This is a special guest post by XYM the Yorkshire Rapper, who was one of the panel members for the Black People vs Niggas: Race, Class and the ‘N’ Word discussion event. This article reflects his own personal view and take on the debate.
I was honoured to be on the panel of the Black People versus Niggers talk on 20th November 2014. However, I found myself defending the right of people to use the word and quickly found myself in a minority. Naturally the ‘anti-nigger’ lobby would be a lot louder because an outright ban on the word is a much clearer stance to defend than the very nuanced argument of that it is OK for some people to use the word sometimes in certain contexts and all the complexities that come with this and ownership etc. etc. The only thing which everyone agreed with on the night is that White people shouldn’t use the word, something I also agree with for the most part, but not to the extent of changing all the text in Huckleberry Finn for example. Whereas I accept that many Black people are rightly offended by the word, I disagree with the complete banning of the word. The NAACP proposed a funeral for the word and herein lies the problem. The great gains which groups like the NAACP have made have benefitted mostly middle class Blacks. They helped to reduce institutional racism, but the real problem for most Black people was economic. Ending racist laws after their existence for hundreds of years is not going to change a thing for the people most disadvantaged by them (see South Africa now). So middle class Blacks gained, whereas the masses were still left in the gutter. Tupac (who made the word nigga into the acronym of Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished) once proclaimed ‘I came from the gutter and I’m still here’, and the same can be said of hip-hop. It was created from the Sound System of a Jamaican immigrant called Kool Herc and spread like wildfire amongst the poor Black and Hispanic communities in New York. Hip-hop used to get played into the late hours at illegal block parties, it has always been a protest music, an ‘up yours’ to the man. It has always had a middle class element, but hip-hop has firmly positioned itself against the status quo. From baggy pants and backwards golf gear to massive gold chains and tattoos, hip-hop doesn’t ask for acceptance from mainstream society; rather it aligns itself with what Dr Andrews described as the ‘Bad Nigger.’
It’s a shame that the afro-centricity made popular by hip-hop groups like De La Soul and Arrested Development has seemingly died out. However even these two groups, nostalgically held up as leading lights in a pro Black era of hip-hop, still used the word nigga. This is my problem: before you want to ban the word, listen to Arrested Development’s ‘Everyday People’, the uncensored version, listen to Tribe Called Quests ‘Sucka Nigga’, to Mos Def’s ‘Mr Nigga’, to Talib Kweli’s ‘Four Women’, to Nas’s album called Untitled (which was previously called Nigger), listen to Swiss’s track ‘Nigger’, listen to Akala’s track Shakespeare, as a curve ball listen to Big Pun’s ‘Nigga Shit’ (definitely not a positive usage of the word) and tell me that those songs aren’t great. The myriad of ways in which nigger (actually usually nigga) is used in these songs shows the complexities of the word and the way hip-hop artists continue to be at the forefront of modern day lyricism. People in the audience on the night seemed to draw a direct correlation between the usage of the word and negative behaviour in the Black community (including a lack of knowledge of self). Well many of the artists mentioned above disprove this theory, as I hope I myself do. Will Smith famously bragged about not needing to cuss to sell his records, to which Eminem came up with a hilarious expletive ridden response; check out Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’. However Will Smith’s ‘Getting Jiggy With It’, for example, which contains zero instances of the word, doesn’t teach Black people nearly as much knowledge of self as a Dead Prez song like Hip-Hop which is laden with the word.
This isn’t to say that Dead Prez couldn’t educate without using the word, but for me the main disappointment with the discussion was people didn’t seem to be in tune with the hip-hop they were crticising and put it all under a bracket of ‘Niggaz and Hoes’ rap. To generalise in such a way is a massive discredit to the artists above and many hip-hop artists across the world. I implore people to listen past the language you may find offensive, just like you should watch a film like 12 Years a Slave to the end despite many scenes within it which you may find disturbing. The best art challenges and provokes discussion as hip-hop clearly did on this night. It would be great if more Black people could listen, but if you really are offended to the core no-one is forcing you to do so. Just know that hip-hop will continue without you and I’m sure it will continue to use the N-Word.
Slavery was mentioned a lot during the discussion and we need to be careful we don’t recreate a class- based Field and House nigger situation. It was refreshing that everyone in the room wanted the same things – an end to the systematic oppression and institutional racism which contributed to the Eric Garner and Jimmy Mubenga verdicts recently. In the light of these events, I would strongly encourage unity and solidarity within the community and hopefully the music I love, hip-hop, even with the use of the N word, can be used to help bring about a positive change within the Diaspora which created it.