he also wanted to point out that the word nigger means “ignorance” and that nowadays you don’t have to be black to be a nigger.

This is not the first time a provocative person has tried to resuscitate or reform the word nigger through art. St. Louis’ own Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, titled his autobiography “Nigger” which I read when I was 12. He wrote that he used the title as a statement to excise the demons surrounding the word.

Another comedian, Richard Pryor who used the word nigger often in his comic act made a poignant observation about black Americans when he went to Africa and saw that there were “no niggers there,” reforming his view about the pejorative’s usage.

It goes on and on. Black folks have a conflicting relationship with the word. My mother, as far as I know, has never actually said it aloud because for her it’s the same as saying goddamn or mother fucker. (She doesn’t curse at all.) But she simply finds the word disgusting and foul.

My father, on the other hand, says it jovially when he is with his brother. The word still has a negative context, but is usually utilized within the confines of “that nigger is crazy.”

I have gone back on forth on whether the word is appropriate to use. Like my mother, I at one time did not curse at all. Not even the occasional “hell” or “damn.” I didn’t pick it up until I went into journalism where everyone curses, drinks, smokes and eats horrible food. But I still didn’t know what to do with the word nigger. I knew that I didn’t like it. I definitely don’t like to hear people say it, black or white, and I gave up listening to a lot of hip hop as an adult because I grew more and more disgusted with the misogyny in rap and nigger’s usage in rap lyrics.

I have no problem with the word being used in artistic form. KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy have done plenty of music that explores the word’s meaning. One of my favorite songs, “Mr. Nigger” which appeared on Mos Def’s first album “Black on Both Sides.” Featuring Q Tip, the song analyzes how people perceive black males irregardless of their success, wealth or intellect. It also addresses the conflicting messages white people give to blacks, one that involves both fear and suspicion and well as admiration and desire.

I prefer an intellectual and artistic discourse of the word rather than the ultra lame funeral for the word nigger that the NAACP held after the whole Imus controversy. You can’t ignore the word or bury it. It is there in America’s vernacular. Better to discuss it openly that shutter the past.

So this brings me to Nas, his girl Kelis and the “nigger” get up at the Grammy’s on Sunday. I get that this is a political statement, an artistic statement. I like that he’s trying to push a discourse through art. But to be honest, walking around in gold hot pants in a black jacket with “NIGGER” emblazoned across the back is too easy a target to misconstrue. Like “The Chappelle Show,” the show was so good at amusing people with the word nigger that its creator straight up had a crisis of conscious and stopped the show.

It will be interesting to hear how the album plays out. But I didn’t like the bedazzled nigger. (I don’t know if it’s all that dissimilar from my “Lil’ Kim” art.) I felt disgust when I looked at it, like it was a blinged-out Aunt Jemima. Maybe that was the purpose. Often when the word is used as artistic expression as opposed to a racial epitaph it is meant to shock. Nas gave the impression he wanted to force a reaction out of people by directly confronting our sensibilities and America’s racist past.

If that was the point then I guess I have to award Nas with a “mission accomplished,” but I still don’t know how I feel about the execution. In some ways it reminded me of a book I read in high school “Negrophobia” by Darius James. The book confronts a plethora of racial stereotypes, many of them jarring and offensive, but I love the book. It’s very brash and original (the author meant for it to be a screenplay), a surreal account that challenged me by forcing me to start down flaming tar babies and opportunistic racial pimps. It was full of all these disgusting, priapic, garish “coon” cartoons of mammies and shiftless freeloaders, sexual deviants. The work is not so dissimilar from the controversial silhouette art of Kara Walker which forces viewers to deal with the psycho-sexual aspects of antebellum slavery.

But are James and Walker’s racially charged art the same as Nas’ clothing as racial prose? I don’t know. What do you think?

Sensational or sensationalism?

7 thoughts on “Please Discuss: Nas and Kelis’ “political statement” at the Grammys

  1. For me as I reflect the word has the effect of making barriers. For me the barrier today would be to act like I accepted the term in a setting where I had no alternative but to … act like I accepted the term. Who am I to say … that sort of thing. In any cast there are tons of other words I donot ordinarily use. Because they are profane. I would include in the list almost all the words I know that diss any group or race or gender or preference or whatever. As always enjoy what you write. Used to “hang” with Dick G. in Chicago in the ’60s and accepted his title then.

  2. Dick Gregory’s autobiography is pretty fascinating, especially when he decides that as a public figure, a comedian, he still had to get out and fight for civil rights.For me, though, making art with racially/bigoted imagery always comes with some form of blow-back, like when rapper Andre Benjamin from Outkast wore a Confederate flag jumpsuit on an album cover.Considering that the Rebel flag only made a comeback during the height of the Civil Rights movement I find it difficult to see it as anything up a symbol of hate and oppression.I enjoy the Dukes of Hazard as much as the next person, but I’m not walking around with the General Lee on my chest.

  3. Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of Nas as Deep Thinker; I do enjoy him as a pop music performer, though he is less capable on that score (for me) than Jay-Z or 50-Cent.As for his decision to dress up the N word and take it out for a night on the town I think it’s a less than brilliant act, but it is shocking, I guess. And shock is what he, like many others of his intellectual genre, consistently confuses with substance. At the end of the day he advanced the dialogue surrounding that word and the issue of race not one single iota. He likely has no reasonable plan for doing so either. What he does have a plan for is self-promotion, which is the rightful prerogative of a pop music performer, so I don’t begrudge him that. But speaking honestly, one would be extremely hard pressed to find much in the way of intellectual significance at an American music awards show. The only one who stood out for me was one Herbert Jeffrey Hancock and his un-frickin’-believable performance, with that other guy, playing Gershwin.In all, Nas is squarely in line with his hero and intellectual ancestor, Stokely Carmichael. Whole lotta smoke, not a lotta cookin’.

  4. Blue: Nas, like a lot of rappers, seems confused. His rational for using the word seemed a little convoluted even though I understood the premise. I don’t think it’ll do much to advance the convo.And Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock were the bomb at the Grammy’s. I was all “wow” over their performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” I wondered if they were going to put that out on disc because I would totally shell out a couple duckets for that.And the Stokely Carmichael dig on Nas was hilarious.

  5. kelis and nas are embarrassments to black people worldwide. i have read on the word in a US context but even here in England, it is just fucking disgusting for them to parade it around like that in public domain. nas thinks he is being clever but it is boring, i reckon. *apologies for profanity*

  6. Amazing that the guy who wrote:”The scars that a razor make / are nothing compared to the gash / left on this whole mass / if we dont get in control fast / we might as well be, laughing with malcolm x’s assassassin” – “Project Windows”Would show up to one of the world most prominent affairs in a Nigger track suit. I’ve always been a fan of nas. At times, he is a undeniably poignant observer of the black condition. On the other had, he has a Nigger t shirt. When I heard the name for the upcoming album, I thought he was doing it to rub black people’s nose in their own backward, self-depreciating vulgarity. Until i saw an interview where he explained it was named that because he felt publicizing the word would normalized it, making it like “Any other word”The word nigger isnt like TV violence. It doesn’t lose its meaning with repeated exposed. The HISTORY behind the word imbues it with a immutably caustic character. It cant be normalized.Well written article. PS i stole some of your pictures for my blog: black

  7. I think it’s stupid. It’s shock value for the sake of shock value. It’s not original and nowhere near as poignant a statement as the many artists and writers that have used the word before him. It’s hacky and contrived. I’m not offended as a black person, I’m offended as a fan of art.

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