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?